17/07/2019 12:52 BST

Westminster Must Treat Scotland's Staggering Rise In Drug Deaths As A National Emergency

Far from being faceless statistics each death represents an individual, family and community tragedy on a shocking scale, Joanna Cherry writes.


The National Records of Scotland has published its analysis of Drug Related Deaths in Scotland 2018. Sadly, the new data tells a familiar story, which paints all too harshly the reality of drug use, extreme poverty and deprivation amongst Scotland’s problem drug users.

There were 1,187 drug-related deaths registered in Scotland in 2018, 253 (27 per cent) more than in 2017. In stark contrast, the homicide rate over the same period continued a downward trend, down a further 5% to 59 deaths – the joint lowest level since 1976 and an almost 40% reduction since the SNP Government came to power in 2007.

The media and public consciousness of the two death rates could not be more different, with the individualised reporting of each murder set against a sea of anonymous drug deaths. The scale of drug deaths and the staggering rise is a national emergency. Far from being faceless statistics each death represents an individual, family and community tragedy on a shocking scale.

The Misuse Of Drugs Act is a reserved matter. Last week, Scotland’s public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick MSP gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster and asked for help in persuading the UK Government to either act now to enable the Scottish Government to implement a range of public health focused responses to this crisis – including the introduction of supervised drug consumption facilities – or to devolve the power to the Scottish Parliament so the Scottish Government can act.

Earlier this month, he appointed Professor Catriona Matheson as chair of a new Drug Deaths taskforce, which will advise on what further practical or legal changes could help save lives and reduce harm.

In addition, the Scottish Government’s refreshed alcohol and drug strategy, backed by further investment of £20 million a year, set out a range of measures to prevent drug-related harm. It includes an eight-point treatment plan which outlines ways of improving access to effective services and interventions. It also focuses on how we support those who are most at risk and treat the wider issues affecting them.

Many of these tragic deaths are of men in their late 30’s and 40’s. Described as the “Train Spotting” generation, they started using heroine in the ’80’s and ’90’s and their long-term drug use has left them with multiple health issues. These users are particularly at risk of death as they more likely to be using multiple drugs at the same time and in and out of treatment programmes; taking prescribed substitution treatment such as methadone and topping up with a combination of other street drugs.

My colleagues Ronnie Cowan MP (Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform) and Alison Thewlis MP both have long running campaigns calling for the introduction of Safer Drug Consumption Facilities (SDCF).

Plans for a SDCF in Glasgow City Centre have already been approved by Glasgow’s Integrated Joint Board and would provide a safe facility for people to inject drugs under medical supervision and receive help and treatment. However, the Home Office have flatly refused to permit such services to operate or even to meet with Alison Thewlis to discuss the plans.

Public debate in Scotland is shifting. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Daily Record called for the decriminalisation of drug use in Scotland. My colleague Tommy Sheppard MP has also campaigned for this. There is widespread acceptance that we must treat individual drug use as a public health issue and not a criminal one whilst continuing to take the strongest possible action against drug dealers.

The Scottish Government has shown that taking a bold public health-based approach to knife crime and other violent crimes has had significant impact from which other areas of the UK are now learning. The Scottish Government are committed to a similar approach in their refreshed Alcohol and Drug strategy published last year. The new drug death task force will focus on these approaches and will look at evidence from across the UK and internationally. However, the Scottish Government will require the full range of powers needed to implement the recommendations which come out of the task force. The UK Government must move away from its intransigence and assist us to deal with this national emergency.