IN just seventeen words this week Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives at Holyrood, accurately summed up the scale of Scotland’s drugs deaths. “It’s impossible to overstate the scale of Scotland’s drug death crisis”, he declared. “This is truly a national emergency”.

'Tide is turning' on Scotland's drug death crisis says minister

Mr Ross was speaking ahead of the publication of the latest statistics by the National Records of Scotland (NRS). In the event, they showed that there were 1,051 deaths due to drug misuse in 2022 – down 279 on the previous year, a drop of 21%. It is the second year in a row that the total number of drug fatalities has fallen, and this is the lowest number of deaths recorded since 2017. 

The NRS research also disclosed that people living in Scotland’s most deprived areas were nearly 16 times as likely to die from drug misuse compared to people living in the least deprived areas.
Scotland’s drugs minister, Elena Whitham, said that the SNP government was “turning the tide” on the crisis. There had been a “significant reduction” in the number of deaths, she said, the result of immense hard work by frontline staff to channel drug users into the most appropriate treatment.

Ms Whitham – like everyone else on the frontline – recognises that considerable work remains to be done, and called for a widescale approach, pulling together the government, councils and communities to enable “our people” to access “protective services”.

It is a laudable aim, but for one insistent, urgent question: why has this united front not been put into practice before now? 

To put it mildly, Scotland has had a longstanding problem, with people dying from drug misuse. It was as long ago as the mid-Eighties, after all, that David Bryce was moved to create the Calton Athletic football team, which originally consisted of recovering addicts from the East End as a means of enhancing their recovery and as a focus away from drugs and alcohol.

Obituary: David Bryce

Any decline in the number of drugs deaths has to be welcomed, but there is no overlooking the human cost entailed by those 1,051 deaths; the squandered potential, the lasting grief of parents and siblings. Each one of these deaths is an avoidable tragedy, in the words of Alex Feis-Bryce, CEO of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Police Scotland seize record levels of 'street valium' and heroin

To its shame Scotland’s current level of deaths is unmatched anywhere else in the UK or Europe, a situation that has been allowed to fester for far too long. Though drug law is a reserved matter, the hope would surely have been when the devolution dream became reality that a rigorous Scottish focus on Scottish issues would have led to meaningful measures.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive at drug recovery charity, With You, is correct to say that Scotland is making progress but that it is simply not happening on a large enough scale or with enough urgency.

There is no shortage of suggestions as to how we might deal with drug addicts, over and above the seemingly intractable problem of deprived communities.

Drug deaths spike as synthetic opioids detected in Scotland
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have proposed specialist Family Drug and Alcohol commissions, safe consumption spaces, and the decriminalisation of drug misuse. 

Mr Ross, for his part, recognises that those with addiction problems often find it difficult to access treatment. His Right to Recovery Bill (which Humza Yousaf spoke in favour of during the SNP leadership hustings) would enshrine in law “the right of everyone to receive the potentially life-saving treatment they need”. Mr Ross says the idea is supported by experts, charities and “those with lived experience”.

Decriminalisation of drugs for personal use is a popular suggestion, but the speed with which Number Ten knocked back Ms Whitham’s recommendation was notable, with Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson saying that the Prime Minister had no plans to alter his “tough stance” on drugs.Some will suspect Westminster of playing politics here.

Scottish reforms to decriminalise personal drug use knocked down within an hour

However, in any event, authoritative reports from both Portugal and from the US state of Oregon, which attracted worldwide publicity through such decriminalisation, have highlighted the downside to such measures: rises in crime, increases in visible drug use, furious local residents. 

Scotland drug deaths: Fatal overdose deaths fall in 2022

It’s said that the number of adults using drugs in Portugal increased to 12.8 percent in 2022, from 7.8 percent the year the policy began.

Scotland was once the ‘murder capital of Europe’, an unwelcome status that was reversed by the pioneering work and remarkable success of Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit. 

Scotland's drug minister opens up on family member's addiction battle
Now might be the time to launch a similar unit, driven by determined, far-sighted leaders with access to budgets, staff and the latest research, to tackle the problem of drug deaths.
The one-year reduction is good news, but it does not represent a trend, and greater urgency is needed to ensure that the annual toll continues to be degraded.

The Scottish Drugs Forum this week called for that which has been lacking, and which continues to hinder change: leadership, co-ordinated action, and a driving will to change. But is the political will there to finally rise to the challenges?