True scale of Scotland's drug deaths shame still unknown as families face agonising wait

Scotland's drug death statistics make for grim reading: drug death capital of Europe; now even worse than America.

The next figures are due to be published this July - and expected to show another increase on last year’s record-high 1,187 people killed by drugs.

However, there have been huge delays in toxicology reports and some families who have lost loved ones to suspected drugs deaths have been told it could be eight months to a year before the cause of death is ascertained.

In the meantime, the death certificate says, "unascertained pending laboratory reports."

And as long as that is what's on the paperwork, these lives lost are not, and cannot be counted as being among Scotland’s drug deaths.

Callum Jackson's family by his grave. Credit: ITV News

The wait is unbearable.

I met the family of Callum Jackson, a 23-year-old with no health problems who died just before Christmas.

His family knows he used drugs. But Callum's toxicology report has been delayed up to a year. His cause of death is one of the "unascertained".

"It is torture," his mother Michelle tells me.

"We can’t sleep at night. It has broken my family. Nothing can be worse than losing a child, but this is just prolonging it."

Callum Jackson died just before Christmas. Credit: Family Handout

Callum's aunt Jen says the delay has implications on a possible police investigation too.

"Police have told us they can’t investigate until the toxicology report comes back. They want to look through his phone but we’re just stuck waiting," she added.

"I want the dealers arrested," his mum Michelle says before adding: "Whatever was in his system, other people could be buying that now and taking it and ending up the same way."

Callum's mum Michelle and aunt Jen. Credit: ITV News

Scotland’s worst ever drug death figures were 1,187 in 2018. But a letter I have seen written by the Lord Advocate says almost 2,000 toxicology reports had been delayed as of the end of November last year.

With such a backlog, there are serious doubts that the latest figures, which are due to be submitted in the next few months - can be published at all.

The National Records of Scotland tells me they are watching the situation closely and may withhold publication of their report.

A statement reads: "We are monitoring the quality and completeness of the data we receive relating to drug deaths. If necessary, we will revise our planned publication dates and inform users accordingly."

Callum's death certificate that says pending laboratory studies. Credit: ITV News

That delay would be a significant humiliation for the Scottish Government during a period it has called a "public health emergency".

Time is of the essence in dealing with this, and if they don't even know how many people are dying from drugs, never mind which substances are most prevalent in drug deaths in Scotland, it raises questions about the ability of our decision makers to address the problem.

"It will be for the National Records of Scotland and the statisticians to be confident they have the data as it should be," says Scotland’s Public Health Minister, Joe FitzPatrick MSP.

He adds: "I think the assurance I can give is that having spoken to the Lord Advocate [of the Scottish Crown Office] I know he understands the importance of reducing that backlog so families can get the information as soon as possible."

Joe FitzPatrick MSP told Peter Smith he has spoken to the Lord Advocate. Credit: ITV News

On Tuesday, a shadow health minister called for an inquiry.

"People are dying every single day - at least three people a day, possibly more," says Monica Lennon MSP of Scottish Labour.

"The fact that we don’t know, and our government and our public bodies are not making it a priority to find out is shocking. We need an inquiry to make sure lessons are learned but really to hold people to account," she adds.

The accountability is not straightforward.

The backlog of toxicology reports is down to the sheer number of bodies to be tested coupled with a period of staff shortages in the laboratory doing the tests.

This stems from a disagreement between the Crown Office, which commissions toxicology reports, and Glasgow University, which carries out around 90% of these tests in Scotland.

As of January 2020, there was renewed agreement between these two and with an additional £300,000 from the Scottish Government as they work to try to clear the backlog.

The latest figure of 1,330 is still the second highest annual total on record. Credit: ITV News

A spokesperson at the University of Glasgow said: "We were pleased to conclude an agreement with the Crown Office to provide toxicology services up to September 2020. Unfortunately, the delay in concluding this arrangement created uncertainty and led to some staff leaving the university, with a resultant impact on the time taken to deliver reports. Colleagues are working extremely hard to address this issue."

In a statement, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said: "COPFS appreciates the impact of the delays in toxicology analysis and has apologised to the families affected and kept them informed of timescales.

"The Crown relies upon contracts with external experts for laboratory work and is finalising arrangements to reduce this backlog as quickly as possible."

On Wednesday, Glasgow hosts the first of two summits trying to solve the drug death crisis.

Finding answers is proving difficult; it is harder still when no one can say for sure just how bad Scotland’s drug problem now is.