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The Scottish Government has been told “talk is cheap” after drug death figures for 2020 rose to 1,339.
The figure is 5% higher than the previous year, when 1,264 people died of drug-related causes, according to National Records of Scotland (NRS).
The country continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe, with 21.2 deaths per 100,000 of the population – more than three-and-a-half times higher than the rest of the UK.
Glasgow was again found to be the worst area for people struggling with addiction, with 291 dying last year in the city.
Opioids remained the number one cause of drug-related death in Scotland in 2020, the new figures show.
The data released on Friday shows that, of the 1,339 people who died from drugs last year, 1,192 were related in some way to opioids.
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.
Drug rehab campaigner Annemarie Ward, who is in long-term recovery from addiction, told the Scottish Government “talk is cheap” as she joined others affected by drug deaths to demand change.
Ms Ward and her group Faces And Voices Of Recovery (Favor) UK has backed Scottish Tory proposals to introduce a Right to Recovery Bill enshrining in law the right of Scots to get the drug treatment they request.
Speaking at a memorial in Glasgow, Ms Ward hit out at a speech made at the event by drugs minister Angela Constance in which she referenced the Deacon Blue song Dignity and promised to “climb the mountain and turn the tide” of drug deaths, without pledging any specific action.
Ms Ward said: “I think Angela is doing the rounds. She’s talking to a lot of people and listening to a lot of people, but talk’s cheap.
“We can talk all day long and people can listen all day long, but unless we start to take action, nothing changes.
“Angela was talking about ‘a ship called Dignity’ and she was using a variety of different analogies and I was just like ‘we’ve got a Bill about to come through parliament, Angela – back that Bill, that will change the law and that will prevent our local authorities and our NHS and anybody else who is withholding actual treatment, it will make them actually help people.
“It will force our current system to change and, at the moment, those turkeys aren’t going to vote for Christmas.
“Those services are rationalising, justifying and defending the status quo – they don’t know how to deliver recovery and they need to get the experts in that do.”
Speaking at the emotionally charged memorial service, Ms Constance told the assembled crowd – some of whom had experienced addiction themselves: “My focus is on turning fine words into action.”
She added: “The ship has been sailing in the wrong direction for 20 years and its been getting worse, not better year after year.
“I want to convey to you my utter commitment and what we need is a culture of change and a culture of compassion.
“If you are as old as me, you will remember that song about a ship called Dignity and we all know what it’s going to take to turn that ship around.”
During the same Glasgow vigil, members of the public were asked to speak to their own experiences of addiction.
Some simply wanted to mention loved ones who had died but James Docherty, 43 – himself in long-term recovery from an addiction to painkillers – addressed the difficulties some people have in accessing lifeline services.
“It shouldn’t be easier to get into (HMP) Barlinnie than it is to get into a rehab in Glasgow, because currently that’s the reality,” he said.
“It’s easier to get into a prison than it is to get into a treatment centre to resolve the trauma that wasn’t your fault.
“I went into a treatment centre 17 years ago and I had no idea what I was up against.”
He added: “Prison is a holding pen for the NHS. It’s because prison is made up of a majority of people who are addicted.
“The reason it doesn’t work is because you can’t punish someone out of their addiction, you can’t punish someone out of trauma – your best efforts exacerbate the very thing you’re trying to solve.”
1. The number of lives lost to drugs is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy. @scotgov does not shirk the responsibility & we are determined to make changes that will save lives. These 2020 figures (though no less shameful because of it) predate actions set out at start of year
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) July 30, 2021
Earlier in the day, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Twitter the number of lives lost “is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy”.
The First Minister tweeted that the Scottish Government “does not shirk the responsibility & we are determined to make changes that will save lives”.