Number of drug-related deaths in Scotland rises to highest on record, the UK Government must now allow overdose prevention sites


Number of drug-related deaths in Scotland rises to highest on record, the UK Government must now allow overdose prevention sites

Deaths relating to opiates and benzodiazepines highest on record  

LONDON (July 16, 2019) – National Records of Scotland data released today shows 1,187 drug-related deaths registered in 2018 in Scotland, which is over 4 times the number of deaths registered when records began in 1996. It is the fifth year in a row that the National Records of Scotland has registered an increase. 2018 is now the year with the highest number of registered drug-related deaths since records began.

Increased deaths have been reported across all the main substances of use, with most deaths involving an opioid, such as heroin or methadone, and benzodiazepines. Deaths related to MDMA and cocaine are the highest since records began with 35 and 273 fatalities, recorded respectively. MDMA deaths have increased by 150% per cent and cocaine deaths by 507%, since 2014. The overwhelming majority of these deaths were due to accidental overdose.

Release’s Executive Director, Niamh Eastwood, says:

“The UK government has continuously blocked the establishment of an overdose prevention site[1] in Glasgow. This decision by Westminster has contributed to the increasing drug related deaths in Scotland and has tied the hands of Holyrood and drug treatment experts in Scotland. With drug related deaths at an all-time high in Scotland the UK Government must now give the green light to the establishment of an overdose prevention site or risk responsibility for further deaths.”

Overdose prevention sites operate in several countries across the world, with some operating for over 40 years. The evidence from the sites demonstrate they have the capacity to reduce and reverse overdoses, improve public safety, improve the health of people who use drugs problematically and reduce risky injecting behaviour.

Eastwood comments that: “Beyond the need for an overdose prevention site we must ensure that drug treatment is properly funded and that initiatives such as peer naloxone[2] programmes are sufficiently resourced. We also cannot ignore the impact that austerity measures have had on people in some of the most deprived areas of the country, including parts of Scotland. The removal of proper social safety nets as we have witnessed with benefit cuts and the introduction of universal credit are also significant contributors to these appalling statistics. These statistics are people’s lives, each person is someone’s daughter, son, brother or sister.”

Drug policy is not devolved to the Scottish Government and so, currently, they are unable to end criminal sanctions for drug possession offences. However, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government should scale up diversion programmes for people who are caught in possession of drugs, in recognition that this policy can contribute to saving lives. Portugal ended criminal sanctions for drug possession in 2001, its drug related death rate is 4 per million of the population compared to Scotland where it is now 220 per million. This crisis will not abate unless we scale up harm reduction initiatives and pursue policies based on evidence rather than ideology – Westminster must no longer block the Scottish Government from implementing such an approach[3].


Note to the editor:

Release is the UK centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws, providing free and confidential specialist services to professionals, the public, and people who use drugs. Release also campaigns for the reform of UK drug policy, particularly the removal of criminal sanctions for possession offences, in order to bring about a fairer and more compassionate legal framework to managing drug use in our society.



Niamh Eastwood – - 07900 002 632

[1] An Overdose Prevention Site is a facility that allows people to consume drugs in a safer environment under medical supervision. It also provides an opportunity for to reduce public consumption of drugs thereby reducing drug related litter. These sites are also called drug consumption rooms or safer injecting facilities.  

[2] A lifesaving medication that reverses opioid overdoes

[3] The Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee has called for Government policy change in response to the drug-related death figures released today – please see:

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