Scottish ministers have promised a “step change” in addressing Scotland’s drug deaths crisis after Nicola Sturgeon attended her first taskforce meeting since pledging to become personally involved in tackling the issue.
The first minister vowed to hear firsthand the lived experiences of those who have dealt with addiction after statistics published last month showed there had been 1,264 drug-related deaths in Scotland in the past year, a 6% rise.
The rate is higher than those reported for all other EU countries and is approximately three-and-a-half times higher than the UK as a whole.
The shocking figures led to the resignation of public health minister Joe FitzPatrick, whose home city of Dundee led the way per head of population, after opposition parties threatened a vote of no confidence over his “inadequate response” to the crisis.
‘A national mission’
Almond Valley MSP Angela Constance was later appointed as dedicated minister for drugs policy and also attended the meeting on Tuesday to discuss the group’s priorities to “improve outcomes for people whose lives are affected by drugs”.
Ms Constance said: “Meeting the taskforce for the first time was a key opportunity for me to recognise the hard work that has already been done, and to hear ideas of how we can build on the plans we have.
“We are determined to lead a national mission to deliver a step change in the action taken to reduce harm and promote recovery to save lives.
“I want to continue building on the momentum to ensure we take the actions necessary to reduce Scotland’s drug deaths and better support those living with addiction.”
Dundee has the worst record for drug deaths in Scotland and cases rose for the sixth consecutive year, from 66 in 2018 to 72 in 2019. It equates to 482 deaths per million people, up from 443 in 2018.
Glasgow has the second-worst record at 440, followed by Inverclyde at 424.
Nicola Sturgeon is due to present her findings to MSPs later this month after pledging to get more personally involved in efforts to curb drug deaths.
She described last month’s figures as “completely unacceptable” and apologised “to every family who has suffered grief” because “every person who dies an avoidable death because of drug use has been let down”.
The SNP leader said she would consider any “immediate steps” that could be taken forward from the meeting before making a statement to the Scottish Parliament by the end of the month.
Speaking after meeting group members, Ms Constance said the actions taken forward will include prioritising areas of emergency response the taskforce has identified as effective in reducing deaths, such as the distribution of anti-overdose naloxone kits and support following a non-fatal overdose.
However, she said reducing drug deaths and getting more people into treatment “also requires us to address the stigma related to substance use and addictions”.
“Today we heard from some of those with lived experience about the development of a national stigma charter, something which the Scottish Government is hugely supportive of,” Ms Constance said.
“Every step of the journey must be shaped by lived experience, and expand on the best practice seen in other areas of government such as the care review, social security, homelessness and the independent living fund. We will build on that good practice and learn from that work, but make it bespoke to drugs policy.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron said the meeting was welcome but stressed the need for immediate action.
“Today’s task force meeting is welcome but overdue,” he said. “How many more lives have been lost since these figures were revealed last month?
“The time for talking is over. Scotland is home to world-class rehabilitation facilities – we must now use them to save lives.”