Kathleen Nutt

Political Correspondent

THE former head of Scotland's drug deaths taskforce has said ministers in Edinburgh should stop blaming Westminster legislation for the high number of people dying through drugs misuse and focus on what can be done to address the problem.

Professor Catriona Matheson hit out over comments made by Angela Constance yesterday when she called on the UK Government to stop “criminalising some of the most marginalised and vulnerable individuals” after the country remains the drug deaths capital of Europe.

The drugs policy minister told The Herald that the latest figures, published on Thursday, underlined that the Scottish Government needed "to do more" to address the issue.

She then went on to add that the UK's Misuse of Drugs Act needed to be reviewed and suggested it was "criminalising" vulnerable people.

“The Misuse of Drugs Act is outdated, it’s ineffective, it needs to be reviewed."

Ms Constance added: “We also, as politicians, need to have the courage to really engage and discuss and work with communities about what will work.

“What we know doesn’t work is criminalising some of the most marginalised and vulnerable individuals in the country. That doesn’t make communities safer – in fact, it adds to the harm.”

Asked for her views on Ms Constance's interview to The Herald, Professor Matheson said: "It is good to see the minister acknowledge her mission is not happening fast enough.

"However, the Scottish Government needs to focus on what we can do now – in Scotland without trying to divert attention to Westminster and the Misuse of Drugs Act."

The Stirling University academic resigned from the task force, formed in 2019 to tackle Scotland's horrific drug death toll, at the end of last year after accusing Ms Constance of forcing a hurry-up that endangered lives.

Official figures published by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) revealed that 1330 people lost their lives to drugs in 2021, nine fewer than in 2020 and a fall for the first time since 2013. However, the number was still the second highest annual total on record.

Opioids continued to be the main cause of drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2021, accounting for 84 per cent of all deaths.

However, a change in the type of drugs that are implicated in deaths was highlighted by the report, with benzodiazepines accounting for 918 deaths.

The number of deaths involving benzodiazepines has increased almost five times since 2015 when there were 191.

The increase has mostly been attributed to street drugs rather than those which are prescribed, according to the data.

More than two thirds - 70 per cent - of those who died from drugs were men, while 65 per cent of all people who lost their lives were between the ages of 35 and 54 years old, NRS data showed.

Dundee City had the highest drug misuse death rate of all local authorities, with 45.2 deaths per 100,000 population from 2017 to 2021, followed by Glasgow City, with 44.4 and Inverclyde, 35.7.

Ms Matheson said deaths would have been higher had there not been the interventions delivered across the country to expand naloxone, the reversal drug, and the work delivered by overdose response teams.

"We have evidence that these initiatives have saved lives," she said.

"The final drug deaths taskforce report focussed on changing culture and putting lived/living experience at the centre.

"This is important but will not in itself bring about a rapid reduction in drug deaths. To achieve the sizeable downward shift needed, there must be serious investment in the clinical sector to provide stabilisation services and quality medication assisted treatment.

"The government needs to focus efforts and investment rather than their scattergun approach which is more about political appeasement than doing what is needed to save those at high risk of overdose.

"The First Minister said she was going to take control 18 months ago. However the drugs minister’s national mission still lacks a delivery plan and a clear vision on strategy and future investment."

Ms Matheson called for more investment in rapid response overdose teams; in patient stabilisation for those at highest risk and supervised drug consumption facilities –targeted to areas of very high need. She also called for more investment in clinical research in effective treatments.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is already fully focused on what can be done in Scotland under current powers.  

"It was highlighted in the report from the Drugs Death Taskforce itself saying the UK Government should undertake a root and branch review of the Misuse of Drugs Act.”