Scottish government urged to review drugs policy as drug-related fatalities double in a decade

Narcotics-related deaths rose by nearly a quarter in 2016 to reach record levels for the third year in a row

Emily Goddard
Friday 18 August 2017 23:50 BST
Experts and campaigners have called for radical change in the country after treatment services were hit by Government cuts
Experts and campaigners have called for radical change in the country after treatment services were hit by Government cuts (Getty)

The Scottish government must do more to end “the avoidable drug-death carnage”, campaigners have said, as figures released on Tuesday revealed the country remains the drug-death capital of Europe.

A total of 867 drug-related deaths were registered in 2016, according to the latest National Records of Scotland data, representing a 23 per cent rise on 2015 (706).

The number is more than double the 2006 total of 421 and means drug-related deaths in the country have reached record levels for the third year in a row.

Scotland’s drug-death rate now stands at 247 per million of the population, maintaining its position as the nation for the highest rate in Europe, which it has held since 2014. The European Union average is 21.3 per million.

Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of drugs fatalities in Scotland were among older users in the over-35 age group and the majority (68 per cent) of deaths were men.

Heroin and/or morphine was implicated in or potentially contributed to more deaths than in any previous year at 473 (55 per cent).

Aileen Campbell, Scotland’s public health minister, said the figures illustrated that the country is dealing with the complex problem of having “a legacy of drugs misuse stretching back decades”.

She explained: “What we are seeing is an ageing group of people who are long-term drugs users.

“They have a pattern of addiction, which is very difficult to break, and they have developed other chronic medical conditions as a result of this prolonged drugs use.

“Unfortunately, there is a general trend of increasing drug-related deaths across the UK and in many other parts of Europe.

“There are no easy solutions, but we recognise that more needs to be done.”

Ms Campbell added that she expects a refresh of the Government’s drugs strategy would provide “an opportunity to reinvigorate our approach, to respond to the new challenges emerging and to be more innovative in our response to the problems each individual is facing”.

However, experts and campaigners have called for radical change in the country after treatment services were hit by Scottish Government cuts of more than 20 per cent last year.

Dave Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said the scale of the problem is a “national tragedy that requires a fundamental rethink of our approach” and Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman, described the numbers as “shocking”.

Scottish Labour’s Monica Lennon also criticised cuts to alcohol and drug partnerships funding and urged the SNP to “have the courage to take a different course”.

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

Meanwhile, Miles Briggs, health spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said the figures are “nothing short of appalling” and called for a full parliamentary review of drugs policy in the nation, claiming a strategy refresh “won’t cut it”.

He said: “For decades now we’ve had a drugs policy that simply parks people on methadone programmes, offering them zero hope of ever beating addiction completely.

“Not only is that methadone leaving vulnerable individuals in limbo, but it's killing hundreds of people too.

“Cuts to alcohol and drugs partnerships need to be reversed now, and people need more direct access to physical support.”

Martin Powell of Transform Drug Policy Foundation said the SNP “must stand up for Scots and end this avoidable drug death carnage because the UK Government won’t” and called for a decriminalisation-based policy.

He added: “Leaders in Holyrood can stop droves of young, poor and vulnerable people dying by following the advice of the UK Government’s own advisers.

“Decriminalise drug users, introduce safer drug consumption rooms, prescribe heroin, and properly fund treatment to end the scandal of Scotland’s drug death rate being over 27 times that of countries like Portugal [which decriminalised drug users in 2001].

“And longer term, to protect our communities we will need to explore legally regulating drug supply to reduce crime, and steer people towards safer products.”

Glasgow could become the home of the UK’s first legal drug consumption room after members of the health board, city council and police agreed to a proposal in principal last October.

Doctors say the scheme would save money for the NHS, while the drug-death, HIV-infection and crime rates are also expected to drop dramatically.

It is hoped the service could become operational in early 2018.

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