Scotland’s drug crisis is about to get even worse

Video report by ITV News Scotland Correspondent Peter Smith

Today, in what’s become Scotland’s annual day of shame, the yearly drug death statistics will be published.

ITV News has learned they will be worse than ever before - the worst, in fact, on record.

This is especially concerning since last year’s figures were so bad: crossing the 1,000 threshold for the first time ever; overtaking alcohol-related deaths for the first time in Scotland; and overtaking America to make Scottish drug deaths the worst per capita in the developed world.Two years ago, the Scottish Government declared these drugs deaths a ‘public health emergency’ and a Task Force was set up to find out what exactly is going on, as well as how to address it.The person leading this Task Force is Professor Catriona Matheson, who told me Scotland has a particular issue with what’s known as ‘poly-drug use.’

“People are taking several drugs at once,” she told me.

“That might be a combination of heroin, or an opiate, a benzodiazepine - things like diazepam or itisilam - possibly cocaine as well, and also alcohol.

“People are using combinations all at once of these risky substances, and that’s certainly making them more vulnerable to an overdose situation. This is something that does seem to be peculiar to Scotland.

In the shadows of a quiet Glasgow alley, we witnessed this kind of dangerous poly-drug use first hand.

Thomas and Frankie - two long term drug users - were getting their last fix of the day, but Thomas couldn’t find a vein in his over-used legs, so he asked Frankie to inject the heroin directly into his neck.

Their composure told me they had injected this way before.

We had been with Thomas and Frankie for most of the day, since before their first hit.Thomas had already taken 25 ‘street Valiums’ - an unpredictable mix of benzodiazepines pressed into blue and white pills - and both men had injected cocaine.

This is a deadly cocktail that’s killing so many in Scotland just now - an evil equilibrium of these Valiums combined with the other substances just causes the body to shut down.

We also heard Scotland’s streets have been flooded with the street valiums for the last five years.

They are cheap at about £10 for 25; they’re easy to find with dealers brazenly roaming the city centres; and they are deadly having been found to be the most common substance noted in Scotland’s toxicology reports for drug deaths for the last couple of years in a row.

There has also been a new trend of users injecting a cheaper type of cocaine - known as ‘council’ as opposed to ‘prop,’ or ‘proper,’ which would the more expensive powder snorted in nightclubs.

The unique feature of injecting cocaine is the user will crave it more regularly than they would with heroin, meaning they are injecting several times a day and often reusing needles for convenience.

This has played a part in an HIV epidemic that still blights Glasgow - the worst seen anywhere in the UK since the 1980s, and still not under control.

Heroin hasn’t been replaced by these new trends - it is still easily found and took Thomas and Frankie less than 10 minutes to source in Glasgow city centre on a Friday night.

Users are simply taking these other drugs in addition to heroin, which is part of the reason so many are dying.

There are some solutions, and over the last year lockdown has forced innovation.

Glasgow now has the UK’s only ‘supervised injection site’ - essentially a man with a van where clean needles are given out and overdose prevention kits are on hand.

It is makeshift and was set up by Peter Krykant, a former drug user now many years in recovery himself, who has become fed up waiting for politicians to take decisive action on Scotland’s drugs deaths.

He has refurbished an old white van to offer shelter and a safer place for drug users to come.

“If somebody does overdose and they’re here where we can supervise them they are kept alive, and then maybe at some point they can engage with treatment services” he says. “If they’re dead they are not going to engage with anything.”

Using his van like this is a kind of vigilante action, though, because what he is doing is not strictly within the law since it facilitates the use of illegal substances.

“We are told it could be illegal, but I would like somebody to step forward and show us what part of the law we are actually breaking by saving lives.”

There are politics at play as well.

The Scottish Government supports the principle of a supervised injection clinic, but says it lacks the legal powers to introduce one.It is true that drugs laws, such as the Misuse of Drugs Act, are reserved to the UK Government.

There has been a concerted effort by health bodies to reduce drug deaths in Scotland Credit: PA

The UK Government says it has no plans to endorse such a facility, though, and urges the Scottish Government to use the powers it has more effectively.

It is also true that ‘health’ is completely devolved to Scotland, and many of the services used to treat addiction have suffered real-terms financial cuts over the last five years while drugs deaths escalated.

And so stalemate endures, and more people die.

The frontline workers and drugs experts in Scotland are mostly in agreement, though, that having supervised injection sites might help but it is not a panacea to the whole drug crisis.

They say this kind of thinking needs to be combined with support for other addiction services, such as rehabilitation, mental health support, and addiction therapy.

Dr Andrew McAuley, one of Scotland’s foremost drug experts, told us many of Scotland’s drug deaths could be entirely preventable.

“You could resource that treatment system in the here and now and you would see gains,” he says.

“All the evidence points to that being the most effective way to keep people alive. We are certainly not doing it quick enough - if anything we’ve taken resources out of that system over the past five years.

“It is not the response you would put in place if you wanted to keep people alive.”

Thomas and Frankie say Scotland’s addiction services are too often a cycle of despair.

“I just came out of rehab, and they even said in rehab that if I was put back into a hostel then I was just basically being put back to square one,” Frankie tells me. “But that’s where I went.”

“As long as you’re in these hostels you’ll never escape drink, drugs. Your next door neighbour to the right is doing cocaine, to the left is doing heroin, upstairs is doing valium. And then you go into the street and you’re surrounded by it.”

While politicians debate what to do for another year, Scotland has thousands of drug users at risk.

And people like Thomas and Frankie will still be in the alleys, taking multiple substances, hoping this night it won’t be their time.