Scotland drug deaths soar in ‘shameful scar’ on Nicola Sturgeon’s conscience

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Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, admitted the situation was 'unacceptable' - Andy Buchanan/PA
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, admitted the situation was 'unacceptable' - Andy Buchanan/PA

Scotland's status as Europe's drugs deaths capital was confirmed on Friday after the publication of "shameful" figures described as a "scar on the conscience" of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

A record number of annual fatalities – 1,339 – were reported for last year, a five per cent rise on 2019 and the seventh year in a row in which drugs deaths in Scotland have increased.

The First Minister said the situation was "unacceptable" and "shameful" but came under fire after she suggested that a lack of powers over drugs policy rather than her government's own actions was partly to blame.

While the SNP has attacked the UK Government for opposing "fix rooms" where people could take drugs under supervision, campaigners said inadequate rehabilitation services and failed policies in the devolved NHS were to blame.

The drugs deaths rate in Scotland is more than three and a half times higher than the rest of the UK and by far the highest in Europe.

‘An absolute scandal, a tragedy’

Annemarie Ward, chief executive of the charity Faces and Voices of Recovery Scotland, is backing Scottish Tory proposals for a new "Right to Recovery" law and said there was little faith that the SNP would fix the issue.

"Any amount of deaths is absolutely devastating for the families who have lost loved ones, but for this to continue year on year is an absolute scandal. It's a tragedy, and it's Scotland's shame," she said.

"To use Glasgow as a microcosm, there's only 18 beds and over 100,000 people with alcohol and drug problems. So your chances of getting into rehab are almost one in 6,000.

"What we have here is a situation where we've got the same leadership presiding over a catastrophic tragedy, who keep throwing the same failing solutions at it over and over again. None of these turkeys are going to vote for Christmas, so we need the law to change, new leadership and new solutions."

The spiralling number of drugs deaths has become a major political issue in Scotland, with Ms Sturgeon admitting before the Holyrood election in May that her administration had taken its "eye off the ball" in the face of an unfolding crisis.

Her public health minister, Joe FitzPatrick, lost his job following the publication of last year's figures, and a dedicated drugs minister has now been appointed. The Scottish Government has pledged to invest £250 million in addressing the “emergency” over the next five years.

However, the SNP administration had previously slashed funding for rehabilitation services and beds, with the party in power since 2007 and Ms Sturgeon a former health secretary.

Glasgow was again found to be the worst area for people struggling with addiction, with 291 people dying in the city last year. Opioids remained the number one cause of drug-related death in Scotland in 2020, and were involved in 1,192 of the 1,339 deaths. However, in nearly all deaths more than one drug was found to be present.

Use of benzodiazepines – known as "street valium" – which can cost as little as 50p per pill, was implicated in 974 deaths last year. People in the most deprived areas were 18 times as likely to have a drug-related death as those in the least deprived areas, a ratio that has almost doubled in 20 years.

‘Pitiful excuses a disgrace’

Ms Sturgeon said she would not "shirk responsibility" and was determined to address the crisis. However, her claim that the statistics "pre-date" actions she set out at the start of the year was condemned as a "shameful attempt" at spinning the figures.

"Pitiful excuses about these statistics predating government actions are a disgrace," Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said. "The SNP have been in power for 14 years. Drug deaths are Scotland's shame because of their inaction.

"It is a fact that this crisis has got worse every single year that Nicola Sturgeon has been First Minister. She took her eye off the ball and the consequences have been devastating.

"This is not the day for political spin from the First Minister. It should be the time for decisive action. I urge her to back our Right to Recovery Bill proposal to guarantee in law that everyone who needs treatment can get it."

Pamela Nash, a former Labour MP who is now chief executive of the Scotland in Union campaign group, said the SNP had neglected devolved services as it pursued its "obsession" over Scottish independence.

She said: "These are devastating figures, with each death a tragedy that has left loved ones without a parent, sibling, child, friend or neighbour. This shameful crisis is entirely of the SNP's making, and no desperate attempt at spin by the First Minister can hide that fact."

The Scottish Greens, in talks with the SNP about a power-sharing deal, suggested the statistics made the case for legalisation of drugs, claiming current policies across the UK had "demonstrably failed".

Alex Cole-Hamilton, health spokesman for the Scottish Lib Dems, said: "Every drug death is preventable. However, that task became 10 times harder when SNP ministers cut the budget for critical prevention services by 22 per cent. Help and expertise that people relied upon was needlessly surrendered when it should have been expanded."

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