Government urged to go much further to reduce drug deaths ahead of official report into 2021 figures
Opposition politicians have called on the Scottish Government to go much further in dealing with drug-related harms as they await the publication of National Records of Scotland's (NRS) official report into last year’s drug deaths.
Scottish Government figures published in December last year suggested there was an 8 per cent reduction in the number of drug-related deaths in 2021, down from 1,411 to 1,295.
Those figures are compiled using Police Scotland reports and record deaths where it is suspected that drugs were implicated. Official figures, which record all deaths with an underlying cause of drug poisoning or drug abuse, are published by NRS every July.
Last year, the NRS report put the figure for 2020 at 1,339, the highest number ever recorded and a marked increase on the previous year.
Though the latest NRS figures will not be made public until later today, Scottish Labour’s drugs policy spokesperson Claire Baker said the report is “an urgent reminder of the need to tackle Scotland’s drug death crisis and save lives”.
“These tragic deaths are devastating families, with hundreds of children having lost a parent and many more people having lost a loved one,” she said.
“Every single drug-related death is preventable, and each one is a tragedy.
“The Scottish Government need to respond to the recommendations of the Scottish Drug Death Taskforce and deliver the meaningful change we desperately need, including investing in services and finally delivering the MAT [medication assisted treatment] standards.”
Last week the taskforce, which is made up of representatives from the police, the health service and social work, published a 145-page report that was highly critical of the government’s response to Scotland’s persistently high-drug death figures.
Noting that the report “says what needs to be said”, the taskforce said Scotland’s drug-related death statistics are a “disgrace” and the funding allocated to address the issue is “woefully inadequate”.
Speaking ahead of the NRS report being published, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the Scottish Government must “take urgent and decisive action to combat drugs deaths”.
“Like many, I am dreading the publication of these figures. They are not just numbers. Each one represents a human tragedy and a family in mourning,” he said.
“By the First Minister’s own admission, her government took their eye off the ball when it came to tackling drugs deaths.
“That admission was supposed to precede a change in approach but since then we have heard stories of drug projects struggling to support patients because they’re starved of funding, so much so that some are thinking about closing their doors.
“How can this be when we have the highest death rates in Europe? That’s a disgraceful legacy for the First Minister."
Professor Roy Robertson, fellow of The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said the NRS report shows the “serious impacts of drug use in the Scottish population”, but stressed that in responding to the drugs taskforce’s report, the government must treat addictions as a matter of public health and resource it as such.
“We need a strategy for expanding knowledge and education, both of which are critical in understanding and responding to a medical crisis affecting many areas of medicine,” he said.
“It would be proper to see policymakers engaged with educational and academic institutions as well as clinicians, and we’d like to see a strategy that could put addictions on the same footing as other major health departments.
“Alcohol, smoking, heroin and cocaine account for an incredible amount of health harms and deaths. The impact of gambling, recreational drugs and internet access to an expanding range of substances requires a formal long-term vision”.
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Sandesh Gulhane, meanwhile, urged the government to back his party’s Right to Recovery bill, which would give every person in addiction the right to medical treatment.
“We desperately need to see a substantial reduction in the number of fatalities when the 2021 figures are announced,” he said.
“The SNP cannot claim success when we’re still losing 1,000 people every single year. It would be shameful if they tried to spin Scotland still having the worst drug-death rate in Europe as some kind of victory.
“The Scottish Conservatives’ Right to Recovery Bill can be a game-changer because it will enshrine in law the right of everyone with addiction problems to receive the potentially life-saving treatment they need.
“The SNP have said they will give it a fair hearing in parliament – but that’s not good enough. They need to get off the fence and back the bill so that we can start tackling this national emergency now.
“Nicola Sturgeon admitted, shamefully, that she took her eye off the ball on drugs deaths. It’s essential she finally focuses on it.”