Drug deaths in Scotland have reached their highest-ever level, with Scottish government figures recording 1,339 fatalities in 2020. When the statistics for 2019 were published last December, confirming Scotland as the drug death capital of Europe, Nicola Sturgeon was forced to sack her drugs minister and pledge a £250 million investment in support and treatment services. The current drugs minister, Angela Constance, need not worry about her position just yet. Today’s numbers reflect the final year of her predecessor’s watch, but they nonetheless make for brutal reading.
Constance has called them ‘heart-breaking’ but that is far from adequate. 2020 was the seventh year in a row in which the death rate went up. For a country with a population of only 5.5 million, it is a grievous tally: higher than the annual death toll from Aids in Niger, three times the number killed in the Philippines’ drug war over the same period. Drugs killed more people in Scotland in 2020 than a year of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.
The Scottish government is taking a scattergun approach to the problem, investing in more residential treatment and pushing the UK government for more powers on ‘overdose prevention facilities’. The reason for the eclectic — some might say unfocused, others might say panicked — response from Nicola Sturgeon’s government is that no one is entirely sure what will work and SNP ministers must be seen to be doing something. Sturgeon herself admitted in April that her administration ‘took our eye off the ball’ on drug deaths. The truth is much worse: during their first 12 years in power, the SNP cut funding for drug and alcohol services by 53 per cent, an action followed by a 160 per cent increase in drug deaths.
This issue makes the Nationalists queasy because the blame can’t be pinned exclusively on big, bad Westminster.