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Cultural change needed to tackle drug deaths crisis, says taskforce

Scotland has a higher rate of drugs deaths than any other country in Europe (Paul Faith/PA)
Scotland has a higher rate of drugs deaths than any other country in Europe (Paul Faith/PA)

A major cultural change is needed to reduce drug deaths in Scotland by reducing stigma and ending discrimination around addiction, a new report says.

The Drugs Deaths Taskforce has published its final report after three years of work examining how to deal with Scotland’s drugs deaths crisis.

It makes 20 recommendations and calls for 139 specific actions to be taken by the Scottish and UK Governments as well as other organisations, saying the approach to drugs should move away from punishment towards care.

A number of changes in the law are recommended, including legislation at a UK level for safe drug consumption rooms to go ahead.

The taskforce’s chairman is former chief constable David Strang.

Speaking to the PA news agency ahead of the report’s publication, he said: “Every day in Scotland three people die of a drug overdose and that is just a shocking statistic.

“Each death is a tragedy obviously for the individual, but for their loved ones, for their families, for their communities, and for the whole of Scotland.”

In 2020, there were 1,339 drug-related deaths in Scotland, a rate far above the rest of the UK and higher than any European country.

Mr Strang said the report was a “message of hope”, adding: “Addiction is not a crime. You can’t punish people out of addiction.”

While the report calls for changes in UK drugs law, he said he believed the issue was too urgent to wait for this to take place.

Prison inspector warns of ‘unacceptable risk’
Former chief constable David Strang was chairman of the taskforce (Danny Lawson/PA)

Mr Strang said: “We believe that safer drug consumption facilities can be implemented now under the current legislation.

“We’ve worked closely with the Crown Office, the Lord Advocate, in trying to look at how can safer drug consumption facilities be implemented under the current legislation.”

Safe consumption facilities are not a “magic solution” to addiction, he said, but could help guide people into treatment.

Work on the first consumption rooms should begin soon, Mr Strang said, calling for an action plan from the Scottish Government within six months.

Other recommended legal changes include tightening equalities law to remove “any discriminatory separation between drug dependency and other health conditions.”

The report says “significant cultural change” is needed to reduce stigma and discrimination, calling for more action to change attitudes.

Mr Strang said the taskforce considered the issue of drug decriminalisation but felt it would be a “distraction” from the main topics they wanted to cover.

He said: “I think what we feel is Scotland’s not ready for that yet.

“It might be a journey that we go on but if you were to go down that road, there would need to be extensive consultation.”

“Significant additional funding” is needed to tackle drugs deaths on top of what the Scottish Government has already pledged, the report says.

Mr Strang would not be drawn on a specific number for this, but said the issue of drugs deaths would outlast the current five-year term of the Scottish Parliament.

Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance said: “I welcome this final report from the Drug Deaths Taskforce and I want to thank the chair, David Strang; vice-chair, Fiona McQueen; and every single member for their considerable commitment to producing these recommendations all of which we will consider in detail and respond to in due course.

“The taskforce was established to provide expert advice on the emergency response to rising drug-related deaths in Scotland. Many of the recommendations proposed in previous reports have already been implemented including measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and the expansion of the police naloxone pilot.

“Others, such as safer drug consumption facilities, drug-checking facilities, ending Friday liberations and Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) standards, are already being progressed.

“Of course, there are areas where we want to go far further and today’s recommendations will be central to delivering that. We have announced £1.1 million of new investment into public health surveillance projects to improve our real-time understanding of harms so we can improve our response.

“A target has been set to increase the number of people in protective treatment for problematic drug use and we are working closely with Integration Authorities on accountability and transparency – recently approving a new governance framework with Cosla which will improve the effectiveness of Alcohol and Drug Partnerships in advance of more ambitious reforms under the new National Care Service.”

She added: “With the backing of an additional £250 million over the course of this parliament, we are now focussed on delivery and change on the ground, to provide meaningful improvement in people’s lives.”