THE number of drugs related deaths fell by nine per cent last year with fatalities among the young hitting their lowest level since records began.

Experts voiced cautious optimism as the annual death toll dropped to 525, most linked to a variety of cocktails featuring heroin or opium substitute methadone, and the average age of a victim reached 40 for the first time.

However, the numbers of lives lost to drugs is still double the level seen in 1996, the height of Scotland's heroin epidemic, when officials started keeping count.

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More than two thirds of those who died were over 35, many of whom were long-standing chaotic addicts who started abusing during the 1980s and 1990s. Just 32 were under 25.

Dave Liddell, of the Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF), said: "The welcome reduction in drug overdose deaths is cause for a degree of optimism and grounds for hope that we will see further reductions. However, along with our rate of problem drug use, Scotland's overdose deaths rate remains high and there is no room for complacency. Considerable efforts have been made and will need to be maintained if we are to further reduce this figure."

Mr Liddell and his colleagues believe many of the deaths, even among long-standing addicts, were preventable thanks to heroin overdose medicine naloxone but say more needs to be done to ensure addicts engage with services.

Five of the deaths were directly linked with new psychoactive substances or NPS. Such "legal highs" were partly implicated in another 55 deaths.

Mr Liddell said: "It is crucial to point out that in 67 per cent of the 60 NPS cases the NPS was a benzodiazepine and was the only NPS used and that it was used in combination with other drugs. These deaths, although reported separately, have more in common with Scotland's more familiar drug overdose deaths involving opiates, benzodiazepines and/or alcohol. So while the NPS element may be new, sadly the types of death are all too familiar."

Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham said: "These statistics are a product of a long legacy of drug misuse among older users. One death is one too many, that's why we are funding the SDF to work with older users and why almost 4,000 naloxone kits were issued through our prevention programme in 2012/13."

Drug deaths peaked in 2011 but Ms Cunningham hopes 2013 numbers are levelling off.