‘Staggering’ rise in drug-related deaths in Scotland

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Campaigners have called on Scotland to consider radical measures to tackle the country’s drugs crisis after figures revealed the number of deaths has doubled in a decade.

Statistics published yesterday show there were 934 drug-related deaths registered in 2017, the largest number since records began and the highest rate of anywhere in the EU.

Someone taking drugs in a 'consumption room'. Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

Someone taking drugs in a 'consumption room'. Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

Charities said the grim death toll could be tackled with decriminalisation, the introduction of drug consumption rooms and the prescribing of heroin to those with a clinical need.

Opposition parties accused the Scottish Government of slashing funding for alcohol and drug partnerships which provide support for those with addictions.

According to the figures published yesterday, the 934 recorded deaths in 2017 was the highest figure since 1996, with opiates or opioids, such as heroin, morphine and methadone, implicated in nearly 90 per cent of cases.

Three in ten of all deaths occurred in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, with the overall rate for the country as a whole roughly two-and-a-half times that of the UK.

Martin Powell, of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said Scotland’s “drug-death tragedy” was avoidable.

He said: “Scotland’s drug-death rate is now almost 50 times that of Portugal which massively reduced deaths by decriminalising people who use drugs, and putting health, not punishment at the heart of their approach.

“Scotland’s drug death tragedy is also avoidable, if the UK and Scottish governments just follow the advice of the Home Office’s own expert panel, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

“That means ending the criminalisation of people who use drugs, introducing safer drug consumption rooms, prescribing heroin to those with a clinical need, and properly funding treatment. Then Scotland need never be the drug death capital of Europe again.”

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David Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, added: “There are a whole range of things that could be done to prevent these deaths – Scotland needs to show commitment and take the action to do so – as we have done in order to reduce deaths from car accidents.

“For the cost of providing a dual carriageway on a few hundred metres of the A9, we could substantially prevent these deaths amongst some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland and prevent families and communities suffering this loss. That means making sure there is accessible high quality healthcare and support – and removing people from the dangers of unregulated street drugs.”

Opposition parties accused the Scottish Government of undermining the fight against drugs by cutting funding for treatment services.

Labour’s health spokesman Anas Sarwar said: “The SNP government has slashed alcohol and drug partnership funding at a time when drug deaths were hitting record levels.

“SNP ministers need to give themselves a shake and take responsibility for their actions. If you underfund vital substance misuse services, people die.”

Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The SNP have presided over dramatic cuts to drug and alcohol services and that has had a profound human cost.

“The lasting effect on its ability to help problematic drug users conquer their addictions is clearly reflected in these horrifying statistics.”

Green justice spokesman John Finnie urged a holistic approach to overhaul the drugs strategy, including discussing decriminalisation rather than “refreshing an approach that is obviously failing”.

Conservative public health spokeswoman Annie Wells said: “We need a radical and urgent drugs strategy – not one that waves the white flag in the face of drug-dealers and those who profit from this despicable industry, but one that gets tough on the issue.”

Public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick acknowledged a shortfall in support services and said a refreshed drugs strategy was being developed.

He said: “This is in direct response to the changing drugs landscape, the continued rise in drug-related deaths and the recognition that current services do not meet the needs of all the people who need support.

“The new strategy will take a person-centred approach so that treatment and support services address people’s wider health and social needs, such as mental health, employability and homelessness.”