Scotland’s drug deaths boss stepped down after being told to ‘speed things up’

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Drug deaths taskforce boss stepped down from role after being told she had to do a ‘rushed job’ (Paul Faith/PA) (PA Archive)
Drug deaths taskforce boss stepped down from role after being told she had to do a ‘rushed job’ (Paul Faith/PA) (PA Archive)

The former head of the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce resigned after being told she had to “speed things up.”

Professor Catriona Matheson, an expert in substance misuse from Stirling University, stepped down from her position as chairwoman of the Scottish Government-backed group last month.

The organisation was set up in July 2019 in a bid to curb a rising toll of drug deaths.

Prof Matheson was joined by the taskforce’s then vice-chairman, former Police Scotland deputy chief constable Neil Richardson, in her resignation.

She said the final straw for the pair was being asked to “tie things up” and submit conclusions to their work six months earlier than previously told.

In response, Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance who was appointed in December 2020, said there was a need to move forward as quickly as possible.

But, in a BBC interview, Prof Matheson said she was not prepared to do “a rushed job” in her role.

“It was a sign that the work of the taskforce didn’t have the full support really of the minister any longer,” she said.

“We weren’t prepared do a rushed job.

“It would do a great disservice to all the work that is going on.

“And these aren’t research projects, these are frontline service, delivery and innovative ways of delivering new services to people who are at risk.

“These are happening now and will run for the next year.

“They won’t be finished in six months’ time.”

Drug related deaths reached a record level of 1,339 in Scotland in 2020, with early data for last year showing a slight decrease.

The figure is the highest drug death rate recorded by any country in Europe.

Prof Matheson said the group’s work started well, but the since the minister was elected, she had “downplayed” the role of the taskforce in the “national mission” to tackle Scotland’s record drug death figure.

She said the taskforce was working on an evidence-based approach rather than trying to please everybody, and that she hopes hers and Mr Richardson’s resignations will be a “wake-up call” to politicians.

In a written response to the BBC interview, Ms Constance said she had made clear in January last year that the taskforce’s work needed to be accelerated.

She said there was an urgent need to implement changes that would make a real and tangible difference to people’s lives.

“We will continue to build on the momentum established in the first year of the National Mission to improve and save lives, working with expert groups, frontline workers and those with lived, living and family experience to develop our response to the drug deaths crisis in an evidence-based and effective way,” she said.

She thanked Ms Matheson for her work and said she in contact with the taskforce group.

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