Scotland drug crisis deepens after record number of deaths in 2020

A sign at the Scottish Drugs Conference being held at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC) in Glasgow.
A sign at the Scottish Drugs Conference being held at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC) in Glasgow.

The country continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe

Published

Scotland’s drug deaths crisis deepened in the past year with the number of people who lost their lives rising to 1,339, according to official statistics.

The figure is 5% higher than the previous year, when 1,264 people died of drug-related causes, according to National Records of Scotland (NRS).

The country continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe, with 21.2 deaths per 100,000 of the population – more than three-and-a-half times higher than the rest of the UK.

Glasgow was again found to be the worst area for people struggling with addiction, with 291 dying last year in the city.

Opioids remained the number one cause of drug-related death in Scotland in 2020, the new figures show.

The data released on Friday shows that, of the 1,339 people who died from drugs last year, 1,192 were related in some way to opioids.

However, in a sign that more drug users are mixing substances, benzodiazepines – use of which has soared in recent years due to easy availability – were implicated in 974 deaths in 2020.

Some 93% of the deaths reported in 2020 were as a result of accidental overdoses, whereas 4% were considered deliberate self-poisoning.

The figures show 1% of deaths were as a result of long-term drug abuse, while 2% were undetermined.

Men were also 2.7 times more likely to die from drugs than women last year, with 973 deaths compared with 366 female victims.

Deprivation also continued to be a major factor in drug deaths, with those in the poorest areas of the country 18 times more likely to die than their more affluent counterparts, the data showed.

In 2020, the death rate from drugs in the most deprived areas of Scotland was 68.2 per 100,000 of the population – compared to just 3.7 in the most affluent areas.

Since 2000, the gap between the rich and poor has almost doubled from the least well off being 10 times more likely to die from drugs.

The average age of deaths from drugs also continued to increase, rising from an average of 32 years old in 2000 to 43 years old last year.

Responding to the figures, Nicola Sturgeon said the number of lives lost “is unacceptable, each one a human tragedy”.

The First Minister tweeted that the Scottish Government “does not shirk the responsibility & we are determined to make changes that will save lives”.

She added: “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, a substantial funding commitment and action underway to eg 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 what is required isn’t words, but action to prevent people dying, and that is what we are determined to deliver.”

Drugs minister Angela Constance described the statistics as “heart-breaking” as she announced plans to report drug deaths every quarter to inform the response to the crisis.

She said: “Once again, the statistics on drug-related deaths are heart-breaking. 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.”

In response to last year’s figures, which caused then-public health minister Joe FitzPatrick to resign, the Scottish Government announced a £250 million investment – £100 million of which would be for the improvement of residential rehab.