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Highland MSP blames 'savage cuts' over past decade for record levels of drug-related deaths in Scotland

By Alan Hendry

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MSP Rhoda Grant
MSP Rhoda Grant

A Highlands and Islands MSP has claimed that "savage cuts" over the past decade are to blame for drug-related deaths in Scotland reaching record levels.

Labour's Rhoda Grant warned that "no part of society is free from the plague of drugs" and said services had been underfunded for too long.

She was speaking today after it was announced that 1339 drug-related deaths had been registered in Scotland in 2020 – an increase of five per cent from 2019. It is the largest number of deaths from drug misuse since records began in 1996.

Highland had the lowest rate of all the health boards for which figures were available, but a Caithness councillor emphasised that the issue "remains a challenge on our own doorstep".

Scotland's drugs policy minister Angela Constance described the statistics as “heartbreaking” and said the Scottish Government was determined to keep working to address the drugs crisis.

Key findings from National Records of Scotland include:

The number of drug-related deaths has increased "substantially" over the past 20 years.

Men were 2.7 times as likely to have a drug-related death than women, after adjusting for age.

People 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 all drug-related deaths were of people aged between 35 and 54.

Greater Glasgow and Clyde had the highest drug-related death rate of all health board areas for the five-year period 2016-2020 (30.8 per 100,000 population), followed by Ayrshire and Arran (27.2) and Tayside (25.7).

Highland, at 13.3 per 100,000 population, had the lowest rate among the health boards for which figures were given.

Mrs Grant said: “No part of society is free from the plague of drugs – from the sleepiest village to the busiest of cities. They devastate individuals and with that family and friends.

“For too long services have been underfunded. Savage cuts made in the last decade are reflected in these figures.

"We need facilities to support those who fall victim, but we also need to create opportunities that provide an alternative route to divert those who otherwise will fall victim.”

Councillor Raymond Bremner (SNP), who represents Wick and East Caithness on Highland Council, said: “Drug-related deaths in any community have devastating impacts on us all – our families, our friends and our neighbours.

"There is work being done locally to support and tackle the issue but the ability to realise a reduction in drug-related deaths remains a challenge for many service providers and support agencies.

"While Highland may be the lowest drug-related death rate of all the health board areas, members of our community know the issue remains a challenge on our own doorstep and we need to continue to ensure support for those affected as much as possible.”

Alan Ferrier, head of demographic statistics at National Records of Scotland, said: "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.

“At the beginning of the century, the rate of drug-related deaths in Scotland’s most deprived areas was 10 times that of our least deprived areas. By 2020 this gap had increased to 18 times as high.”

The Scottish Government says £250 million will be spent on addressing the issue over the next five years. An immediate priority is getting more people into treatment, it says, and £100 million will go towards improving and increasing the provision of residential rehabilitation.

Ms Constance said: “Once again, the statistics on drug-related deaths are heartbreaking. I want to offer my sincere condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one through drug use.

“We need to gather as much information as we can about drug use in Scotland and, to that end, data on suspected drug deaths will be published quarterly from this September. This will ensure we can react more quickly and effectively to this crisis and identify any emerging trends.

“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 £250 million announced over the next five years, £100 million 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.”

Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said: “The impact that this crisis is having on communities cannot be overstated. We urgently need robust, compassionate care to be made available to patients and their families.

“People across Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross regularly tell me about issues with a lack of beds available for those suffering from substance addiction, the immense distances patients have to travel, and the lack of support for families.

“Nicola Sturgeon has admitted that the SNP government has taken its eye off the ball in terms of preventing drug deaths. What we need now is a clear plan of action rather than yet more words.”

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