Scotland’s drug deaths figures are expected to be “as bad if not worse” compared to a record high seen last year, chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee Pete Wishart has warned.
The UK Government has refused to declare drug deaths in Scotland a public health emergency, despite it having the highest reported rate in the EU.
Following an inquiry, Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee called for the UK Government to tackle the crisis from this perspective, rather than as a criminal justice matter.
However, the government rejected this proposal, and a series of others, including recommendations to bring forward legislation to Westminster for a pilot safe drug-consumption facility in Scotland.
Mr Wishart, chairman of the committee, who held a round table discussion on Friday to discuss the UK Government’s response to the inquiry, said the recommendations would have made a “significant difference” to some of the drug issues in Scotland and there was “real disappointment” the UK Government “couldn’t bring themselves to even seriously consider them”.
He added that medical experts who took part in the session believe the 2019 figures, delayed until the end of the year, will be “as bad if not worse” as the the 2018 figures, which indicate 1,187 people died of substance abuse across Scotland.
This is the highest on record in Scotland, nearly triple the UK rate and the highest reported rate in the EU.
The Perth and North Perthshire MP, said: “People are dying at an inordinate rate; if this isn’t a public health emergency, I don’t know what is.
“Obviously, we haven’t seen the figures yet and I think those are coming out in December. The expectation is it will be on a par, if not worse than, what we experienced last year.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has created “immense additional challenges”, compounded by poverty, homelessness and certain support services not being available for safety reasons, Mr Wishart said.
He added: “When the figures come out we’re certain we’re going to find this has been a very difficult year for problem drug users in Scotland.
“It’s just made a terrible situation worse.”
Along with calling on the UK Government to declare the crisis a “public health emergency”, the committee also called for the decriminalisation of small amounts of drugs for personal use.
We want to do all we can to stop people having access to drugs that could ultimately kill them.”
UK Government spokesperson
The UK Government rejected these recommendations, saying it “does not accept that problem drug use is singularly a health issue” and uses a “balanced and evidence based” approach to tackle this, adding it is “determined to do more to help prevent” drug deaths across the UK.
On recommendations on safe drug-consumption facilities, the UK Government said primary legislation would be required and added: “We want to do all we can to stop people having access to drugs that could ultimately kill them.
“No illegal drug-taking can be assumed to be safe and there is no safe way to take them.”
However, the SNP politician believes the “major message” of his inquiry is to “pull the big levers of change” in order to make the “significant difference that’s required”.
He added: “We look to national examples where this has happened before. That’s why we suggested things like decriminalisation for personal use, for drug consumption rooms so addicts can take their drugs safely, the level of things that we really need to apply now because it’s just so acute.”
Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick said: “It is hugely disappointing that the UK Government has rejected the key recommendations of the committee’s report.
“However we will continue to push the government for action. Last week I attended a UK ministerial meeting on drugs that will enable us to take forward further health-focused, evidence-based measures in its efforts to tackle drug deaths in Scotland. This included a call for legislative change to allow the legal introduction of supervised overdose prevention facilities.”