There were 1,330 drug-related deaths in Scotland last year, according to the latest figures from National Records of Scotland (NRS), a 1 per cent reduction on 2020’s figure of 1,339.
Although it marks the first year that the death toll has fallen in almost a decade, it still represents the second highest figure ever recorded and is five times higher than the total for 1996. Scotland’s drug death rate remains higher than any other European country, and is more than three and a half times higher than that for the UK as a whole.
The slight fall in the NRS statistics, which are based on official information from death certificates and forensic pathologists, mirrors the ongoing trend in the provisional quarterly figures released by Police Scotland (www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/fall-in-suspected-scottish-drug-deaths/). Two thirds of those who died were aged between 35 and 54, and 70 per cent were men. The highest death rates were in the Dundee City local authority area, followed by Glasgow City and Inverclyde. ‘After adjusting for age, people in the most deprived areas were more than 15 times as likely to have a drug misuse death as those in the least deprived areas,’ said NRS vital events statistician Julie Ramsay. ‘This ratio has widened over the past two decades.’
Poly-drug use remains a significant problem, with more than one drug found to be present in the body in almost 95 per cent of all drug misuse deaths. While 84 per cent of deaths in 2021 involved opiates or opioids, almost 920 involved benzodiazepines compared to just 191 in 2015 – an increase mostly driven by ‘street benzos’ like etizolam, says NRS. Gabapentin and/or pregabalin were implicated in just under 475 deaths, and cocaine in more than 400.
The statistics were a ‘record of personal, community and national loss,’ said Scottish Drugs Forum CEO David Liddell, representing an ‘ongoing systemic failure’ in prevention. ’It is important to see these deaths in the context of poverty and in the failure of our education, care, criminal justice, housing and welfare systems to make effective early interventions to support vulnerable people and their families. The treatment system in Scotland is under scrutiny and there is clearly government concern about the failure to implement new standards in treatment. Leadership in that area is welcomed and the need for urgent progress obvious. However, treatment services are at the sharp end of service provision. They seek to address the crises that people present with. It is the treatment services that meet people in the reality of their situation.’
Workers in a long-under-resourced treatment system were experiencing burnout, he warned. ‘We cannot let these staff find themselves in a mental and emotional situation where they feel they are unable to care and perform effectively. We need to ensure staff are resourced, trained and supported to carry out the crucial work they do in building those empowering relationships that will save lives.’