Scotland drugs deaths remain highest in Europe despite slight fall in latest figures

Scotland's high rate of drug deaths remains a challenge.
Scotland's high rate of drug deaths remains a challenge. Copyright Graphistes Euronews
By Scott Reid
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The number of drug deaths fell from the previous year's figures but are huge in comparison to numbers from 20 years ago, and other European countries.


New figures have revealed that Scotland still has the highest number of drugs-related deaths per million population in Europe. 

The latest data, published Tuesday, shows drug deaths in Scotland fell to 1,051 last year from 1,330 the year before.

However, this reduction in deaths contrasts with fewer than 300 deaths, total, in 1996.

The rate of drug deaths compared to other countries, however, is huge.

Based on the latest Scotland figures, and figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction about drug deaths across Europe, while Scotland now has 248 deaths per million population, the next nearest countries have much lower death rates. 

Finland, for example, has 79 per million population, while Ireland has 73 per million. 

Most of the top ten worst countries in Europe for drugs deaths are in the Nordic and Baltic countries, Ireland, Scotland, and the UK as a whole.

Euronews Graphistes
Graphic showing drug deaths across Europe, per million populationEuronews Graphistes

Kirsten Horsburgh, the CEO of the charity the Scottish Drugs Forum, said Scotland was “now well beyond the need for urgent action.” 

"These are overdose deaths and wholly preventable," she said, speaking to Euronews. 

She said the reasons for the high rate of substance abuse were complex, but "culturally depressant drugs like alcohol have always been more commonly used in Scotland – and there is a close connection with poverty and marginalisation".

She called on Scotland to learn from Europe and North America and develop drug checking facilities, safe drug use sites and move away from a criminal justice approach to health and social support. 

One of the measures the forum has called for is the "decriminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use through the use of alternatives to prosecution for all people, for all drugs in all circumstances."

However, the latter call is being held back by a political row. The Scottish Government wants to decriminalise all drugs for personal use but lacks the devolved powers to do so, while the UK Government has shown no signs of supporting the move. 

This was raised by the Scottish Government in its response to the figures. It welcomed the drop, saying it was focusing on getting more people into treatment. But Scotland's drug policy minister Elena Whitham added "as we highlighted in our recent Drug Law Reform proposals, the UK Government could do more to work with us to help introduce harm reduction measures."

However, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross criticised any suggestion of decriminalising drugs. 

"I find it a ridiculous policy of the SNP to want to decriminalise drugs - how will this reduce deaths?," he told LBC radio.

He is instead calling for a "right to recovery" Bill, which would enshrine in law the right of those struggling with addiction to access a preferred treatment method unless a clinician was to rule it harmful.

"No one wins if this becomes a constitutional issue or part of a culture war," drugs forum CEO Horsburgh said. "That would be a tragic response to what is already a tragic set of circumstances."


Others were even more direct about the challenges faced. 

Annemarie Ward, the CEO of FAVOR UK, which advocates for those suffering and recovering from addiction told LBC radio she could get opiates including heroin delivered to her door faster than a pizza. 

She said she couldn't celebrate the figures as they "don't match my experience of going to funerals this year".

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