Scotland now has the highest rate of drug related deaths in the EU. New figures from the National Records of Scotland show that a total of 867 people lost their lives in 2016. That’s more than twice as many people who lost their lives to drug related deaths a decade ago.

These worrying figures also reflect recent data that shows England and Wales has seen an increase in drug-related deaths for a fourth consecutive year – making this another record broken. It’s becoming increasingly clear that current drug policies are not working. 

As a result, the conversation around the urgent need for drug policy reform continues to grow. For example, the introduction Safe Injection Facilities (SIF) in Glasgow, an area that has seen some of the worst numbers in terms of drug related deaths. Greater Glasgow and Clyde saw 257 people die in 2016, which accounts for 30 per cent of Scotland’s tragic tally. Heroin and morphine accounted for 473 deaths, so the need for SIF has never been more apparent. The cost/benefit to society of Safe Injection Facilities is overwhelmingly positive, and these recent drug death figures from Scotland could well be an incentive to forge ahead with further life-saving measures.

As the National Records of Scotland report finds, Scotland saw 160 drug-related deaths per one million people in 2016, compared with an estimated 65.8 per million in England and Wales. The European average of drug related deaths stands at 20.3 per million, so it’s perhaps no wonder that political champions are now taking the drug policy reform conversation to their constituents in efforts to raise awareness of this tragically preventable issue. Ronnie Cowan, Member of Parliament for Inverclyde, is a supporter of health and evidence-based alternatives to current drug policy. He has previously hosted community events to outline just how positive drug policy reform can be in his own community. Ronnie Cowan MP continues to host outreach events in Scotland and has worked alongside many organisations, such as the Royal Society for Public Health and the release of their report Taking a New Line on Drugs. In a recent article written for the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Ronnie Cowan makes the point:

“Addictions are not age specific nor are they prejudiced. They prey on people from all walks of life. They do not care about the victim’s nationality, colour, religion, gender, or sexual persuasion. But it is worth noting that drug deaths are higher in areas of poverty and deprivation.”

Virgin Unite, drug policy reform, Scottish Drugs Forum

Speaking on the need for evidence and pragmatic reforms, Ronnie also makes it clear in his BMJ blog that drug policy reform has wider societal benefits:

“It wouldn’t be the first time we have run such schemes in the United Kingdom. In the 1980s John Marks set up a project on Merseyside which provided medical heroin to people with an addiction. It was successful in preventing people from getting HIV and poisoning themselves. Their health and wellbeing improved. Any need to commit crime to pay for a fix was removed and as a result there was a 93 per cent drop in theft and burglary, while within the community the number of dealers was reducing all the time.”

The Scottish Drugs Forum has produced a concise and easily digestible video on the recent drug death figures in Scotland. They highlight that of the 871 people, it was 68 per cent male and 32 per cent female that lost their lives, but the rise in drug-related deaths among women has overtaken the increase seen among men. 2016 saw 241 per cent more female deaths than in 2006, compared to 77 per cent more for men in the same period. 

The Scottish Drugs Forum recently highlighted that there is some hope and Scotland could make significant changes to its policy and attitudes with a £20 million funding boost and ‘overhaul’ of its drug strategy. The Scottish Government has published A Nation With Ambition, a document which outlines its programme for 2017-2018 which not only includes the £20 million pound investment in alcohol and drug treatment and support services. It also highlights the need for awareness around viewing potentially problematic drug use as, in the words of the Scottish Drugs Forum, “an aspect of wider social issues and in the context of personal trauma and mental health”.

Although Scotland is faced with some of the worst figures around drug deaths that we’ve ever seen in Europe, there are new opportunities for Scotland to take more of a lead in shaping drug strategies. At the SNP party conference, a motion was debated and passed with overwhelming support. The conference voted to comprehensively review drug policy, with powers relating to the issue to be transferred to Scottish Parliament, and to consider all options – including harm reduction, decriminalisation, and regulation.

With Safe Injection Facilities on the horizon, and with a new attitude towards drugs, there’s hope more lives can be saved through drug policy reform.

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