Scotland can lead UK on tackling drugs deaths

Experts say deaths from drug fatalities should be treated as seriously as cancer and traffic accidents

Monday 19th August 2019

Scotland should take the lead in the UK by declaring drug deaths as a public health emergency – in similar way to how it spearheaded the smoking ban.

The call has been made in a letter to The Lancet medical journal, signed by more than a dozen representatives from drug and health charities, public health bodies and police.

The experts say the risk of people dying from drugs needs be treated as seriously as cancer and road traffic accidents.

Earlier this year, figures showed Scotland recorded 1,187 drugs-related deaths in 2018 – the highest since records began, and the highest in Europe.

On Friday, an expert commission said services for helping people with substance problems in Dundee – which has the highest drug deaths rate in Scotland – were ‘not fit-for-purpose’.

The letter cites the example of British Columbia – which has a population similar to Scotland – which declared a public health emergency in response to an increase in drug-related deaths.

Measures introduced in the Canadian province included the introduction of supervised drug consumption rooms, which have been credited with preventing 230 fatal overdoses over 20 months.

A Canadian drugs expert on the frontline of Vancouver’s drugs crisis told healthandcare.scot how activists took matters into their own hands and began setting up unsanctioned ‘pop up’ safe consumption facilities.

There has been a rapid increase in drug consumption rooms across Canada – from just two in 2016 to more than 50 currently.

The letter says: ‘Every person at risk of a drug-related death should be valued as highly as someone at risk from cancer, someone who has had a road traffic accident, or from any other threat.’

It says if the Scottish Government wants to apply a ‘genuinely health-based, effective approach to drug policy’ such as supervised drug consumption rooms, then ‘it must be allowed to do so’.

But the experts say with drugs law reserved to Westminster, there needs to be a shift of power to Scotland for this to happen.

The letter adds: ‘This transition of power could be done either through amendments to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, or by declaring a health emergency in Scotland and granting Holyrood emergency powers to pilot these measures first.

‘If lives are saved, as proved to be true for bans on smoking in enclosed public places, other parts of the UK would no doubt want to follow suit.’