SCOTLAND’s drugs death toll hit yet another historic high last year, sparking demands for a radical rethink of the country’s laws on narcotics.

Nearly 1,200 people lost their lives because of narcotics last year, twice as many as five years earlier and nearly three times as many, per capita, as in the rest of the UK.

Deaths linked to drugs in Scotland now outnumber those caused by murders, car crashes, suicides and industrial accidents put together. 

The figure is 27 per cent higher than the previous year, and the highest since records began in 1996. 

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Scotland’s drug death rate is also higher than that reported for any other EU country and the US.

All parties bar the Scottish Tories said the tally – officially 1,187 – should provoke a comprehensive shake-up of policy and law, especially on drug consumption rooms, often referred to as “shooting galleries”. 

Scotland’s Public Health Minister, Joe FitzPatrick, said the death toll was “shocking”. 

He added: “It is vital this tragedy is treated as a public health issue, and we are prepared to take innovative and bold measures in order to save the lives of those most at risk.

“Last week, I gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee and I asked for help in persuading the UK Government to either act now to enable us to implement a range of public health focused responses, including the introduction of supervised drug consumption facilities, or devolve the power to the Scottish Parliament so that we can act.”

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Mr FitzPatrick said a new taskforce he had set up should be driven by evidence and listen to those who have used drugs, as well as their families, and pledged to give consideration to any proposals which would save lives.

The minister’s call for supervised drug consumption facilities has the backing of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens.

The Scottish Conservatives, however, said this option – currently blocked by the Home Office – is “cowardly”, and said the Scottish Government should boost funds for rehab and “abstinence-based recovery”.

Scotland’s leading drugs policy think-tank rejected Tory thinking, and warned against stigmatising methadone, the heroin-replacement therapy.

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Deaths from opiates or opioids, such as heroin, morphine and 
methadone, were implicated in, or potentially contributed to, 1,021 deaths.

For the heroin replacement methadone, which is available on prescription, this was 47% of all drug deaths, more than heroin or morphine at 45%. However, only 7% of deaths were linked to methadone alone.

Benzodiazepines were implicated in, or potentially contributed to, 792 deaths. The vast majority of these involved so-called “street” versions such as etizolam at 675 – 57% of drug deaths in 2018 – while 238 involved prescription benzodiazepines such as diazepam. Many deaths were linked to the use of multiple drugs at once.

Men accounted for 72% of the drug-related deaths. People aged 35-44 were the age group associated with the most deaths (442), followed by those aged 45-54 (345). Sixty-four people aged 15-24 died from drugs.

A UK Government spokesman highlighted its drug misuse review, adding: “Any death related to drug misuse is a tragedy. Our drug strategy is bringing together police, health, community and global partners to tackle the illicit drug trade, protect the most vulnerable and help those with a drug dependency to recover. 

“The UK Government has been clear there is no legal framework for drug consumption rooms and there are no plans to introduce them.”

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Statisticians routinely warn that cross-border comparisons on drug deaths can be problematic because of different recording and reporting practices.
Scotland’s drugs death rate remains the highest in Europe, with richer northern European countries all counting more fatalities per capita than poorer southern and eastern ones.

Justina Murray, chief executive of Scottish Families Affected by Drugs and Alcohol, said: “Our thoughts today are of course with the 1,187 families who lost a loved one last year.

“But we know they don’t need to wait for these statistics to be published to feel bereft, let down and angry. This may be a day where the media and policymakers briefly shift their focus on to drug-related deaths, but families affected by drug addiction continue to face significant levels of pressure, harm and risk every day. They want real change.”