3 August 2021

Scotland’s drug deaths are a national disgrace – but there is a clear way forward

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One public health emergency has gripped the headlines over the past 18 months, but there is a second crisis that new statistics have starkly illustrated. The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland has reached a shameful new record yet again, exacerbated by the hardship of the pandemic, with the most deprived areas suffering the most.

The statistics make grim reading. Scotland’s death toll is more than 3.5 times the average for the whole of the UK and the worst per capita in Europe by far. According to the National Records of Scotland, 1,339 people died of drug-related causes in Scotland in 2020, a 5% increase on the previous year and the largest number ever recorded. This roughly equates to 245 deaths per million people, compared to 64 per million for the UK overall. This crisis has got markedly worse over the last 20 years, with 4.6 times as many deaths in 2020 compared with 2000.

As ever, the Scottish Government has tried to blame Westminster, claiming that it lacks the powers to address the problem. While it is true that drug policy is not devolved, campaigners point to the decision of the Scottish Government to cut funding for vital frontline services in 2016 as a fatal mistake. A UK-wide drug policy also doesn’t explain why Scotland’s deaths are so high compared to the other countries in the Union. Where the Scottish Government is right, however, is in saying that the criminal justice system is not the way to address this issue.

The UK Government has so far opposed the rollout of safe consumption rooms, a harm reduction initiative in which those suffering from addiction can ‘use’ in a clean, controlled environment with supervisors present. The reality is that addicts will use because they have to, but governments can help ensure that they do so in a safe environment rather than on the streets. Other countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark and France have all made use of this evidence-based approach to reduce the number of drug-related deaths. The UK is lagging dangerously behind by failing to adopt this strategy, and people are dying as a result. It’s time to treat addicts like patients rather than criminals.

What’s more, there is popular support for moving to a public health approach and a widespread belief that the current regime isn’t working. YouGov polling in 2019 showed 53% of the public believe drug use should be viewed as a health issue and should be addressed with harm- reduction strategies rather than criminalisation. Seven out of ten believe the current policy of prohibition has failed to reduce harm. Research from Glasgow Caledonian University last year also showed that 75%  of people who inject drugs in Scotland would use safe consumption rooms.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the disastrous Misuse of Drugs Act, which has caused untold and unnecessary suffering across the whole UK for decades, criminalising the sick and the desperate, with those in Scotland now paying a particularly high price. The UK Government should decide to start playing a positive, proactive role in reducing drug-related deaths in Scotland by working with the Scottish Government on this emergency, taking a public health approach to drug policy, and starting with the rollout of safe consumption rooms. 

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Joseph Silke is the Communications Officer at Bright Blue.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.