THE new head of the taskforce trying to tackle Scotland’s drugs death crisis has been named after the previous post holder resigned in a row with an SNP minister.

Former senior police officer David Strang takes up his position as chair of the group with immediate effect, after the sudden departure of Professor Catriona Matheson last month.

A replacement for former vice chair Neil Richardson, who quit at the same time as Prof Matheson, has yet to be appointed.

Both leaders resigned after a dispute with Angela Constance, the SNP minister for drugs policy, who had demanded the group’s work be accelerated.

In their resignation letter, Prof Matheson and Mr Richardson said it was “counterproductive” and driven by factors “such as meeting targets, rather than achieving sustainable change”. 

They also said they were “dismayed” that a major plank of the taskforce’s programme was being rushed is such a way that “jeopardises its success”.

The taskforce was set up in 2019, when drugs deaths stood at 1187 for the year.

Last year the number rose to 1339, although more recent figures show a slight decline.

Prof Matheson told BBC Scotland this week that she left rather than do a “rushed job” on the final report, saying the order to deliver it six months early had come “out of the blue”.

Announcing her replacement, Ms Constance today told MSPs that Mr Strang had a “vast amount of experience” in multiple fields which made him well placed to take on the role/

Besides being a former chief constable, he was also HM CHief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland and chaired the Independent Inquiry into Mental Health Services in Tayside.

Ms Constance said: “This change in leadership marks a new chapter for what has been a valued contributor to work being done all across Scotland and I want to thank the former Chair and Vice-Chair for the part they have played in shaping our collective response to reducing drug-related deaths.  

“I have asked the Taskforce to accelerate its final recommendations planned for this year and I am aiming to get those in the summer. 

“As we focus now on delivery and change on the ground, we need quicker, practical advice from the Taskforce – building on what it has already provided and achieved.”

Ms Constance also announced the first step on operating a drug consumption room within existing legislation after recent work with health officials, police and prosecutors.

She said: “I am pleased we are also moving forward with our commitment to establish a safer drug consumption room to operate within the current legal framework.

"A new service proposal in Glasgow has been provided and we are continuing to work closely with the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership, the police and Crown Office to ensure we have a sustainable approach which is clinically and legally safe for staff and those using it.

“We are serious about this commitment as we know these facilities have a strong evidence base in saving lives and helping some of our most vulnerable people. A fresh proposal will be made to the Lord Advocate once further detail on operation and policing is developed.”

Mr Strang said: "Every premature death as a result of drug use is a tragedy for individuals, their families and communities. 

"The Drug Deaths Taskforce is making a significant contribution to improving Scotland's response to drug deaths and how they can be prevented.  I am keen to enable the Taskforce to continue this important work."