A TASKFORCE has convened for the first time, aiming to address the surging number of drugs fatalities in Scotland that sees the country now burdened with the unenviable title of “drugs death capital of the developed world”.

How many people have died?

Figures from the National Records of Scotland show 1,187 lost their lives in drug-related deaths last year – an increase of 27 per cent on 2017. The majority involved more than one substance, with heroin and other opiates involved in 86 per cent of deaths. ‘Street benzodiazepines’, such as etizolam, were implicated in 57 per cent of the deaths.

Is it true that Scotland has the worst rate in Europe?

It experienced more drug-related deaths than any other European Union country last year, with the number now at the highest level since records began 23 years ago.

It’s even worse than America?

The death rate is now around three times that of the UK as a whole and even higher than the rate in the US – despite America being in the grip of an opioid crisis. There were more than 70,000 drug deaths in the States in 2017 but the rate of 217 per million of the population is lower than Scotland’s 218 per million.

What is the taskforce aiming to achieve?

Made up of 23 people – including experts, charity representatives and one former addict – it is chaired by Professor Catriona Matheson, of the University of Stirling. It aims to examine the factors behind the deaths and advise on action, considering preventative measures, treatment options and the laws around drug use to see how to best handle the public health crisis.

Hosted by Scotland’s public health minister, Joe FitzPatrick, it met yesterday afternoon when it was confirmed that three additional members had joined, “all of whom have lived experience of drug use”

But drugs policy is reserved to Westminster?

Yes, but there are a raft of factors involved. Poverty, for example, plays a huge role in the problem and addressing its reduction is one approach, along with increased health funding.

Mr FitzPatrick said: “There are no easy answers, but if we’re to save lives we need a recognition that change is both necessary and, with the right support, achievable.”

Suggestions of safe consumption rooms have not been sanctioned by the Home Office and he added that Westminster “holds the power to decide if a safe consumption facility can get the legal go-ahead, and so far they have rejected it out of hand.”

Decriminalisation is a possible route?

A change in the law to mean that people would not be prosecuted for personal use has returned to the forefront of discussions.

Professor Matheson has said that a “non-judgemental approach” is needed to address the crisis.

How did the first meeting go?

Mr FitzPatrick said, “We had good, constructive discussions around this public health emergency today and the ways in which we might tackle it.”

He added: “We will draw on the experience and expertise of the Taskforce members and those with lived experience to shape how services in Scotland could save lives.”