Scotland’s drug-related deaths rate highest in Europe

Unemployment, poverty and social deprivation drove the drugs epidemic in Scotland. (photo: Helen Cobain/Creative )Commons)

Eighteen months after the Scottish National Party government declared a public health emergency to tackle shocking drug deaths in Scotland, new figures for 2019, released at the end of 2020, show record levels of people dying from drug misuse.

Drug deaths in Scotland are the highest in Europe, by proportion to population, higher even than the United States and 3.5 times higher than in England and Wales.

The National Records of Scotland’s report showed a 6% rise since 2018, with most deaths occurring in those over 42 years old but with a steady increase in 15 – 24-year-olds, as well.

Combining more than one drug, such as heroin with street benzodiazepines, a drug of indeterminable strength which sells for as little as 50p per pill and has flooded the streets of Scotland, was implicated in most of the deaths.

This mixing of different substances at once, identified as being extraordinarily pervasive in Scotland, is a problem that stems from entrenched social deprivation.

Areas hit with the highest levels of poverty also suffered the highest levels of drug deaths. Budget cuts to frontline services were key in these deprived communities. It means that people seeking help were met with a wall of resistance.

The Drugs Taskforce, set up in the wake of 2018’s appalling drug death figures, has done little to reverse this worrying trend.

Around 1,264 families are still grieving the loss of loved ones, while the Scottish and UK governments fail to agree on any decisive action.

Tory disastrous ‘law and order’ approach

The Tory government in Westminster stubbornly refuse to make drug laws a devolved issue to Scotland and oppose safe drug consumption rooms as part of a strategy of prevention.  Instead, the Tories take a right-populist ‘law and order”’ stance focusing on the ineffective and dangerous ‘war on drugs ‘. This criminalises drug addicts, with the resulting stigmatisation only serving to push them further into addiction.

Meanwhile, the SNP-appointed head of the Taskforce, Prof Catriona Matheson’s approach is to blame society for its lack of compassion, telling BBC Scotland that “it is avoidable deaths and I think it is time that Scotland as a whole got behind the effort.” No mention of the brutal austerity the SNP have presided over since their election to government in 2007. Since then drug deaths have trebled.

She says it could take three years to stabilise the crisis but in reality, if the political will was there, the crisis could have been tackled and these deaths prevented years ago.

Harm reduction is an important aspect of fighting drug deaths and the introduction of a pilot scheme that allows police officers to carry and administer naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of overdose on opiates, is welcome. As is the heroin-assisted treatment project in Glasgow, which aims to administer pharmaceutical-grade heroin, diamorphine. However, these methods remain only a weak sticking plaster.

These limited measures need to be nationwide, widely available and fully resourced, linked to supporting services, safe consumption, and rehabilitation – there are only 13 Scottish government-funded drug and alcohol rehab beds in the whole of Scotland. Years of cuts to NHS and council funding are complicit in the drug crisis.

These public emergency measures must be combined with getting to the root of the problem – why so many people turn to drugs, in the first instance, and how to end it.

Many of the areas with the highest level of drug deaths, Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Tayside are working class, ex-industrial areas, utterly destroyed by Thatcherism in the 1980s. Scotland’s teenagers then who became addicted are a ‘lost generation’, vulnerable to homelessness and unemployment.

Destruction of industry, shipbuilding, steel, coal, engineering, and manufacturing all decimated the Scottish economy. Unemployment soared to record levels and the social and economic landscape of Scotland was forever changed. Generations of families went without work, creating the conditions of childhood poverty, alienation, and trauma that are so inextricably linked to drug misuse.

Continued neoliberal policies from the Labour Party leaders and the SNP, who have in reality been complicit in the “war on drugs approach”, did little to address these problems, manufacturing the perfect storm that has resulted in these tragic deaths today.

Capitalism cannot offer a solution to any of the basic problems facing the working class in Scotland or internationally. The latest horrific figures were gathered before the social dislocation and misery that is now being inflicted on workers and youth in Scotland by the Covid-19 pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. There are growing numbers of young people already caught up in these horrific drug statistics.

Socialist Party Scotland calls for:

  • The SNP government and councils should defy the Tories and implement harm reduction measures. This could be linked to the setting of no-cuts budgets backed by a mass campaign linking the trade unions with working-class communities to fight for the investment in the social and NHS services needed to fight the drug death epidemic.
  • Drug deaths will, unfortunately, continue to rise as politicians tinker around the edges. A new mass workers’ party could lay the grounds for real socialist change, implementing policies that are compassion-led, and begin to address the systemic poverty that is killing so many.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!
January 2021