How global heroin wars harm Scotland - Alex Cole-Hamilton

​Over the Christmas break, a tragic story emerged about two parents in England who had to piece together the circumstances of their son’s death.
Taliban security personnel destroy a poppy plantation in Kandahar provinceTaliban security personnel destroy a poppy plantation in Kandahar province
Taliban security personnel destroy a poppy plantation in Kandahar province

Will Melbourne was only 19 and was living in Warrington in assisted living due to his autism and crippling social anxiety when he mistakenly overdosed on a synthetic opioid called metonitazene that he’d bought on the dark web.

Public health officials in Scotland now fear that Will’s story could become far more commonplace here after nine Scots died taking Nitazenes in the first six months of last year. Readers will likely have heard of the synthetic opioid, Fentanyl, which like the Nitazene family of drugs is many times stronger than heroin.

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To put the scale of the threat posed by these substances into perspective, in the United States in 2012, just over 2500 people died as a result of using synthetic opioids (predominantly Fentanyl). By 2022, an exponential rise in synthetic opioid overdose means that number had jumped to 73,500.

Here in Scotland, we have largely escaped the devastating effects of widespread synthetic opioid use but I fear that may be about to change. The reason for that concern is to be found in Afghanistan.

When the US pulled out of Kabul and the Taliban took back control, they immediately prohibited the production of opium. This has created a global scarcity in the illicit supply of heroin, which experts believe could run out entirely in just six months. While at face value that sounds like a good thing, nature abhors a vacuum and we need to be ready for what’s waiting in the wings to fill it.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and nitazenes are cheap and easily purchased on the internet so heroin users will have no problem in securing a replacement. Synthetics pose a risk across the recreational drugs market as well. They are so abundant that they are turning up as a composite in all manners of pills and powders, from cocaine to ecstasy. Unchecked, this could lead to a perfect storm and a public health emergency.

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Since the SNP cut funding to drug and alcohol services in 2015, we have seen a steady uptick in drug mortality which has led to Scotland attaining the invidious title of ‘worst country in Europe’ for drug deaths. That means thousands of Scottish families have had to mourn the tragic death of loved ones gone before their time.

On an issue as important as this one it is vital that politicians of all stripes work together. Through cross party efforts, it seemed we’d finally got the Scottish Government to take this seriously and it felt like we were turning a corner. But the last batch of drugs death statistics show another spike in mortality, and worryingly, evidence of the impact of synthetic opioids in that number.

What beggars belief is that despite these new numbers coming out long before the Finance Secretary revealed this year’s budget to Parliament, the SNP and Greens have seen fit to deliver a real terms cut to drugs services again, removing support from workers on the frontline of this emergency.

Before Christmas I wrote to the Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy urging her to get to grips with the rise of these substances before they threaten yet more lives. Part of that work needs to involve methods of detecting these substances, particularly where they are disguised, as well as a public awareness campaign.

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Without action, we could be on the cusp of a new and terrifying synthetic drugs crisis in Scotland. The threat is very real and we can’t pretend that short term improvements in the drug mortality figures mean the problem is over, especially when the synthetic opioid tidal wave that has swept through America may be about to break over Scottish shores.

MSP for Edinburgh Western

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