Nicola Sturgeon has said her government is determined to tackle Scotland’s escalating problem with drugs deaths, after a record 1,339 people were killed last year.
National Records of Scotland, the statistics agency, said the figure was a 5% increase on the drugs-related fatalities registered in 2019, and the seventh annual increase in a row.
It said Scotland continued to have Europe’s highest per capita rate of drug deaths, at 25.2 fatalities per 100,000 people, more than three-and-a-half times higher than the rest of the UK. People in Scotland’s poorest areas were 18 times more likely to die from drugs than those in the wealthiest.
The first minister said the record was “shameful”, and promised concerted action. Opposition leaders said the Scottish National party government had to accept a large share of the blame: it had been in government for 14 years and previously cut funding for drugs services.
Sturgeon, who was Scotland’s health secretary from 2007 to 2012, said on Twitter: “The number of lives lost to drugs is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy. @scotgov does not shirk the responsibility and we are determined to make changes that will save lives.
“Today, my thoughts are with every family who has lost a loved one – I am sorry for the loss you have suffered. However, I know [that] what is required isn’t words, but action to prevent people dying, and that is what we are determined to deliver.”
The NRS data shows that annual drugs deaths had begun stabilising between 2009 and 2013, but had climbed every year since. In 2013, the year before the independence referendum, the total was 527, yet it increased by 137% during the next seven years.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “Every year we get devastating figures, every year they get worse and every year we hear regret from the government.
“These are the tragic consequences of years of failure to get to grips with this growing crisis in Scotland and to address the threat posed by drugs. We have the same drugs laws as the rest of the UK but three-and-a-half times the rate of drugs deaths.”
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, which have pressed for greater rehabilitation spending, said the drugs death toll was “our national shame”. He said: “This is not a day for political posturing but it is a simple fact that the government’s small steps are not cutting it. The crisis is getting worse and spiralling out of control.”
Angela Constance, Scotland’s drugs policy minister, who was appointed last year after her predecessor was sacked, said the deaths were “heart-breaking”. She said the Scottish government was putting an extra £250m into tackling the crisis over the next five years. That included £100m on providing residential rehabilitation services, £18m on outreach services, and £13.5m for alcohol and drugs partnerships.
The NRS said the number of drugs deaths last year was 4.5 times the level recorded in 2000, with men 2.7 times more likely to die than women. Many died from taking a cocktail of drugs: more than one substance was found in the bodies of 93% of those who died.
The average age of drugs-related fatalities had increased from 32 to 43 over the past 20 years, implying that years of addiction was a leading cause of death. Almost two-thirds of those who died last year were aged 35-54.
Its data showed that Dundee had the highest per capita rate of drugs deaths, at 43.1 per 100,000 people across the five-year period from 2016-20, followed by Glasgow at 39.8 and Inverclyde at 36.7. Dundee also had the largest increase in drug-related deaths, up from 5.9 per 100,000 in 2000-04, followed again by Glasgow and Inverclyde.
While politicians put heavy emphasis on the Home Office refusal to approve safe injecting rooms for heroin addicts, or to consider decriminalisation of drugs, campaigners believe that multi-generational poverty, the normalisation of drug misuse and childhood trauma are the root causes of Scotland’s drugs crisis.
Dave Liddell, the chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said only 35-40% of Scottish addicts were in treatment. “It may be painful to admit but for many people in desperate need, treatment, in too many parts of Scotland, is neither accessible nor acceptable. That has to change,” he said.
Dr Rebecca Lawrence, the chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said: “When people ask for help, nobody should be turned away, neither young people or older adults who are more vulnerable to physical illness, often due to years of smoking.
“Rehabilitation should always be there at the right time, for the right individuals. Other facilities like safe consumption rooms may also help those who can’t stop injecting, but one size does not fit all and fully resourced community services with rapid access for all patients, must be provided.”