As 'street valium' kills more in Edinburgh than heroin, a leading medical body calls for decriminalisation of drugs
Serious consideration should be given to decriminalising drug use to help tackle the "national emergency" of fatal overdoses, a doctor’s organisation has said.
The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) issued the call just weeks after the Evening News revealed that benzodiazepines such as Valium had caused more fatalities in Edinburgh than heroin.
The RCPE also recommends the introduction of a drugs consumption room and a heroin-assisted treatment programme in all major centres in Scotland.
In the last ten years the number of drug-related deaths has more than doubled in Edinburgh and the Lothians from 73 in 2010 to 155 in 2019.
The number of drug-related deaths which involved heroin and/or morphine in Lothian has risen from 56 in 2018 to 69 in 2019.
Deaths involving benzodiazepines, including diazepam or etizolam, rose from 94 in 2018 to 109 in 2019, with illicit "street" pills contributing to 69 and 85 of those respectively.
The shock new figures prompted Police Scotland’s divisional commander for Edinburgh, Chief Superintendent Sean Scott, to pledge that his officers would "relentlessly" target benzodiazepines dealers "who profiteer from the exploitation of the vulnerable" in the city.
Scotland-wide, there were 1,264 drug-related deaths recorded during 2019, a rise of 6 per cent on 2018 when 1,187 drug related deaths were recorded, according to National Records of Scotland (NRS) data.
The 2019 rate for deaths which involved substance use in Scotland was higher than across all EU countries and more than three times the UK as a whole.
In a report published today, Professor Angela Thomas, acting president of the College, said: "Each death represents the life of someone who had friends, family and support networks who cared deeply about them, which is absolutely heart-breaking.
"Our report proposes some key interventions which can be taken now including the introduction of a drugs consumption room, and a heroin-assisted treatment programme in all major centres in Scotland as we see already at the Glasgow pilot scheme.
"Decriminalising drug use should be considered in Scotland, and the college would urge the UK Government and the Scottish Government to work collaboratively on this key policy area."
The college said it supports targeted harm reduction measures including the administration of Naloxone, an emergency antidote to treat drug overdose victims, which is advocated by the Drug Deaths Taskforce.
The report makes a number of recommendations including that the UK Government and Scottish Government must work together to address the socio-economic factors associated with drug use.
Benzodiazepines are increasingly prevalent on Edinburgh’s streets due to a combination of availability and ease-of-access.
Several websites, which appear on mainstream search engines, sell illicit benzodiazepines, such as Etizolam, for as little as £1 a pill – as well as claiming to ship to all UK addresses.
One Edinburgh ‘benzo’ addict revealed how he became hooked on the deadly tablets.
Jason – not his real name – said: “I took them for months and months and then realised how addicted I was.”
He self medicates to take up the slack from a health and social care system suffering from more than ten years of austerity, and which can sometimes fail people with mental health problems and drug addiction.
Waiting times for mental health referrals can take months, with the added pressure of coronavirus pushing waiting times ever higher, and GPs – themselves under enormous pressure – can seem unreachable during normal circumstances and are reluctant to prescribe benzodiazepines due to their addictive nature.
“Benzos help me sleep,” he said, “the main use is sleep but I do not like the effect and do not do it recreationally.”
A former opiates user, Jason says he first started taking benzodiazepines at age 24: “When I came off opiates I used benzos to sleep but they made me feel depressed and made me feel flat.
“I’m not a very typical user and know how to taper off these things.
“Folk getting street valies [from Valium – a brand name of diazepam] down the Kirkgate think it’s fine ‘cos it isn’t smack.”
“This girl I was seeing was sending me meds from Spain due to my issues sleeping – I took them for months and then realised how addicted I was.
“I had to reduce every two weeks over a period of months and it was a horrible process.
“If you go cold turkey you can risk seizure or death and lengthens your period of recovery – might end up giving brain damage.”
Prof Roy Robertson, GP and Professor of Addiction Medicine Edinburgh University, who has pioneered drug treatment in the capital, said: "The excessive numbers of drug-related deaths in Scotland is a national emergency, indicating a lack of investment in drug services."
He added: "Urgent investment and policy responses require a collaborative approach between government, public health agencies, political parties and the clinicians who are dealing with the crisis on the front line.
But Kit Malthouse, UK Minister for Crime and Policing, ruled out relaxing the law over drugs, saying: "There are no UK Government plans to decriminalise drug possession.”
Scotland's Drugs Policy Minister, Angela Constance MSP, said: "Every death related to drug use is a tragedy and impacts on individuals families and communities across Scotland.
"As the report says, there are no simple or quick solutions to the complex and longstanding issues related to drug use, but we've committed additional investment of £250 million over the next five years, as well as an additional £5 million in the current financial year, to address drugs misuse and will look at any approaches that have a strong evidence base that may be able to help save lives."
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