Scotland: Drug deaths hit record level for seventh year in a row – here’s what the data shows

Drug-related deaths in Scotland have hit record levels for the seventh year in a row, with 1,339 people dying in 2020.

It is the largest number of drug-related deaths since records began in 1996 and the highest number of people dying as a result of drug misuse in Europe.

In 2019, the number of fatalities was 1,264 – three-and-a-half times the figure for England and Wales.

The figures showed:

  • Men were 2.7 times as likely to die of drug misuse than women
  • People in the most deprived areas were 18 times as likely to die than those in the least deprived areas
  • Almost two-thirds of all drug-related deaths were people between ages 35 and 54. This age has increased from 32 to 43 over the past 20 years
  • The highest death rate was in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, followed by Ayrshire, Arran and Tayside
  • Most of the deaths – some 1,192 were in some way related to opioids
  • Benzodiazepines were implicated in 974 deaths

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the number of lives lost “is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy”.

She added: “Today, my thoughts are with every family who has lost a loved one – I am sorry for the loss you have suffered.”

Ms Sturgeon previously admitted her government “took our eye off the ball” on drug deaths. She has pledged £250m over the next five years to help tackle the crisis.

Angela Constance MSP was appointed to the newly created post of minister for drugs policy in the wake of the 2019 figures.

Asked if higher numbers in 2020 reflected a continuing failure in the war on drugs, she told Sky News: “It would certainly reflect that we would need to do far, far more but I’ve never been under any illusions about the scale of the challenge that we face.

“We’re not diminishing the scale of the challenge or walking away from the fact that Scotland has the worst drug death numbers in Europe.

“There are many reasons for that over a period of time.

“My job is to focus on action and to focus on the work and work hand in hand with those people with lived experience to implement the evidence-based interventions that will work, both to save lives and to improve lives.”

Dr Andrew McAuley, a reader in public health at Glasgow Caledonian University, has examined the reasons behind Scotland’s high rate of death from drug misuse.

He said there was “no single explanation”, adding: “Firstly, we have a lot of problem drug users, a lot of people at risk from drug-related deaths and, per head of population, we have more of those individuals than anywhere else in Europe.

“Secondly, the way we consume drugs in Scotland is different to the way other countries consume drugs – we have a tendency to consume lots of drugs at one time, so called ‘poly-drug use’.

“Lots of other countries have poly-drug users but our poly-drug combination typically involves opioids, benzodiazepines and alcohol.

“Particularly that benzodiazepine element has been a real feature of the last five or six years and that, in combination with opioids and alcohol, really increases the risk of respiratory depression and this is a strong influence on the Scottish drug-related death rate accelerating away, not just from our European counterparts, but also our UK counterparts.”

Dr McAuley added that the main tool for preventing drug-related deaths is treatment – and in Scotland, engagement rates are poor among problem groups, while retention rates among those in treatment are “very poor”.

He explained: “In Scotland, around 40% of our problem drug users are engaged in drug treatment, that compares to 60% to 65% in England and 80% to 85% in countries like Norway, who have been able to reverse drug-related death trends in the last decade.

“The drug treatment sector, which is so important, has had lots of its assets and resources stripped away from it in the last decade due to repeated reversals in funding.”

(c) Sky News 2021: Scotland: Drug deaths hit record level for seventh year in a row – here’s what the data shows


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