Drug deaths soar to highest levels since records began

Drug deaths have reached a record high
Drug deaths have reached a record high

Drug deaths in Lothian have soared by 250 per cent in a decade, new figures reveal.

The number of people dying from drug-related causes in the region has increased from 54 in 2007 to 137 in 2017, the highest since records began.

And a charity working with families who have lost a loved one to drugs called for a public health emergency to be declared.

Across Scotland, there were 934 drug-related deaths in 2017, an eight per cent rise on the previous year, and double the rate in 2007. It works out at 18 people a week dying because of illegal substances, a rate two-and-a-half times higher than the UK average.

Justina Murray, chief executive of charity Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol & Drugs said: “These are not just numbers, they are people, and they are people who have left behind a devastated family and community.

“There are many and complex reasons for this sharp increase but we need to recognise these deaths are completely preventable.

“It is time to declare a public health emergency which will allow additional powers and resources to be focused on addressing this issue. Scotland should have a target of zero drug-related deaths and work actively towards this.”

Opposition politicians urged the Scottish Government to take radical action.Labour’s health spokesman Anas Sarwar said the SNP had slashed funding for drug and alcohol support groups when drug deaths were hitting record levels. “If you underfund vital substance misuse services, people die.”

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

Green justice spokesman John Finnie urged an overhaul of 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: “We will continue to do all we can to prevent others from experiencing similar heartbreak and we are developing a refreshed substance use strategy.

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

Stuart Byrne, of Edinburgh-based charity Vocal’s family support addiction team, works with families of those addicted to drugs.

“People often come to us when they are at the end of their tether and have tried everything to get their loved ones into treatment to help them but it has failed,” he said.

He said families often faced difficult decisions about what to do for the best. “They might give them money to manage their financial affairs, but often it will be used for more drugs or alcohol.”

And he said drug-related deaths were usually unintended overdoses. “They just take too much – they don’t mean to go over, but they do by accident.”

iswanson@edinburghnews.com