Poverty and Cheap Street Highs Fuel Europe’s Deadliest Drug Crisis

Scotland has more than three times the drug death rate of England and Wales, and the highest reported rate in Europe.
Max Daly
London, GB
December 15, 2020, 1:11pm
A DRUG USER IN GLASGOW'S SAFER CONSUMPTION VAN. PHOTO: Mattha Busby
A DRUG USER IN GLASGOW'S SAFER CONSUMPTION VAN. PHOTO: Mattha Busby

A trashy mix of cheap yet potent street drugs including heroin, powerful black market benzos and anti-epilepsy painkiller pills has fuelled a record number of drug deaths in Scotland. 

Figures from National Records Scotland revealed on Tuesday that there were 1,264 drug-related deaths recorded in 2019, a six percent rise from 2018 and double that of 10 years ago.

The country has more than three times the drug death rate of England and Wales, and the highest reported rate in Europe. Scotland’s high level of deaths has been driven by poverty, cuts to drug treatment budgets, inadequate methadone prescribing, stigma, rising poly-drug use and an ageing cohort of drug users.

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The deaths chiefly involved a cocktail of street drugs including heroin, the prescription anti-convulsive drugs pregabalin and gabapentin, the 50p-a-pill street benzo etizolam, and crack and powder cocaine, which is injected by some heroin users. 

Heroin was involved in 965 deaths, etizolam in 756, pregabalin and gabapentin in 441 deaths. The number of deaths involving crack and cocaine – half of which also involved opiates – jumped 34 percent between 2018 and 2019, from 273 to 365.

The rise in deaths linked to etizolam, pregabalin and gabapentin occurred despite the drugs being recently banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act. National Records Scotland said the controlling of these drugs in 2017 and 2019 had “very little effect” on their involvement in drug deaths. 

Deaths involving fentanyl – the heroin substitute killing tens of thousands of drug users in America and Canada each year – doubled from 12 in 2018 to 25 in 2019. Meanwhile a sharp rise in deaths involving the benzo Xanax to 137 in 2018 fell to 65 last year. 

Two thirds of deaths were of people aged between 35 and 54 and 69 percent were men. The highest rate of deaths were in the Glasgow area, where activist Peter Krykant has set up a safer drug consumption van to help prevent street drug injectors from overdosing. Krykant has already been cautioned by the police for obstructing officers who tried to search people using the van.

On Twitter he said: “Today is a day to remember all the thousands of people touched by the needless and preventable drug death of a loved one. Not just an addict. Not just a homeless person. Not just a number. Someone's someone, son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, friend.”

David Liddell, Scottish Drugs Forum’s CEO said: “The statistics announced today are a grievous reminder of the human cost of the ongoing public health crisis we face in Scotland. None of us should regard these preventable deaths as acceptable or as anything other than a national tragedy and disgrace. 

“The need for change is obvious and that change is long overdue. We need people to be in high quality treatment that protects them from overdose and death.”

Liddell said people needed quicker access to treatment as well as an expanded range of services such as drug consumption rooms, heroin-assisted treatment and assertive outreach. 

“We need to end the alienation, marginalisation and stigmatisation of people with a drug problem - the root cause of this issue, which reflects badly on a culture and mindset that we have allowed to develop unchallenged over many years.”