A Scottish minister has described the latest drug deaths figures as “our national shame” as she announced further measures in an attempt to tackle the crisis.
Drug death figures rose to 1,339 in 2020, a 5% increase on the 1,264 people who died of drug-related causes, according to the latest National Records of Scotland (NRS) figures.
Scotland continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe, with 21.2 deaths per 100,000 of the population.
Angela Constance, the Scottish Government’s minister for drug policy, told MSPs she was committed to getting more drug users “into the protection of treatment and recovery”, with a target for people in treatment programmes due to be set by next year.
Opening her statement, Ms Constance said: “The loss of life in Scotland from drug-related deaths is as heartbreaking as it is unacceptable.
“It’s our national shame, and I offer my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one as I continue with a commitment to do everything possible in our new national mission to turn the tide on rising drug-related deaths.”
She added: “We have had the humility to accept what has been wrong and, going forward, we will have the courage to do what is right.”
Ms Constance announced plans for a specialist residential rehabilitation facility to be built in North Ayrshire to provide treatment for up to 20 families at a time.
The government will also consider whether alcohol and drugs services should be included in the proposed National Care Service, while a review has been commissioned into the use of so-called street benzos, which were identified in 73% of drug-related deaths last year.
Benzodiazepines are usually prescribed for the treatment of anxiety and insomnia, but illicit supplies of street benzos are being used with opiates such as methadone and heroin.
In light of the devastating drug-related death figures released last week, we want to share that our bereavement service is here. There is no time limit on grief, so please don’t think you can’t access the service because ‘it happened a long time ago’ – we support everyone 💜 pic.twitter.com/xWFwDWpFjT
— Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs (@ScotFamADrugs) August 2, 2021
However, following the statement, opposition leaders criticised the government for not having First Minister Nicola Sturgeon address parliament about the drug deaths crisis.
Douglas Ross then urged the government to back a “right to rehab” bill being brought forward by the Scottish Conservatives, calling for “decisive action from the top”.
The Scottish Tory leader added: “It’s not enough for the First Minister to admit she to took her eye off the ball – words are not going to solve this crisis.”
Ms Constance refused to give a “blanket commitment”, but said: “I will of course – as will the First Minister – give serious consideration to any proposition, serious and fair consideration, and I have never ruled out the need for further legislation.”
The drug death crisis requires decisive action from the top. It demands leadership.
Where is @NicolaSturgeon? She could give a Covid statement today but refused to speak on drug deaths.
When are the First Minister and the SNP Government going to wake up and tackle this crisis?
— Douglas Ross MP MSP (@Douglas4Moray) August 3, 2021
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar also said he was “extremely disappointed” the First Minister had not addressed parliament about the drug deaths crisis.
He said: “Nicola Sturgeon cannot escape the fact that she and her party have been in government for almost 15 years, that she cut the budgets for drug and alcohol services, and under her watch our drugs death in Scotland are almost five times that of the rest of the UK despite having the same laws.
“The minister is right to see that this is Scotland’s national shame, but she must recognise that it is the Scottish National Party’s shame too.
“We need urgent action to save lives, we can’t ignore the link between Scotland’s higher drugs death rate and our suicide rates; we need a coherent strategy and a plan from this government.
“More funding is of course welcome, but it must do more than fill the holes in funding that their cuts already created.”
Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance has described the increase in drug-related deaths as “heart-breaking”, and reiterated her determination to continue the work to address the crisis.
— Scot Gov Health (@scotgovhealth) July 30, 2021
The figures, released last week, showed Glasgow to be the worst area for people struggling with addiction once again, with 291 dying last year in the city.
Opioids remained the number one cause of drug-related death in Scotland in 2020, with 1,192 of the 1,339 people who died from drugs linked to opiod use.
Deprivation also continued to be a major factor in drug deaths, with those in the poorest areas of the country 18 times more likely to die than their more affluent counterparts, the data showed.
In 2020, the death rate from drugs in the most deprived areas of Scotland was 68.2 per 100,000 of the population compared to just 3.7 in the most affluent areas, a gap which has widened in the past two decades.