Drugs deaths in Scotland soar to record level

By Severin Carrell

Drugs deaths in Scotland have hit a new record after 1,339 people died last year from drugs overdoses or the cumulative effects of years of addiction.

National Records of Scotland, the statistics agency, said the figure was a 5% increase on drugs-related fatalities registered in 2019. The country continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe, with 21.2 deaths per 1,000 of the population, more than three-and-a-half times higher than the rest of the UK. It is the seventh annual increase in a row.

The agency said the number of drugs deaths last year was 4.5 times the level recorded in 2000, with men 2.7 times more likely to die than women. Many died from taking a cocktail of drugs: more than one substance was found in the bodies of 93% of those who died.

The average age of drugs-related fatalities had increased from 32 to 43 over the past 20 years, implying that years of addiction was a leading cause of death. Almost two-thirds of those who died last year were aged between 35 and 54.

In another stark statistic, it said people from the most deprived parts of Scotland were 18 times more likely to die from drugs than those in the wealthiest neighbourhoods.

Angela Constance, Scotland’s drugs policy minister, who was appointed last year after her predecessor was sacked, said these deaths were “heart-breaking”.

She said the Scottish government, which has been run by the Scottish National party for 14 years, was ploughing £250m into tackling the crisis over the next five years. That included £100m on providing residential rehabilitation services and £18m on outreach services, and £13.5m for alcohol and drugs partnerships around the country.

Constance said she was also urging the UK government’s minister of policing to regulate the sale of pill presses, the cheap machines sold openly on the internet that are used by back-street drugs dealers to make cheap but adulterated drugs known as “street Valium”. Those are widely blamed for killing many addicts.

“Once again, the statistics on drug-related deaths are heart-breaking. I want to offer my sincere condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one through drug use,” she said.

“We are working hard to get more people into the treatment that works for them as quickly as possible. Without treatment, there is little hope of recovery so we are funding as many community and third sector initiatives as we can so that individuals have the widest possible choice and can opt for the support which suits them and their family.”

Prof Catriona Matheson, the chair of a drugs taskforce set up by the Scottish government, added: “Every drug-related death in Scotland is an avoidable tragedy, and these figures serve to remind us of the importance and urgency of our mission to identify the areas of action that can make a sustainable impact against the challenge.

“We believe the approach of putting evidence into action has saved lives, and we will analyse the detail behind the headlines and look to build upon those areas showing progress and to address those areas requiring more attention.”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, called for a “united national effort” to curb addiction and drugs deaths.

“The drugs crisis is our national shame. It is a stain on Scotland that so many of our most vulnerable people have been left without hope, crushed by a system that is thoroughly broken,” he said.

“This is not a day for political posturing but it is a simple fact that the government’s small steps are not cutting it. The crisis is getting worse and spiralling out of control.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said the Scottish government had previously cut millions of pounds from drugs prevention services, and had to shoulder part of the blame for the drugs death crisis.

“Every drug death is preventable. However, that task became 10 times harder when SNP ministers avoided the subject ahead of the independence referendum, as that justice secretary admitted, and then cut the budget for critical prevention services by 22%,” he said.

“Issuing apologies now is too late for thousands of people. The victims of drugs and their families were failed. It is a scar on the conscience of this Scottish government.”