THERE are areas of policy where it is possible to claim that under other measures outcomes would look less poor, or that events outwith all control made matters worse, or even – admitting some culpability – that government made errors, but can set matters right. Then there are cases of outright, utter, shameful failure for which government, and government alone, must shoulder the blame.

The figures from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) on drug deaths are the latter. They are profoundly shocking; they are a colossal record of wasted lives, misery and emotional and social costs, and they damn the Government, which has not only failed to tackle an obvious blight, but by neglect, incompetence and obduracy made matters considerably worse.

Worse than at any point since records began. Worse by far than any other country in any part of Europe: around 10 times worse, per capita, than the EU as a whole. Worse – three and a half times worse – than the rest of the UK. Worse for the most deprived, who are 18 times more likely to die than the more affluent. Almost three times worse than a decade earlier.

This is not merely “challenging”, as Humza Yousaf put it, or a matter of “taking an eye off the ball”, as Nicola Sturgeon disgracefully described it recently. It is a subject that has been a clear public health emergency for the whole of the SNP’s period in office. Health policy, being entirely devolved, is completely within Holyrood’s control, and its responsibility alone, and has been for 14 years of SNP rule.

Not just opposition parties, but almost every group involved in drug policy and treatment continually warned that the Government’s policies were not only inadequate but counter-productive. It’s a story that media, and this newspaper in particular, has had near the top of the news agenda for the past seven years – not least because matters have been getting obviously and steeply worse all that time.

For the First Minister to claim that these figures “pre-date actions set out at start of year” and that the Government “does not shirk the responsibility” would almost be laughable were the reality not so horrifying. She was warned in 2015 that cutting £15 million from funding would be disastrous. The following year saw an immediate rise in deaths of 23 per cent, and the dismal landmark of a doubling of deaths over the previous decade. The NRS figures document more than 5,000 deaths since that cut was introduced; 1,339 of them last year.

Yet the Government continually failed to change course. In the last year, there have been belated attempts to wake up: Joe Fitzpatrick’s departure from the public health brief, the appointment of Angela Constance to the new post of drugs minister, a taskforce and a pledge to reverse some of the cuts. But the First Minister – though even she has finally had to concede that the current position is “indefensible” and “a national disgrace” – still prefers to obfuscate and deflect by talking about drug laws being reserved to Westminster.

That is, bluntly, an irrelevance. There are compelling arguments for legal reform in the UK, and indeed internationally, but whether measures such as “safe rooms” would greatly improve matters is not what is at issue.

All other European countries, with a wide range of laws and approaches, have a fraction of Scotland’s deaths. All other parts of the UK, which share exactly the same laws, have death figures dwarfed by ours. The reason for that cannot be Holyrood’s lack of powers, even if you think that might improve matters. It must inescapably be that our Government is doing something wrong that theirs are not.

Drug abuse not only needlessly cuts lives short; it devastates families, blights our cities, contributes to crime and deprivation and has enormous economic costs. These figures are a tragedy, a disgrace, and a clear-cut indictment of a Government that has – despite constant warnings – largely ignored the issue or attributed blame anywhere other than where it rests: with their abject failure.