Drug Deaths

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th December 2020.

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Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

2. I will begin with a quote:

“Since Scotland’s drug death day of shame just two days ago, another six people will have died in Scotland. Three will die today. We will not have a daily briefing about these three people or any news coverage. Don’t let them be forgotten about until they come out as a statistic.”

Those are the words this morning of drugs policy activist Peter Krykant. First Minister, what are you going to do to stop Scotland’s other pandemic taking more lives?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I think that Peter Krykant is right when he says that. I have spent almost every day this year dealing with a pandemic and trying to work out how we stop people dying from that pandemic.

People are dying through the use of drugs and their lives matter every bit as much as those whose lives we are trying to save for other reasons. The drug deaths task force has already started a programme of work looking at early intervention, at how risk is reduced and at how overdoses can be avoided so that we stop people dying.

That work is under way and I do not think that it is right that we ignore that work; the task force is doing the right things. However, we have a serious question to ask about whether that work is enough and whether it is going quickly enough. I take the issue seriously. This is not comfortable; it should not be comfortable. I am not going to stand here and try to defend the indefensible. These lives matter too much and we owe it not only to those who have lost their lives but to those whose lives can still be saved to make sure that people like me do not engage in the usual political defensiveness but accept criticism where it is due and valid and redouble our efforts to do the right things to resolve this.

That is why I am determined that that is what we will do and, as I have said a couple of times already, I will come back to the chamber before the end of January, having spoken to the drug deaths task force, to set out the work that is being done and the additional, urgent and immediate steps that we intend to take.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

The problem that the First Minister has got is that, back in 2007, the Scottish National Party manifesto said:

“There are no short term fixes to the problems of drug misuse in Scotland.”

Yet, here we are, over 13 years on, with the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing still defending the Government’s record, telling the Parliament this week that there is no short cut. People do not expect short cuts, but they do expect the Government to do its job. Instead, they have seen cuts to funding for rehabilitation beds; cuts to the funding of alcohol and drug partnerships; cuts to third sector support and rehabilitation organisations; and an abject failure to integrate mental health and substance misuse and recovery services. In that way, the Government has ignored its own 2008 road to recovery strategy, the 2013 review of opiate replacement therapy and the 2019 Dundee drug commission report.

Why has the Government ignored those repeated warnings and presided over a 178 per cent increase in drug deaths since 2007?

The First Minister:

I do not believe that it is right to say that we have ignored recommendations. However, setting out what the Government has done, as the public health minister did in the chamber earlier this week, does not mean that we are standing here saying that, therefore, there is not an issue on which we merit valid criticism and scrutiny and it does not mean that there is not much more that we need to do. That is what I am seeking to set out openly and candidly today.

In every one of the years since we took office, bar two—I am not saying that those two years are not important or have not had implications—the money being invested in drug and alcohol services has increased under this Government.

We need to continue that, and we need to look not just at the totality of investment but at what that money is supporting. Rehabilitation services are part of that, but they are not the only part. It is not right or fair to ignore the work that is already under way through the drug deaths task force—that important work is looking at the three areas of earlier intervention, reducing risk and avoiding deaths for people who are at risk of overdose.

That is important work, and it is work in the right direction, but it is equally valid to say that we need to accelerate the pace of that and we need to be very critical in looking at whether what we are doing is sufficient. I undertake to do that, and we will continue to do it. We will absolutely be clear about what requires to be done.

I hope that, as we go forward, although there will be legitimate criticism of the Government, we can build consensus on the steps that have to be taken to resolve the issue and sort what is an unacceptable situation, as I think we all agree.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

None of the alcohol and drug partnerships that I speak to would recognise that description of what has happened to its funding over the past 13 years. I was in the chamber for the public health minister’s statement to Parliament on Tuesday, and it was woeful. I heard him say:

“We cannot change things overnight”.—[

Official Report

, 15 December 2020; c 45.]

However, the Government has been in power for 13 years. He also said on Tuesday that the Scottish Government is

“doing everything in its powers”,

but the exercise of the Scottish Government’s powers has made things worse, not better. There are now three and a half times more deaths from drugs in Scotland than there are anywhere else in the United Kingdom, with the same legislation. We have the worst record of drug deaths in Europe. Therefore, is it not time that the First Minister exercised her power, sorted it out, got a grip and fired her public health minister?

The First Minister:

I absolutely accept that the issue is for this Government to sort out. I have not mentioned any other Government or made any reference to powers that lie elsewhere. I am focused on what we need to do and what we are determined to do. I have set out the action that I personally, as First Minister, will take in the weeks to come. I will come back to the chamber and set out clearly the outcome of that exercise.

As we have canvassed in the chamber many times before, there are issues over where legal responsibility lies for things such as safe consumption rooms. That is an important part of the issue, but it is not the only part. My starting point is what powers we have right now and what the responsibility of this Government is, and that is how I intend to proceed. We will continue to have discussions about the issues that lie outwith our powers, but the starting point is what this Government is responsible for, and it is this Government’s responsibility to sort out the issue.