Drugs death figures expected to be worst ever

Drugs death figures expected to be worst ever

The much-delayed figure for the number of Scots who died as a result of drug misuse last year are to be released.

The results, published by National Records of Scotland, are expected to be the worst on record.

They are six months late after a huge backlog in processing toxicology results and delays due to Covid-19.

The last set of figures showed there were 1,187 drug misuse deaths in 2018, the worst drug death rate in Europe and much worse than the figure for England.

Statistics for England and Wales, published in October by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showed there were 4,393 deaths related to drug poisoning in 2019, equivalent to 76.7 deaths per million of the population. Ireland has reported a similar drug death rate.

The death rate for Scotland in 2018 was 295 per million of the adult population, more than three times as high as England and Wales.

At the weekend, Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton said the latest figures were likely to be “horrifying”.

The numbers have more than doubled in five years, with “polydrug” habits – mixing dangerous street drugs with alcohol and prescription pills – causing many of the deaths.

Campaigners have highlighted “street benzos” as a major problem in Scotland.

The fake Valium – that sells for as little as 50p – is many times stronger than prescription drugs.

The new breed of benzodiazepines are often taken alongside other drugs such as heroin.

Benzos were implicated in two out of every three drug-related deaths in 2018.

In September, a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said Scotland had the highest recorded drug death rate in Europe, far ahead of Sweden in second place.

It highlighted the problem of benzos, saying: “In Scotland, criminal groups are known to be involved in the large-scale illicit manufacture and distribution of fake benzodiazepine medicines.”

It said the pills were typically made to look like 10mg diazepam tablets, and known as “street Valium”, but these fakes often contained new or uncontrolled benzodiazepines which posed a “high risk of severe poisoning”.

All UK drugs misuse legislation is currently reserved to Westminster.

But the Scottish government is responsible for health and social care, such as drug treatment services.

As the scale of the public health crisis emerged last year, a cross-party group of MPs conducted what they called one of the most extensive inquiries ever carried out into problem drug use in Scotland.

Their recommendations included the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use and new legislation to provide for safe drug consumption facilities, both matters reserved to the UK government.

The Westminster committee also said the Scottish government must do more to ensure drug treatment services were properly funded and supported.

In September this year, 10 months after the committee delivered its report, the UK government rejected its recommendations.

It said decriminalisation would not “eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence”.

On the idea of consumption rooms, the UK government responded that: “We want to do all we can to stop people having access to drugs that could ultimately kill them. No illegal drug-taking can be assumed to be safe and there is no safe way to take them.”

The Scottish government reacted to the drugs crisis by setting up a national taskforce and announcing funding for innovative projects and testing new approaches.

The head of the Drugs Deaths Taskforce, Prof Catriona Matheson told BBC Scotland society had been guilty of ignoring and neglecting addicts.

Prof Matheson called for a more humane approach and more compassion to end these unnecessary deaths.

In a bid to keep people alive, there has been a focus on naloxone, an emergency antidote to treat overdose victims.

The aim is to get naloxone into the hands of people who might be vulnerable to an overdose, with police now being involved in distributing to people at incidents they attend, as part of a pilot project.

Prof Matheson also said there needed to be improved drug treatment services, as only 40% of those who needed services were getting them.

She called for a broader range of options for treatment such as a move towards Buprenorphine, the slow-release opioid substitute which means users no longer have the stigma of their daily visit to the pharmacy for methadone.

It is hoped this will allow patients to focus on improving their lives and overall health rather than managing their dependence.

Prof Matheson’s taskforce agrees that the high drug death rate in Scotland is linked to “risky” behaviour of poly-drug habits, mixing heroin, cocaine and benzodiazepines.

It also says there are high levels of deprivation, linked to trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

Prof Matheson said the stigma from officials and society had acted as a barrier to people seeking support.

Former addict Peter Krykant, who has been campaigning for a change in the law to allow the legal consumption of drugs such as heroin and cocaine in supervised facilities, said it was worrying that the statistics for 2019 were only just coming out at the end of 2020.

“We have been going through a public health emergency that needs to be dealt with,” he said.

“If this was businessmen and women who were dying there would be a different response.”

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