'Heart-breaking' drugs deaths toll in Scotland revealed as numbers hit second worst losses on record

28 July 2022, 11:34

Scotland's drugs deaths toll is still the worst in Europe.
Scotland's drugs deaths toll is still the worst in Europe. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Scotland has recorded a "heart-breaking toll of fatalities" as new figures show the second worst drugs deaths toll on record - with just nine fewer people dying of drugs misuse last year than in 2020.

New statistics, published by National Records of Scotland, show the number of people dying in 2021 of a drug-related death has fallen for the first time since 2013, but still stand at 1330 - leaving Scotland the worst country in Europe for the grim death toll.

Opioids such as heroin continue to be the main cause of drug-related deaths accounting for 84% of all deaths, though the number of deaths involving benzodiazepines - which include diazepam and etizolam - has increased almost five times since 2015 when there were 191.

Dundee has been hit hardest - it has seen its death toll rise from 5.9 per 100,000 population in the period 2000-2004 to 45.2 per 100,000 population in 2017-2021. Glasgow comes a close second, followed by Inverclyde.

The statistics also show that people in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland are more than 15 times as likely to have a drug misuse death as those in the 20 per cent least deprived areas, with the ratio widening over the past two decades.

And more than two thirds - 70 per cent - of those who died from drugs were men, while 65 per cent of all people who lost their lives were between the ages of 35 and 54 years old.

The Scottish Government has previously announced funding of £250 million over the parliamentary term to tackle the crisis and while Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance welcomed the one per cent decrease in drug death figures she said the situation remained "unacceptable".

"Scotland suffers a terrible toll from drug deaths, leaving families grieving and in pain and my heart goes out to all those affected by the death of a loved one through drugs.

"These latest statistics provide yet more heart-breaking reading, and the situation remains unacceptable.

"While there is so much more work to do, every life saved means one less family grieving and I am determined we can use this halt in the upward trend of recent years as a platform for real change."

She said the government had introduced Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) Standards, the expansion of residential rehabilitation provision, the setting of a new treatment target and increased funding to community and grass-roots organisations. Money has also gone into rolling out Naloxone a drug which can prevent overdose, and the government has she said, laid ground work for innovation such as Safer Drug Consumption Facilities.

“My focus now is on taking action and delivering new investment to improve services and get more people into the treatment which works for them," she said.

“I am concerned about the rise in deaths among women [up by 31 to 397] and will look to expand on current steps we are taking including the provision of two Mother and Child Residential Recovery Houses which will enable women to receive support while staying with their children.

“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."

However Annemarie Ward of family campaign group FAVOR Scotland said the statistics should "shame" the Scottish government.

“The response to Scotland’s drug deaths crisis has been abysmal. The government has failed to do what’s necessary and the cost is devastating to our communities. Every year we are left with more lost souls and broken families," she said.

“Years after the government promised to finally step up and tackle drug deaths, it’s clear that not much has changed. Nicola Sturgeon said she would make it her national mission to save lives - but we’re still losing more than 1000 people a year. The national mission is failing.

“We warned that the government’s actions were not good enough. We said from day one that their MAT Standards didn’t have any teeth and wouldn’t be implemented properly. The Drug Death Task Force report last week confirmed that is exactly what’s happened. Barely any of the MAT Standards are working."

She added: “We have offered a solution to this crisis for years. Our Right to Recovery Bill will get people the help they need. It will save lives. It’s backed by families who lost loved ones. It’s backed by experts on the frontline. It has cross-party support. And most importantly, it will stop the tragic situation where people at death’s door who desperately want support can’t get access to treatment."

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who is bringing the Right to Recovery Bill to the Scottish Parliament said the country had retained the worst drug-fatality rate in Europe "by a staggeringly high margin."

His bill, he said, would "enshrine in law the right of everyone with an addiction problem to receive the potentially life-saving treatment they need."

He added: “The enormity of this national emergency is laid bare in this heart-breaking toll of fatalities. 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.

“But, amid the statistics, we must never forget that every individual who has died has left behind grieving friends and families.

“Scotland’s drug-deaths rate is not merely worse than that of any other European nation, it’s so off-the-scale bad, so uniquely awful, that 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."

Scottish Greens health and social care spokesperson Gillian Mackay MSP said: “Every single one of these deaths is a preventable tragedy. The figures published today remind us of the devastating impact addiction has on communities across Scotland.

“While it is welcome to see a slight reduction in the overall deaths recorded, these figures show that much more work is required to address this public health emergency.

“The war on drugs approach, pursued for decades in this country, has evidently failed. It is long past time that we adopted an approach which focuses on restoring people’s dignity and treating their addiction, rather than criminalising them.”

And Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton commented:  “Today’s news that 1,330 people had their lives cut short by drugs is horrendous. It will be a painful day for all their families and it must compel government to go much further and faster.“

“It’s time for new measures to stop people dying. For instance, 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.“The Scottish Government owes it to families to do everything possible to stop people dying.”

Scottish Labour's Claire Baker added: "Year after year we hear the same apologies and promises, but platitudes don’t save lives. We cannot call something a public health emergency if we don’t respond with emergency action.

“The SNP need to start acting with the urgency we have needed all along, and use every single power at their disposal to get people the help they need. They can start by investing in woefully underfunded drug and alcohol services, which they cut to the bone despite warnings, and by delivering on the other recommendations of the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce.”

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