Scottish Drugs Forum says drug death figures are a 'national scandal'
Record-high levels of drug deaths suggest Scotland’s image of itself as a place of inclusivity may be “dangerous self-delusion”, the Scottish Drugs Forum has said.
Responding to official figures from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) showing that last year 1,187 people died because of drug use, the organisation has said that the lack of access to appropriate treatment has lead to “the shame of a national scandal”.
The Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF) has pointed to access to treatment and under-prescribing of methadone as the main issues driving drug users to behaviour that endangers their lives.
David Liddell, CEO of SDF, said: “NHS patients are receiving treatment that does not meet standards laid out in national and international good practice guidance.
“With any other patient group, this would rightly be regarded as both scandalous and a national priority for action.”
Compared with the rest of the UK, Scotland has a high number of people with an opiate-based drug problem.
But the number of people in treatment is lower than in other parts of the UK - only 40 per cent
The SDF says that a large proportion of people on opioid substitution therapy – a programme that allows drug users to be prescribed methadone as a replacement to street drugs – are not receiving the dosages they require, despite guidelines laid out by the World Health Organisation.
This is leading many drug users to use drugs like heroin to “top up” their dosage, which can raise the risk of fatal overdoses.
The NRS statistics showed that the vast majority of deaths were recorded among people with more than one drug in their system.
Opioids like heroin were found in 86 per cent of cases. Of those, 47 percent also had taken methadone.
The number of recorded overdoses on methadone alone was seven.
The evidence suggests that “polydrug use” is one of the main causes of the drug death crisis in Scotland, according to the SDF.
Liddell said: “The obvious question we need to ask is why are NHS patients being treated in ways that are clearly contrary to the good practice recommended in the guidelines?”
“The reaction to years of this same practice occurring in drug treatment services has been that this is a local clinical matter. This cannot be allowed to continue.”
“The Government and politicians, the NHS, drug services, the media and wider society have a part to play in this.”
“We can prevent drug deaths - as stakeholders we all need to do what we can to reverse this national scandal - that responsibility lies with us all.”
Drug use and the rising number of related deaths in Scotland has been the subject of an inquiry by Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, which last week took evidence from the Lord Advocate and the Public Health Minister Joe Fitzpatrick.
Speaking on the newly released statistics, 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.”
The Scottish Government launched a Drug Deaths Taskforce this summer, led by Stirling University Professor Catriona Matheson, in order to investigate the underlying causes of the crisis and make policy recommendations.
Matheson said: “My thoughts go out to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones.
“These figures bring the scale of the problem we face in Scotland into sharp focus. The need for urgent action is clear and the taskforce gives us a mechanism to do that.
“It is imperative that the taskforce identifies ways in which we can do more to save the lives of those who are most at risk and we will look carefully at what has worked in other parts of the UK and internationally to ensure we apply strong evidence-based practice.”