The country saw a record number of fatalities for a seventh year in a row, with those living in the most deprived parts of the country far more likely to die
Drug deaths in Scotland have hit a new level, newly released statistics have revealed.
The annual figures showed that there were 1,339 drug deaths last year - an increase of 75 from the 1,264 recorded the previous year.
It means Scotland continues to have by far the highest drug death rate recorded by any country in Europe. The rate is more than three times that of England and Wales.
The number of drug-related deaths has increased substantially over the last 20 years – there were 4½ times as many deaths in 2020 compared with 2000.
Men were 2.7 times as likely to have a drug-related death than women, after adjusting for age, and those living in the most deprived parts of the country were 18 times as likely to die from a drug-related death as those in the least deprived.
Almost two thirds of the deaths were of people aged between 35 and 54, with the average age increasing from 32 to 43 over the past two decades.
Greater Glasgow and Clyde had the highest rate of all health board areas at 30.8 deaths per 100,000 people, followed by Ayrshire and Arran and Tayside with rates of 27.2 and 25.7 respectively.
More than one drug was found to be present in the body of 93% of those who died, suggesting that many of the deaths were caused by Scotland's "polydrug" habit - mixing dangerous street drugs with alcohol and prescription pills.
Opiates such as heroin and methadone were implicated in 1,192 deaths while benzodiazepines such as diazepam and etizolam were implicated in 974.
David Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, described the deaths are a national disgrace.
He said: "These figures confirm that Scotland’s national public health emergency continues. These deaths are personal tragedies. Families and communities are left to grieve. 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.
"Our collective failure to do what needs to be done to prevent people with a drug problem dying through overdose is a national disgrace. The evidence for what should be done is clear and unequivocal. While people’s lives are often complicated and challenging, their needs are clear. What works, and what needs to be improved for people in Scotland, is treatment and support.
"New standards for drug treatment were published in May of this year. These should transform services – not just the processes involved but the whole culture of treatment which should empower people and give them choice and control in their lives.
"These new standards need to be implemented as a national priority. To be clear, treatment services will not transform themselves. Change will require investment, leadership and higher expectations from the Scottish public, people who may use treatment services, their families and communities."
Support group Favor Scotland and housing charity Shelter have helped to create a Right to Recovery Bill, which has been published by the Scottish Conservatives. The bill would enshrine in law that everyone can immediately access the treatment they need.
Favor said that despite the Scottish Government earlier this pledging tens of millions of pounds a year for drug services, including residential rehab, people are still being denied a place and being refused other treatments.
More groups, working on the front line of addiction services have pledged their support for the bill.
They are The Maxie Richards Foundation, Jericho House, Phoenix Futures, Sisco, Abbey Care and Recovery Enterprises.
Annemarie Ward, FAVOR Scotland CEO, said: “The drug crisis will be Scotland’s shame until the government is brave enough to do what is necessary.
“This bill will have widespread cross-party support when it comes forward. SNP MSPs have privately told us they will back the bill and several prominent Labour MSPs have publicly voiced support for it.
“The Right to Recovery Bill is necessary because at the moment, the same leadership is presiding over this catastrophic tragedy who were in charge when drug deaths spiralled out of control. There is no desire for radical change, or even for accountability, in Scotland’s broken treatment system. Progress is far too slow.
“The government’s new standards are not powerful enough to bring about the change we need to tackle this crisis. To save more lives, we need enforceable rights enshrined in law, so that nobody can be denied treatment again.
“Just now, the Scottish Government is not acting quickly enough to tackle the drug death crisis on our streets. They are doing just enough to limit the damage, not to solve the crisis.”
Professor Catriona Matheson, chair of the Scottish Drugs Deaths Taskforce, said the country faces a complex challenge in addressing the crisis.
She said: "Every drug related death in Scotland is an avoidable tragedy, and these figures serve to remind us of the importance and urgency of our mission to identify the areas of action that can make a sustainable impact against the challenge. We believe the approach of putting evidence into action has saved lives, and we will analyse the detail behind the headlines and look to build upon those areas showing progress and to address those areas requiring more attention.
"Both the causes of, and the solutions to, the challenge we all face are complex, at its heart are real people at real risk, and we continue to be determined to make difference for them."
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "The number of lives lost to drugs is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy.
"The Scottish Government does not shirk the responsibility and we are determined to make changes that will save lives. These 2020 figures (though no less shameful because of it) predate actions set out at start of year.
"We now have a dedicated drugs minister in Angela Constance, a substantial funding commitment and action underway to ensure faster access to community support, treatment and rehab. We will also continue to argue for reform of drugs law, which is not currently within our power
"Today, my thoughts are with every family who has lost a loved one - I am sorry for the loss you have suffered. However, I know that from Scottish Government what is required isn’t words, but action to prevent people dying, and that is what we are determined to deliver."
Dr Rebecca Lawrence, chair of the Addictions Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said: “Drug-related deaths continue to spiral out of control, shattering the lives of those individuals and communities left behind.
“The pandemic hasn’t helped and while we acknowledge the work that’s already been done, we need to focus on a full range of treatments, both harm reduction and recovery-based, being available to all.
“When people ask for help, nobody should be turned away, neither young people or older adults who are more vulnerable to physical illness, often due to years of smoking.
“Rehabilitation should always be there at the right time, for the right individuals. Other facilities like safe consumption rooms may also help those who can’t stop injecting, but one size does not fit all and fully resourced community services with rapid access for all patients, must be provided.
“It’s shameful that Scotland still continues to be known as the drug-death capital of Europe. Stigma still very much exists and what we need now is a public health, evidence-based approach to tackle dependency.”