Scots drug and drink-linked deaths at record level

Methadone was implicated in nearly half the deaths

Drug and drink-related deaths in Scotland have reached record levels, with cases relating to methadone making up almost half the figure.

There were 584 recorded deaths in 2011 - up 99 on the previous year and a 76% increase on 2001.

Heroin substitute methadone was linked to 47% of deaths, with heroin and morphine accounting for a third.

Justice Minister Roseanna Cunningham said the government was committed to helping serious addicts recover.

But opposition parties said the proportion of deaths related to methadone, which is prescribed to help heroin users kick their habit, showed ministers had to rethink their policy.

According to the figures:

  • Heroin and/or morphine was linked to 206 deaths (35%)
  • Methadone was linked to 275 deaths (47%)
  • Benzodiazepines, like diazepam, were linked to 185 deaths (32%)
  • Alcohol was linked to 129 deaths (22%)
  • Cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines were liked to 36, eight and 24 deaths respectively

There have been increases in deaths in six of the past 10 years.

Dr Roy Robertson, Edinburgh GP

Roy Robertson

"The underlying movement in the figures is upwards, sadly, over many years.

In some ways, things are improving.

There's less people coming into opiate use, there's less young people using opiates, so the figures will eventually come down.

But the numbers we're aware of and coming into treatment are increasing all the time.

We do look at other substitute drugs.

We do know from good evidence over many years that methadone is the superior drug, so I guess I would recommend that as a first line treatment for a patient who was having difficulties.

The alternatives may be safer, because they're better supervised and there's a lower risk of overdose during their induction phase, but they are complicated.

They're more expensive treatments, they need more skills, more supervision, a better level of care than we have for just getting people onto the standard treatment.

Our big problem in Scotland is the large percentage of the population at risk who are out of treatment services, so the fundamental issue to is to maximise our treatment."

A total of 36% of deaths were among 35 to 44-year-olds, with people aged 24 to 34 involved in 32% of cases.

Men accounted for 73%, but the increase in the number of drug-related deaths was greater for women - at 117%.

Ms Cunningham, Scotland's minister for community safety, said £28.6m was being invested in drug treatment over 2012-13, while naloxone kits, which help counteract the effects of opiate drug overdoses, were being handed out across Scotland.

She said: "Every one of these deaths is a tragedy and I extend my sympathies to the family members, friends and everyone connected.

"Today's publication once again underlines Scotland has a legacy of drug misuse that stretches back decades, creating this upward 10-year trend in drug-related deaths. Many of those lost to us are older drug users who after years have become increasingly unwell.

"No government has done more to address the legacy and while it will take time to tackle this tragedy, we will do that through continuing to invest and support the recovery of those affected by drugs in Scotland."

Biba Brand, of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said families seeking help for drug problems were now in their third generation.

"Drug-dependency is a chronic, relapsing condition for which there is no single solution and no quick or easy answer," she said.

'Legalised drug-taking'

Labour justice spokesman Lewis Macdonald said: "With a large proportion of deaths involving methadone, it would appear that the approach being taken to treatment isn't working properly and fails to prevent addicts combining drugs into lethal cocktails.

"It isn't good enough for the SNP to say they are spending more money on the same approach."

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP added: "This appalling loss of life illustrates the human disaster that is the methadone programme.

"It would appear hundreds of families are being blighted by what is little more than legalised drug-taking on an industrial scale."

The Lib Dems' Alison McInnes MSP said: "It is disappointing the community minister made no mention of prevention.

"The starting gun to tackling drug abuse in our communities must be education."

Elsewhere, the figures showed a total of 33% of deaths happened in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board area, with the proportion at 13% in Lothian.

The overall figure accounted for 1% of all recorded deaths.

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