Drug policy reform urged as Scotland records highest death rate in all Europe
Politicians and medics are calling for an urgent overhaul of drug policy after new figures indicated Scotland’s drugs deaths are at their worst level since records began, with the highest reported rate in Europe.
There were 1,187 drug-related deaths registered in 2018, climbing above 1,000 for the first time and 27% (253) higher than the previous year.
The National Records of Scotland statistics indicate that Scotland’s drugs death rate is nearly triple that of the UK and higher than the reported rate for any other country in the EU – however, the report warned of under-reporting concerns in some EU nations.
It is at the highest level since current records began in 1996 and more than double the 2008 figure of 574.
Scotland’s Public Health Minister, Joe FitzPatrick, said the figure is “shocking” and innovative and bold new approaches are needed to save lives.
In Scotland, all parties except the Conservatives called for the UK Government to reform drug policy, with the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats calling for safer drug consumption facilities, and the latter pushing for decriminalisation for personal use.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland also called for safe consumption rooms.
The Scottish Conservatives said this option – currently blocked by the Home Office – is “cowardly”, and said the Scottish Government should boost funds for rehab and “abstinence-based recovery”.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde accounted for the greatest proportion of drug-related deaths with a third (394), followed by NHS Lothian with 13% (152) and NHS Lanarkshire at 11% (130).
Deaths from opiates or opioids, such as heroin, morphine, or methadone, were implicated in, or potentially contributed to, 1,021 deaths.
For the heroin replacement methadone, which is available on prescription, this was 47% of all drug deaths, more than heroin or morphine at 45%.
Benzodiazepines were implicated in, or potentially contributed to, 792 deaths.
The vast majority of these involved so-called ‘street’ versions such as etizolam at 675 – 57% of all drug deaths in 2018 – while 238 involved prescription benzodiazepines such as diazepam.
Cocaine was implicated in, or potentially contributed to, 273 deaths (23%); alcohol was involved in 156 (13%); amphetamines in 46 (4%); and ecstasy-type drugs in 35 (3%).
Figures indicate many deaths potentially involved more than one drug.
Men accounted for the majority (72%) of the drug-related deaths. People aged 35-44 were the age group associated with the most deaths (442), followed by those aged 45-54 (345).
Mr FitzPatrick said: “The number of people who have lost their lives because of drug use is shocking.
“It is vital this tragedy is treated as a public health issue, and we are prepared to take innovative and bold measures in order to save the lives of those most at risk.
“Last week, I gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee and I asked for help in persuading the UK Government to either act now to enable us to implement a range of public health focused responses – including the introduction of supervised drug consumption facilities – or devolve the power to the Scottish Parliament so that we can act.”
He said the new taskforce he has set up should be driven by evidence and listen to those who have used drugs, as well as their families, and pledged to give consideration to any proposals brought forward which would save lives.
A UK Government spokesman highlighted its ongoing drug misuse review, adding: “Any death related to drug misuse is a tragedy.
“Our drug strategy is bringing together police, health, community and global partners to tackle the illicit drug trade, protect the most vulnerable and help those with a drug dependency to recover.”
He continued: “The UK Government has been clear that there is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms and there are no plans to introduce them.”
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