Skip to main content
15 December 2020

We Are With You labels new Scottish drug deaths figures ‘tragic’ and demands swift action

Today the National Records of Scotland published new statistics showing the number of people who died of a drug related cause in the country during the calendar year of 2019.

The topline figures from the data are as follows: 

  • The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland increased by 6%, from 1,187 in 2018 to 1,264 in 2019, representing the highest number since records began in 1996 and more than double that of ten years earlier. 
  • Over two-thirds (68%) of all drug-related deaths were of people aged between 35 and 54: there were 856 such deaths, 69 more than in 2018. There was also an increase in 15-24 year old drug-related deaths, from 64 in 2018 to 76 in 2019.
  • One or more opiates or opioids were implicated in 1092 deaths. Heroin/Morphine were implicated in 645 (51%) of total deaths while methadone was implicated in 560 (44%).
  • Street benzodiazepines were implicated in 814 deaths (64%), more than in any previous year.
  • There were 365 deaths involving cocaine. 
  • 94% of all drug-related deaths were of people who took more than one substance.
  • The median age of drug-related deaths has increased from 28 to 42 over the last 20 years.
  • Three-quarters of all drug-related deaths were in the following five Health Board areas: Greater Glasgow & Clyde (404), Lanarkshire (163), Lothian (155), Tayside (118) and Ayrshire & Arran (108). Together, they accounted for a slightly higher proportion of the total than in most of the previous ten years. 
  • Scotland’s drug related death rate is three and a half time greater than the UK as a whole and is the highest rate among all European countries.

Andrew Horne, Director in Scotland at drug, alcohol and mental health charity We Are With You (formerly Addaction) said: 

“These figures are tragic. Our thoughts are with the thousands of people who continue to be affected by these deaths on this difficult day. People who develop an issue with drugs are often vilified, but behind these numbers are stories of extreme trauma and resilience, of brave people who were dealt a difficult hand and did their best to survive, of people who were let down by their society. 

“Scotland considers itself a proud, progressive and socially conscious country and I consider that to be true. But these figures are at odds with our identity. Progress has been made in the past year, especially in supply of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. Police Scotland is currently piloting officers carrying the drug, while Scottish Ambulance crews are now giving it out to family members of people who use drugs. At the same time, assertive outreach programs have been increased to meet people where they are. But now we need swift, decisive action to make a real dent in the future. 

“Opioid Substitution Therapy is a vital part of treatment for people who use opiates like heroin. It should help break the cycle of seeking, finding and using heroin, giving people space to start to address the issues behind their drug use. But, it’s clear from the number of deaths which involve methadone that not enough people are on the correct dose to stop them using heroin on top. Increasing the use of other substitute medications such as buprenorphine, where appropriate, could help reduce the chances of some people overdosing, as it prevents the use of heroin having any effect.  

“Though Glasgow and Dundee have by far the highest rates of drug related deaths of anywhere in Europe, local authorities continue to be blocked from piloting drug consumption rooms in these areas, despite widespread local and political support. These are safe spaces where people can go to use drugs in the presence of medical staff. There are over 70 across Europe and there hasn’t ever been a recorded death from overdose in any of them. At the same time they act as a gateway, connecting marginalised groups who do not access services to treatment and support. 

“Finally, we need to recognise that problematic drug use is often a reaction to people’s surroundings. Issues such as rising homelessness, poor mental health and a lack of economic opportunities in some areas all lead to people using drugs. It’s therefore no surprise that drug-related deaths are highest in Scotland’s most deprived areas, with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis likely to exacerbate many of these issues unless decisive action is taken.”