Opinion

Drug-related deaths in Scotland: Here's what can be done now

Drug-related deaths finally decreased in Scotland in the last year, but are still much higher than the rest of the UK. Austin Smith, policy lead at Scottish Drugs Forum, says there are proven solutions.

Peter Krykant outside his safe consumption van in Glasgow, Scotland. An important part of the fight against drug-related deaths

Safer drug consumption facilities, like Peter Krykant's safe consumption van in Glasgow, are an important part of the solution to drug-related deaths. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/ Getty Images

Every summer, the National Records of Scotland publish data about drug-related deaths in Scotland in the previous year. Mainstream and social media are focused on this annual event. The total number of deaths is then used to back up whatever argument is to be made. It is used in constitutional politics; it is used in a culture war around drug use.

Of course, what is too readily forgotten is that these deaths are personal and family tragedies. They impact chiefly on some of Scotland’s poorest communities and are, largely, a consequence of poverty. And, most importantly, they are preventable. Scottish Drugs Forum has worked to have focus on these key facts. As a broad-based membership organisation there are different perspectives and opinions that we value and respect but we stick with facts and evidence when we make the case for what should be done. 

One fact remains – despite the fall in deaths from 1,330 in 2021 to 1,051 in 2022 – Scotland has far higher drug-related deaths than the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe. It is a sad, simple, shameful fact.

The Scottish Government acknowledges that drug-related deaths are a public health emergency and announced a national mission to reduce drug-related deaths along with £250 million in extra funding – but where is the emergency action?

In the public health emergency that was the Covid-19 pandemic, government used emergency powers, resources were found, action was taken. Yet in this emergency that kind of action is absent. The scandal is that, unlike Covid-19, we know exactly what to do. The evidence is stark and clear.

We have to improve and expand treatment services to address the chief difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Fewer than half the people in Scotland who could benefit from treatment are actually in treatment compared with much higher engagement in England.

To address this, we have to improve the quality, range and focus of treatment and offer people the support they need to address the issues they prioritise to improve their quality of life – that may be mental health, housing, welfare, social isolation, their relationships with family.

We need the Lord Advocate to allow the opening of safer drug consumption facilities where people can use drugs under the supervision of people who would intervene in an overdose situation and provide support, rather than the current alternative of people using in unsafe, unhygienic and undignified circumstances. The staff of such services, the people who use them and the local police simply need to be reassured that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute them. Just as it was not in the public interest to prosecute the man who openly ran such a service in the centre of Glasgow for months.

Similarly, we need drug-checking facilities so that people know what drugs they are using. The vast majority of drug deaths occur when people use more than one substance. Mixing drugs is far more of a risk and yet many of the drugs sold are not what is claimed but another substance or are a mix of substances. So we tell people not to mix drugs but refuse them the facility to know whether they are purchasing mixes of drugs. Drug checking has been done in Wales, paid for by the Welsh NHS and government for years – but not in Scotland – why?

We need to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use. Scotland cannot change the law but we have power over policing. We must initially change the policing of drug possession. We have already made moves to introduce recorded police warnings at the discretion of the attending police officer in these cases. These warnings must become the default and apply in all cases. We could then have services work with police to identify vulnerable people and offer them advice, help and support, including treatment. 

Most of all we need the leadership in government, services and from communities to take a stand and say this will no longer be accepted and we will do what needs to be done. 

Austin Smith is policy lead at Scottish Drugs Forum.

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