Humza Yousaf facing drug death crisis that spiralled under SNPs watch

Douglas Ross slams Humza Yousaf's record whilst in office

Holyrood, the Scottish devolved government, may be under fresh leadership, but the major problems it faces are nothing new. Drug deaths in Scotland have soared since the Nineties, with Humza Yousaf inheriting peak numbers as health secretary in 2021. Now head of the Scottish National Party (SNP), critics have urged him to make tackling the crisis a top priority. 

On February 15, Nicola Sturgeon announced her surprise resignation from the post of Scottish First Minister that she had occupied since 2014. 

The leadership contest that ensued saw the three contenders debate the cost-of-living crisis, the dire state of NHS Scotland, social policy, and independence. Aside from a brief mention in a radio interview mid-March, the nation’s drug problem was, it appears, largely overlooked.

In 2021, the National Records of Scotland show there were 1,330 drug-related deaths. Although this figure is down slightly on the 2020 peak of 1,339 – the first reduction since 2013 – it represents a fourfold increase over the past two decades.

For many years, Scotland has had the highest drug-related death in Europe.

In 2020, there were 80 drug deaths per million population in England and Wales, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS). The rate for Scotland came in over four times higher at 245.

There is significant variation across all of the UK’s regions – from 96 per million in the North East to just 33 in London – but Scotland remains a standout figure.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, it is also far more affected than the worst cases on the Continent such as Norway (85), Ireland (73), and Sweden (73).

The latest official data show 65 percent of people who died from drug misuse in Scotland in 2021 were aged between 35 and 54, with the average age of death increasing from 32 to 44 over the past 21 years. 

The Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF) traces the roots of the crisis to the wave of deindustrialisation in the Eighties. As a result of a lack of alternative opportunities provided by the state in its aftermath, the “Trainspotting generation” – after the Irvine Welsh novel and 1996 film – experienced a surge in poverty and drug use.

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Four decades later – after which the Scottish economy had expanded dramatically to become the third-wealthiest UK region behind only London and the South East – almost 60,000 people still have a drug problem, according to the SDF.

Figures for 2022, however, show the crisis may finally have peaked, as Police Scotland records show 1,092 suspected drug deaths in the country.

In December 2020, Ms Sturgeon created the role of Minister for Drugs Policy following the release of figures that showed Scotland as the worst in Europe, also prompting her admission that her government had taken their “eye off the ball on drug deaths”.

The additional funding that accompanied the launch of a “national mission” to tackle the issue – to the tune of £50million over the next five years – was, however, described as “woefully inadequate for this level of public health emergency” in a report by Scotland’s Drug Deaths Taskforce.

In March 2023, incumbent First Minister Humza Yousaf appointed former community safety minister Elena Whitham to the renamed role of Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy.

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