MORE than 720 people have died of suspected drug misuse in Scotland in the first six months of this year.

Drugs policy minister Angela Constance called the new figures "appalling" but insisted the Scottish Government is taking "a vast range of actions to tackle this public health emergency". 

It comes after statistics published in July showed a record number of drug deaths last year. 

Scotland has by far the highest drug death rate of any country in Europe.

New figures show there were 722 suspected drug deaths in the first six months of 2021.

This is 1 per cent (9) fewer than during the first six months of 2020.

The police divisions with the highest numbers of suspected drug deaths were Greater Glasgow (187), Lanarkshire (67), Edinburgh City (64) and Tayside (64).

Males accounted for 72% of suspected drug deaths, compared to 76% during the same period last year.

Just over two thirds (69%) of suspected drug deaths were of people aged between 35 and 54. 

Meanwhile, there were 35 suspected drug deaths in the under 25 age group, 29% (14) fewer than during the first six months of 2020.

There were 329 suspected drug deaths during the period April to June 2021, 16% (64) fewer than the previous calendar quarter (January to March 2021), and 20% (84) fewer than during the same calendar quarter in the previous year (April to June 2020).

Asked about the issue in Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon said the figures were "unacceptable".

The First Minister said the Scottish Government takes the issue "extremely seriously" and added there is a "significant package of work underway right now, backed by significant additional resource, to tackle drug deaths". 

In a statement, Ms Constance said: “Once again these figures are appalling. 

"We are taking a vast range of actions to tackle this public health emergency, and we recognise the hard work and challenges ahead.

“More regular reporting of data on drug death trends in Scotland will ensure everyone involved in our national mission remains focussed on the work we must do to get more people into the treatment that is best suited for them as quickly as possible.

“We know that to do this we must create a more integrated, person-centred approach to treatment. 

"We are therefore investing £2.3 million over the next three years in Health Improvement Scotland to ensure people are treated not only for their physical health addiction but their mental health too.

“We are also working to reduce stigma and increase awareness. 

"The Naloxone Awareness Campaign we launched with the Scottish Drugs Forum on International Overdose Awareness Day has already attracted 2,848 visits to the StopTheDeaths website.  

“The £250 million we are investing in tackling this public health emergency will make a difference. 

"I am working to ensure it reaches front-line services as quickly as possible and that every single penny will count as we continue to prioritise our efforts to turn this crisis around.”

In an effort to provide more data on the drug deaths crisis, the Scottish Government announced this summer it would release suspected figures each quarter, based on provisional information from Police Scotland.

Scottish Conservative drug policy spokeswoman Sue Webber said the new statistics were "heartbreaking".

She said: "If this appalling trend continues, drug deaths will increase again to another shameful record.

“Scotland’s drug deaths crisis keeps getting worse because Nicola Sturgeon is out of touch with what’s really happening on our streets and in prisons across the country."

She accused Ms Sturgeon of taking her eye off the ball and leaving "vulnerable people with nowhere to turn to for help". 

Ms Webber also referenced an investigation by ITV News which found phones given to prisoners during the pandemic to increase contact with loved ones and reduce social isolation are being used for drug deals.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “It is devastating to learn that 722 people had their life cut short by drugs in the first few months of this year alone.

"This will be a painful day for the hundreds of families for whom this news will feel all too raw."

He added: "We urgently need specialist drug and alcohol commissions, drawing on international best practice including that from Portugal, and for people caught in possession to be diverted to treatment instead of being propelled towards prison.”

Scottish Labour’s drug policy spokeswoman Claire Baker said: “Each and every one of these deaths is a travesty and each one is preventable.

“For years now, figures have been getting worse and the government have been promising action.

"It is shameful that after all this, we are still not making meaningful progress.

“It’s good to see more regular information being published, but it’s more important that it shows things moving in the right direction.

“We don’t need more expressions of regret from ministers – we need action to save lives. The Government must act with the urgency needed.”