Scottish Government faces mounting pressure over new drug death approach as latest figure reveals small decrease in deaths

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Nicola Sturgeon is facing demands for a new approach to tackle Scotland's drug death ‘shame’ as the latest ‘heart-breaking’ statistics are published.

A total of 1,330 people lost their lives to drug misuse in Scotland in 2021, according to recent figures published by National Records of Scotland.

The number is 1% lower than 2020 – when 1,339 died from a drug overdose, the highest rate in Europe – which makes it the first year since 2013 in which drug misuse deaths have not increased.

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However, 2021 is the second highest annual total since records began in 1996.

Drug death statistics in Scotland.Drug death statistics in Scotland.
Drug death statistics in Scotland.

There were 397 drug misuse deaths of females, an increase of 31 from 2020, while there were 933 drug misuse deaths of males, a decrease of 40.

The statistics will leave Scotland’s drug-related deaths at three and a half times the rate of anywhere else in Europe.

Dundee City had the highest age-standardised drug misuse death rate of all local authority areas (45.2 per 100,000 population for the 5-year period 2017-2021), followed by Glasgow City (44.4) and Inverclyde (35.7).

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The report found people in Scotland's most deprived areas are now over fifteen times more likely than those in the least deprived areas to die from drugs.

Nicola Sturgeon said the situation with drug deaths in Scotland remains “unacceptable”, and the Scottish Government will continue at pace to address the emergency.

The Scottish Conservatives are demanding Nicola Sturgeon “gets serious” about tackling Scotland’s “national emergency” by backing leader Douglas Ross’s landmark Right to Recovery Bill.

The bill would enshrine in law the right of everyone with an addiction problem to receive the potentially life-saving treatment they need. The bill goes before the Scottish Parliament later this year.

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The SNP have said they will give Right to Recovery a fair hearing, however, Douglas Ross says they must stop dithering and back the legislation.

The report found those who died from the misuse of drugs, 65% were aged between 35 and 54 years old and more than two thirds (70%) were men.

In 93% of all drug misuse deaths, more than one drug was found to be present in the body, and the type of drugs that are implicated in deaths has been changing. In 2015 there were 191 deaths involving benzodiazepines, last year there were 918, near five times as many. This increase has mostly been driven by street benzodiazepines rather than those which are prescribed.

Of all drug misuse deaths in 2021, 84% involved opiates or opioids (such as heroin, morphine and methadone). 69% involved benzodiazepines (such as diazepam and etizolam).

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Naming the figures as ‘heartbreaking’, Ross said: “These figures are a badge of shame for Nicola Sturgeon, who has presided over a huge escalation in Scotland’s drug-deaths epidemic during her time in office.

“The SNP Government have to accept their current approach isn’t working.

“It was a shameful admission by Nicola Sturgeon that she took her eye off the ball with drugs deaths. Now she and the SNP need to get behind Right to Recovery.

“The bill addresses one of the biggest obstacles those with addiction issues face in turning their lives around – namely accessing treatment programmes, including residential rehab.”

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Confidence in Scottish Government delivering on reducing drug deaths dwindles du...

Paul Sweeney, the Labour MSP who launched consultation of a bill in May to establish Overdose Prevention Centres (OPCs), said the Scottish Government, as a “bare minimum” should “urgently announce” a rollout of OPCs to reach the most vulnerable.Mr Sweeney said: “I have a ready made Bill proposal that can be adopted by government instantly and implemented within a matter of months if they have the will to do so.

"It's also abundantly clear that the Drug Death Taskforce has failed. We were told to judge it after three years and drug deaths are still astronomically high in comparison to every other European country including the rest of the U.K. If we are to get a grip of this, we need an independent oversight body that will scrutinise without fear or favour."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton has demanded the establishment of specialist drug and alcohol commissions.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “We urgently need specialist drug and alcohol commissions similar to what happens in Portugal, to end the destructive use of imprisonment for people misusing drugs, and to make safe consumption spaces available across the country. Ministers should also ask the WHO to send experts in drug mortality to help mobilise against this particularly Scottish epidemic.”

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A national mission was announced by the Scottish Government in January 2021 to tackle rising drug deaths in Scotland with additional funding of £250 million over the course of this Parliament.

Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance said: “Despite regional differences, we are focused on a national mission and I’ll continue to use all the powers at my disposal, including holding local leaders to account in implementing the MAT standards, to drive improvements across Scotland.

“We are already implementing many of the recommendations from The Drug Deaths Taskforce, which issued its final recommendations last week, and I will report back on further actions to Parliament.”

Last week, the Drug Deaths Taskforce published its final report after three years of work examining how to deal with Scotland’s drug death crisis.

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The taskforce chairman, former chief constable David Strang, said the recent report they published was a “message of hope” outlining a move from ‘punitive’ measures to people-centred care.

The report makes 20 recommendations and calls for 139 specific actions to be taken by the Scottish and UK governments, as well as other organisations.

It recommends fully implementing new Medical Assisted Treatment (MAT) standards - relating to opioid replacement drugs like methadone – across Scotland within two years, developing an extensive naloxone network and creating better outreach after non-fatal overdoses.

Justina Murray, SFAD chief executive said: “We’ve now got a lot of reports that all say the same things on what we need to see such as no postcode lottery, no wrong door, people being treated with respect and kindness but people on the ground are still telling us that’s just not happening.

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“We’ve just got this big gap between all the good things we are writing down on paper and what's actually happening on the ground. There’s not really any accountability in the system and it just seems that all you’ve got are these quite slow and complicated complaints processes.

"We have seen more funding being pushed out to local areas but almost all of that has gone to statutory treatment services who are already having issues recruiting and rettaining staff and who are already not always the services people want to go to for support. We need to look at our third sector, community and grassroot organisations as well as make sure there’s a parity of investment across all of Scotland.”

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