Drug Deaths 2022: A short Lived Celebration

Kaitlin Dryburgh

Some good news, it doesn’t happen very often these days. We finally have a substantial decrease in Scottish drug deaths. Last year recorded a 21% decrease from 2021, 279 less deaths. It seems a deserved pat on the back for now, yet there is still work to do.

Although undoubtably good news, the celebration should be short-lived because we still lost 1,051 people to drugs. Over a thousand people that should be here today, that would have been my entire high school wiped out. Those who died were more than a statistic and the publishing of these figures will be a reminder of the friend or family members lost. We still have some way to go. Our drug death rate is 2.7 times higher than the UK average, and overall drug deaths are three times more common than a decade ago. The decrease in 2022 is the most substantial since records began in 1996, however Scotland is still subjected to the highest drug deaths rate in Europe. So it’s definitely a start, but unfortunately we still remain a worldwide embarrassment, who periodically stands as an example of a failing drug policy.

The publishing of the numbers brings about an opportunity for us to reflect and learn of the current trends. An opportunity to take stock and change strategies to keep-up with drug market.

Unsurprisingly opioids still account for the most drug deaths. Yet that being said, the numbers of those dying from an opioid overdose have decreased. The perhaps most logical reason for this being the majority of our drug recovery treatments are for those abusing opioids.

Worryingly, this also includes the rise of synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioids have already caused major issues over in the US and Canada. It’s now not uncommon to hear that a celebrity who has died from an overdose did so due to unknowingly taking a drug with traces of fentanyl. However, a handful of celebrity overdoses cannot even begin to represent the untold misery synthetic opioids have inflicted upon normal families across America. Synthetic opioids threaten a scary future, they are more potent than the ‘natural kind’ and because of that, are highly dangerous. Experts warn that the recent banning of opium production in Afghanistan by the Taliban, which accounts for 95% of our heroin may exasperate the problem even more. Less access to heroin will only push up the price and unavailability, which unfortunately makes synthetic opioids a reasonable substitute. Technically we possess the upper hand, we’re one step ahead having seen what these substances have done to other countries.

Yet when those who have already been up-against synthetic opioids urged our government to seriously consider overdose prevention centre (OPC), their warnings remain currently unanswered.

Although the current UK government and any potential incoming government seem dead against even discussing the possibility of deploying a different approach, one that would be a little less criminal lead and allow for more autonomy for individuals. There is a suggestion that to operate an OPC would not be in breach of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 or Scots law, Labour’s Paul Sweeney makes a great case for this in his Drug Death Prevention Bill.

Surprisingly for those who have worked in and among drug policy and charities over the years the role of cocaine in the illegal drug market has changed. What was once the middle-class party drug has now had an increasing role in drug deaths. This year cocaine accounted for 371 deaths, 35% in total. In 1997 cocaine accounted for five. Although this is still down from the 2020 high of 459 deaths attributed to cocaine, it still remains stubbornly high. This also falls in line with doctors issuing warnings for the dramatic rise in those seeking help for ear, nose, and throat complications due to repeated cocaine use. North Lanarkshire has seen numbers triple in recent years, this also includes patients who have had to lose their nose.

What has been coined the “trainspotting generation” also poses a certain dilemma for policy makers. There’s an aging demographic of problem drug users, and year on year the number of those aged over 65 and dying from a drug overdose is increasing. It seems that interventions to help the younger drug users are indeed making a difference but perhaps the older generation are harder to reach. Author of Trainspotting Irvine Welsh reflected on this “trainspotting generation”, his book detailed the effects of collapsing work and community surrounding some of the most problematic drug users. “Once that has gone, drugs win by default”. Issues so deep-rooted they are calling out for radical solutions.

Of course this would need to be coupled with a whole systems approach to reducing poverty, better housing, healthcare outcomes and an overhaul of our prison’s, which also feature an aging population. Not a small feat by any means.

A rollout of naloxone and other harm reduction methods seem to be making a difference, and anything accomplished to save a life from a preventable issue such as a drug death is a great triumph. Yet without a doubt more could be done. Campaigners are becoming increasingly frustrated with the Scottish Government’s blame game of the Tories in Westminster. When they themselves could have done more.

Criticisms have come from every angle over the Scottish Government’s ability to achieve only 66% of The Medical Assisted Treatment standards. Diamorphine assisted treatments are one of the many things that could be implemented now, which would operate legally within the current framework. Considering this was declared a national emergency, the commitment has been poor. Overall only 40% of those who would qualify for treatment are currently receiving treatment.

Access to treatment can be difficult in Scotland, at times more difficult than in other UK countries. However, the first step to treatment is taking the brave move to ask for help, reaching out to others and finding support. The stigma surrounding drug abuse can make this an impossible task for many. Campaigns from the Scottish Government have been impactful in attempting to solve this problem and defeinelty are a good starting point to help bring those suffering with drug addiction out from the shadows.

This year’s numbers were a start. Here’s hoping that next year we also see a reduction and continue to save lives.

1 thought on “Drug Deaths 2022: A short Lived Celebration”

  1. When you factor in the decrease in supply and the restriction of movement that occurred during the pandemic, I feel that, unfortunately, the reduction in the number of deaths was just a inevitable, statistical blip. I don’t feel many outside forces, other than the pandemic itself, had much of a part to play in the overall reduction. Please don’t get me wrong, It’s still great news that deaths have gone down, but the Scottish and UK government are failing addicts massively. The Scottish and UK governments are terrible in their approach to addiction treatment, while most of it is left to non-profit organisations to try and attempt to take up the slack, without putting themselves in danger due to unsuitable and draconian drug laws restriction their ability to reduce harm.

    One thing,, in my opinion, that is missing from the article is the knock-on effect that drug policies are having on the chronically ill. The NHS has become so opiate/opioid adverse in the last few years that those requiring either treatment for chronic illness or treatment for addiction are not receiving the treatment they require. This ‘knee jerk’ reaction to the North American crisis is helping no one.

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