Another record year for Scottish drug deaths 

Scotland has once again recorded its highest ever level of drug-related deaths, according to the latest figures from National Records of Scotland.

The people behind the statistics are highlighted by the ‘You Keep Talking, We Keep Dying’ vigils. Read more about the campaign here

There were 1,339 deaths recorded in 2020, a further 5 per cent increase on 2019’s record figure. The rate remains the highest of any European country, and three and a half times greater than that for the UK as a whole. 

There were four and a half times as many deaths last year as in 2020, with the latest figure the highest since records began in 1996. As in previous years men, and people in the most deprived areas, were more likely to die a drug-related death. After adjusting for age, men were 2.7 times more likely to have a drug-related death, says National Records of Scotland, with people in the most deprived parts of the country 18 times more likely to suffer a drug death than those in the least deprived. The Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area saw the highest rate, followed by the Ayrshire and Arran and Tayside areas. 

Around two thirds of the deaths were among people aged between 35 and 54, with the average age increasing from 32 to 43 over the last two decades. 

‘Sadly, last year saw the highest number of drug-related deaths in Scotland since reporting began 25 years ago, and 59 more deaths than were registered in 2019,’ said the agency’s head of demographic statistics, Alan Ferrier. ‘At the beginning of the century, the rate of drug-related deaths in Scotland’s most deprived areas was ten times that of our least deprived areas. By 2020 this gap had increased to 18 times as high.’ 

Scottish Government drugs minister Angela Constance
Scottish Government drugs minister Angela Constance

Suspected drug deaths will be reported quarterly from September onwards to ‘enable better surveillance and response’ and identify emerging trends, the Scottish Government has announced. Drugs minister Angela Constance, who was specifically appointed to lead work on tackling the crisis (DDN, February, page 5) said the figures were ‘heart-breaking’. 

‘I want to offer my sincere condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one through drug use,’ she said. ‘We are working hard to get more people into the treatment that works for them as quickly as possible. Without treatment, there is little hope of recovery so we are funding as many community and third sector initiatives as we can so that individuals have the widest possible choice and can opt for the support which suits them and their family.

“Of the £250m announced over the next five years (DDN, February, page 4) £100m will go on improving the provision of residential rehabilitation and I will update Parliament on progress in this area after the summer recess. As I have said before, I am determined that every penny of this additional funding will make a difference to all those affected by drug use in Scotland.’

Scottish Drugs Forum CEO David Liddell
Scottish Drugs Forum CEO David Liddell

The figures confirmed that Scotland’s ‘national public health emergency continues’ and were ‘a national disgrace’, said Scottish Drugs Forum CEO David Liddell. ‘The trauma will be felt through generations and for years. These deaths represent a scar on the nation’s conscience and serve as a reminder of our collective failure to support vulnerable people and their families in the moments when they most needed support. The evidence for what should be done is clear and unequivocal.  What works, and what needs to be improved for people in Scotland, is treatment and support.’

Treatment services would not ‘transform themselves’, he added. ‘Change will require investment, leadership and higher expectations from the Scottish public, people who may use treatment services, their families and communities. Only 35-40 per cent of the 58,000 people with a drug problem in Scotland are in treatment. In the rest of the UK that figure is nearly double Scotland’s rate. Why is that? It may be painful to admit but for many people in desperate need, treatment, in too many parts of Scotland, is neither accessible nor acceptable.’ 

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