Drug deaths in Scotland increased by 11% in the latest round quarterly report, with an average of 23 per week.

Public Health Scotland publishes a quarterly report titled the Rapid Action Drug Alerts and Response, and on Tuesday published the figures for November 2023 to January 2024.

There was an 11% increase in suspected drug deaths, as well as a 10% fall in drug treatment referrals and a 6% decrease in needles and syringes provided.

The total number of suspected drug deaths between December 2023 and February 2024 was 278, averaging 23 per week.

A suspected drug death is a death where controlled drugs are suspected of being involved. Suspected drug-death figures are based on reports, observations and initial enquiries from police officers attending scenes of death.

The numbers in the latest report are in line with historic trends, with an average of 17 to 31 per week between December 2021 and November 2023.

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Public Health Scotland said that combined substance abuse remained the key driver of harms, with the most likely mixes involving benziodazepines, cocaine and opioids.

The most common drug types detected in post-mortem toxicology were opioids (70%) and benzodiazepines (58%). The percentage of deaths where cocaine was detected remained stable at 36% but it continued to be the most commonly detected individual substance, followed by heroin/morphine (29%), methadone (29%), diazepam (27%), and bromazolam (22%).

There was, however, a 12% decrease in the number of emergency department attendances and a 24% fall in drug-related hospital admissions.

Emergency department attendances decreased in five NHS boards compared to the previous period: NHS Lanarkshire (14%), NHS Lothian (16%), NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (17%), NHS Ayrshire and Arran (23%) and NHS Highland (43%) but increased in NHS Borders (35%) and NHS Grampian (67%) and were broadly stable elsewhere.

Responding to the figures Dr Susanna Galea-Singer, chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said:  “While it’s encouraging to see hospital admissions down, the increase in drug deaths paints a very sad story because every death from addiction is a personal tragedy.

“Working on the frontline, our clinicians tell us they’d like to see more ring-fenced funding in health, social care and the third sector.

“This would increase access, choice and care for those people who so desperately need the right treatment and support.”

Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton called the situation an "emergency".

He said: “Scotland’s drug deaths emergency continues to end lives and blight communities.

“We are also seeing increasing evidence of nitazenes, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, contributing significantly to that crisis.

"I have joined with campaigners in warning that these substances represent a growing part of the drugs death crisis, highlighting that their presence in Scotland will require an immediate response. That’s why I asked Humza Yousaf about nitazenes during First Minister’s Questions in early January.

“Despite these emerging threats, the Scottish Government have delivered a brutal real-terms cut to drug services.

“Well-meaning words and promises just won’t cut it. As well as delivering radical and transformational action to help all those suffering, I want ministers to protect and strengthen the drug and alcohol budget so that everyone can access care when they need it.”