Scotland's drug deaths scandal is a problem no one seems able to solve

28 July 2022

8:42 PM

28 July 2022

8:42 PM

Scotland has a high amount of drugs deaths. But it’s not just that. It’s that Scotland suffers drugs deaths at levels unknown anywhere else in the UK or Europe – nearly four times worse than any other country for which records exist. This scandalous figure has been updated today, showing that – although it fell one per cent this year – it has trebled since the SNP came to power. It speaks to a wider collapse of public policy. And one that requires urgent attention.

The new figures published show drug-related deaths have fallen to 1,330 – just nine fewer than the year before and the second-highest ever recorded. As a share of the population this is the worst recorded by any European country – and by some margin. It is a problem that no one seems able to solve, and speaks to the way in which Scotland seems to have incubated some of the worst deprivation in the Western world.

Drugs deaths were, once, seen as a Glasgow problem. But even though things in Glasgow have become (much) worse it is Dundee that has now emerged as the drugs deaths capital of the developed world.

Sturgeon’s government says the situation is ‘unacceptable’ but this is no new trend. This year was the first year deaths haven’t increased since 2013. More people died from drugs in Scotland in 2021 than the number that died of Aids in Gambia, deaths were nearly twice as high as those killed on the US/Mexico border and in the whole of Britain there were just 60 more deaths from car accidents than from drugs in Scotland alone.

Compared with the rest of Europe, deaths in Scotland were nearly five times higher than Sweden and nearly four times higher than Norway – the countries with the next highest death rates and places Sturgeon is keen to model an independent Scotland on. The deaths were also far worse than any other UK nation or region: two and a half times higher than the north east of England – the second worst afflicted part of the UK.

What can be done? Given so many years of so little progress, a sense of defeat has engulfed many. Sturgeon does not care because frankly she does not have to. Scotland’s electoral maths ensures that. But funding has been highlighted as crucial. A report from Scotland’s drugs deaths task force last week said: ‘The Scottish Government must focus on what can be done within [their] powers.’ Yet in the first 12 years the SNP were in power, funding for treatment more than halved.

But the UK should step up too. The SNP’s preferred route, in contrast to its usual public health method of banning things, is to decriminalise drug use and treat it as a health problem. This has already happened in all but name with the Lord Advocate announcing to parliament last September that Class A drug users would not be prosecuted. It’s possible this approach can work. The British government gains nothing by standing in the way.

There are cautionary tales though. Take Peter Krykant, an activist from Falkirk. Frustrated by inaction and indifference north and south of the border he took matters into his own hands and set up a ‘safe consumption van’. After running the van for a few weeks – and standing for election at Holyrood – he himself relapsed and began taking heroin again. But he never should have been put in that position. The state failed him.

What drugs are killing people? America, another one of the worst countries for drug deaths, has a particular problem with Fentanyl, an opioid considered stronger than heroin. But the same isn’t true for Scotland. Here, one of the biggest killers by far is Benzodiazepines or ‘street benzos’. They are responsible for some 69 per cent of drug deaths in Scotland. They’re prescribed by GPs.

The drugs deaths figures could be having an effect on male life expectancy too. Look at the below graph showing how long people expect to live internationally. While the length of time men can expect to live in most developed countries has continued to grow (up to 2019 – the latest Scottish data), Scotland and America have stagnated and even declined. It’s near impossible to prove a link, but record high drugs deaths is certainly something they have in common.

The Nobel laureate Angus Deaton (himself Scottish-born) has written a book about America’s life expectancy problem in which he refers to ‘deaths of despair’ – due to drink, drugs and (to a far smaller extent) suicide. If someone of his calibre were to focus on Scotland we might have a better understanding of why things are going so wrong there.

Devolution was supposed to focus attention on these Scottish problems. Scotland’s drugs problem was made world famous by Trainspotting – filmed in my native Edinburgh – but since then drugs deaths have risen five-fold. The ‘drugs death capital of Europe’ shows no signs of going away anytime soon. Action is required at all levels of government, reserved and devolved. Scotland is not lacking in resources. Nearly £100 per head more is spent on the health of Scots compared with in England. It’s the will to really change that’s lacking.

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