We need to talk about drugs. Scotland, to resurrect an old slogan, needs to know the score.

Because this country, more than three decades after it was first hit by a heroin epidemic, is riding a new wave of pharmaceuticals.

And this time the crisis affects all of us, not just those we too often dismiss as "junkies".

Experts openly admit they just do not know the long-term impact of our new habit of popping pills, whether they are legal, illegal, or, terrifyingly, neither one nor the other.

Some us are taking these tablets and capsules, whether from a street dealer, a Facebook "friend" or our doctor, because they think they will make us well, thin or smart or just get us up in the morning and back down again at night.

Others are looking for a high. And many of us, of course, just want to stay low, to blot out or numb reality.

After all, Scotland is a nation long defined by our yearning for downer drugs like whisky, heroin or one of the half a dozen or so varieties of "blues" or "street Valium" now consumed on industrial scale across all sections of our society, rich and poor, rural and urban.

This week The Herald launches a major new investigative series, A Bitter Pill. It raises tough questions for all of us about a society where our biggest drugs problem might just be that we think drugs solve all our problems.

Today we begin with a look at the share scale of "hyperactive" children in our schools now being treated with tablets.

The number of under-10s being prescribed drugs for ADHD has nearly doubled in just seven years.

This is a dramatic change. But it is far from unique. Are we over-prescribing? Are we unnecessarily "medicalising" problems? Are too many people suffering from, say, depression, just parked on pills because more effective solutions - such as physical exercise - are too expensive?

Or is the rise in prescriptions of anti-depressants a sign of that mental health problems for years were allowed to go undiagnosed and untreated?

These are issues being grappled with across the developed world.

Prescriptions in Scotland may be free. But that does not mean they do not have a cost. And not just a financial one.

Moreover, it's no secret that there is also a booming and barely policed online market for these same medications - and others.

There were once days when we thought - wrongly - the dividing line between what we called "drugs" and "medicine" was clear.

In truth the distinction between big name illegal narcotics - such as cannabis- and legal recreational products like alcohol was never quite as big as we liked to pretend.

Police find themselves in a grey area too with new products and old being abused - regardless of whether they are "controlled" under drugs laws which needed updated constantly to keep pace with the market.


Veteran police drugs expert Kenny Simpson is watching a whole new generation "self-medicating" without ever thinking of themselves as a problematic drug user of the kind we so often step over on our streets.

These are people who may not even think of themselves as "druggies" or law breakers. "What are the self-medicating for?" he said. "It is not necessarily physical symptoms, for their emotional failure to meet the challenges of every day.

"We are going back to 'mummy’s little helper – basically amphetamines to get you through the housework. Now we have a whole society that may turns to drugs rather than alcohol - or as well as alcohol for that same purpose."

As Mr Simpson said, many of us abused ostensibly legal pharmaceuticals long before some criminals in the early 1980s figured that they could push opiates in to Scotland just as its industry suffered the shock and mass unemployment of free-market reforms.

But we are still living with the legacy of heroin. Last year 867 Scots suffered drugs related deaths, twice as many as in 1995 when the smack epidemic peaked.

Once we lost our children to heroin. Now we lose our parents and grandparents. Old addicts, it seems, die hard.

This is a national tragedy. The current death toll from drugs is three times higher than the combined loss of life from road accidents and murders.

Yet laced among the mass figures for heroin there are other numbers that should worry all of us: scores of dead "addicts" had legal painkillers in their blood, exactly the kind of new drug being bought online.

Back in the first half of the heroin crisis we would never have guessed the death toll could ever climb as high as it has.

Equally now we have no clue as to the long-term consequences of our love affair with pharmaceuticals. Some of these drugs are saving our lives, some are costing lives. Getting the balance wrong could mean we have to take a very bitter pill indeed.