Drug deaths in Scotland soar to record level

Nation confirmed as worst-affected in Europe as 1,339 deaths recorded in 2020

A drug user prepares cocaine before injecting, inside a ‘safe consumption van’ set up by Peter Krykant in Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

A drug user prepares cocaine before injecting, inside a ‘safe consumption van’ set up by Peter Krykant in Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty


The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2020 rose for a seventh year in a row, according to figures released on Friday that confirmed the country’s status as having Europe’s worst record on the issue.

The 1,339 deaths in the year were a record for any year since records started in 1996 and 5 per cent above the figure for 2019. Scotland’s per-capita death rate for the year was 3½ times more per head of population than the average for the UK as a whole.

The figures immediately ignited a political controversy. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, wrote on Twitter that the number of lives lost to drugs was “unacceptable” and that each was a human tragedy.

“[The Scottish government] does not shirk the responsibility, and we are determined to make changes that will save lives,” she added.

However, leader of the opposition Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross attacked the record of Ms Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, which has been Scotland’s main governing party since 2007, and Ms Sturgeon, first minister since 2014.

“You’ve had 14 years,” he wrote on Twitter. “Drug deaths have hit new records every year you’ve been first minister.”

Fast-rising rates of drug misuse and resulting deaths have been a longstanding issue in public policy in Scotland in recent years, with the issue concentrated in deprived parts of Glasgow and the west of the country.

The figures from National Records of Scotland showed the highest death rate per 100,000 population in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area, followed by Ayrshire and Arran, and then Tayside, where the problem is concentrated in the city of Dundee.

Complex picture

The problem relates to an often complex picture of abuse of multiple different drugs.

The report said that in 93 per cent of drug-related deaths, more than one drug was found to be present in the body. Opiates, such as heroin and methadone, were implicated in 89 per cent of cases, while benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, were detected in 73 per cent. Gabapentin, a misused anti-epilepsy drug, was implicated in 37 per cent of cases and cocaine in 34 per cent.

The problem has grown rapidly over the past two decades and disproportionately affects the poorest areas.

NRS said the number of drug-related deaths for 2020 was 4½ times the number in 2000.

Alan Ferrier, head of demographic statistics at the NRS, said that in 2000 the drug death problem was 10 times as bad in Scotland’s most deprived areas as in its least deprived, while the problem in 2020 was 18 times as bad.

Ms Sturgeon said that the 2020 figures pre-dated new measures introduced at the start of the year, which should ensure faster access to community support, treatment and rehabilitation.

Mr Ross wrote that Ms Sturgeon’s comments were “a disgrace” and called for the first minister to back proposed Conservative legislation that would give addicts a legal right to treatment. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021