At least once a month, on average, in the small Scottish county of Fife, heroin or other drug addict has to have his leg amputated. It is the result of injecting an illegal substance directly into the groin.
It is an example of one of the many dark and, campaigners say, unnecessary by-products of Scotland’s growing drug crisis.
Fife is hardly the worst-hit area, coming in at the bottom of a grim chart showing drug-related deaths across Scotland and far behind crisis epicenters Glasgow and Dundee. In Glasgow, activists and other charity workers tell similar stories of addicts risking their lives sharing needles in rat-infested alleyways.
— Fraser Nelson (@FraserNelson) July 30, 2022
1,330 people lost their lives to drug abuse in Scotland last year, according to new annual figures published on Thursday. It means Scotland retains the infamous title of Europe’s drug-related death capital, with a death rate almost four times that of its nearest competitor, Norway.
The National Records of Scotland released the drug death figures for Scotland in 2021 on Thursday. And while nationally there was a slight fall in the numbers compared to 2020, Midlothian and East Lothian both saw a rise, reports Edinburghnews.com.
The new figure is almost identical to the previous year, when there was a record 1,339 deaths across Scotland. It was the seventh record annual figure in a row.
Scotland’s death rate is also around 3.7 times that of the UK as a whole, which experts attribute to a combination of deprivation, differences in healthcare, and the increased prevalence of the benzodiazepine class of drugs.
– Every death from drugs is the loss of an individual who was loved. So, while it is welcome that the number of deaths in 2021 was slightly lower than the previous year, and that the year-on-year increase since 2013 has been halted, we know that we must do much more to solve this unacceptable crisis – she wrote is Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Twitter.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has repeatedly criticized Sturgeon and on Thursday described her use of the word “welcome” as a “shameful political spin”, given that only nine fewer people had died than the previous year.
Other opposition MPs question her decision to devote so much time and energy to preparations for a second independence referendum – which Westminster has already ruled out – instead of focusing on Scotland’s social and economic problems. Indeed, Sturgeon, who leads the pro-independence Scottish National Party, herself admitted in 2020 that her government had “taken its eye off the ball”.
Still, activists cautiously welcome the increased focus recently. In January 2021, an additional £250 million was allocated to tackle this issue over the next five years. The appointment of Angela Constance as a minister with sole responsibility for drug policy has drawn praise.
However, the deaths continued.
Rooms for consumption
As with every political debate in Scotland, there are endless arguments over devolved powers and independence from London. One of the proposed interventions is the introduction of drug use rooms, otherwise known as supervised consumption facilities or overdose prevention centers. In such facilities, users are allowed to inject their own drugs — or drugs legally provided by health care providers — in a clean, supervised environment.
The Scottish Government believes such facilities would dramatically reduce the high rates of death and amputations. They and other advocates argue that smoking rooms eliminate many of the immediate health risks associated with injecting drugs and would prevent fatal overdoses. Opponents say they could encourage drug use by people who otherwise wouldn’t.
– People do not die in these institutions. If someone were to experience an overdose in this service, there would be qualified or appropriately trained staff,” said Kirsten Horsburgh, operations director of the Scottish Drugs Forum.
The risk of amputation can also be significantly reduced, according to Gareth Ballmer of the charity For You, as health workers show users safer parts of the body to inject drugs.
But the devolved Scottish government has limited powers, and Westminster is refusing to relax a law preventing Scotland from immediately opening consumption premises.
The Westminster government claims that putting up the facilities would break existing law, particularly the Misuse of Drugs Act. Because of this, any Scotsman who uses a premises for consumption could be arrested and prosecuted.
With reform unlikely to happen regardless of who succeeds Boris Johnson as UK prime minister, the Scottish government is now hoping to settle the issue on its own terms.
After detailed work on a pilot consumption room in Glasgow, the Scottish Government has asked its solicitor general to consider whether it has the power to go ahead without Westminster’s consent.
A bill tabled by Scottish Labor MP Paul Sweeney calling for the creation of such facilities is already at the consultation stage. Indeed, all of Scotland’s main political parties effectively support the introduction of consumption rooms, and even the Scottish Tories have clashed with their Westminster counterparts to say they will not stand in the way of the bill.
Risk of overdose
Numerous studies indicate that consumption rooms reduce the risk of overdose and may have other social benefits. Such services exist in legal form in at least 13 countries around the world, including Germany and parts of the US. There are no known cases of fatal overdoses in the consumption room, nor any data suggesting that they increase drug use, Politico writes.
Every expert who spoke to Politico mentioned dire risks for those who inject drugs on the open streets, from infection that leads to amputation to the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV.
– There was a young person, 20 years old, who overdosed twice, but survived. Now she is doing treatment, she is doing well and is healthy. She potentially wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t in the center we ran – said one of the activists.