Scotland's drug deaths down for first time in eight years - but remain second highest on record

In 93% of all drug misuse deaths, more than one drug was found to be present in the body. Credit: ITV News

Scotland’s drug deaths fell for the first time since 2013, but the number of fatalities was the second highest annual total on record, newly released figures show.

According to data from National Records of Scotland (NRS), 1,330 people in Scotland died from drug misuse in 2021, 1% lower than in the previous year when 1,339 people died from substance misuse, the highest on record.

It makes 2021 the first year since 2013 in which drug misuse deaths have not increased, although Scotland continues to have the highest drug death rate recorded by any country in Europe.

Opioids continue to be the main cause of drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2021, accounting for 84% of all deaths.

However, a change in the type of drugs that are implicated in deaths has been highlighted by the report, with benzodiazepines accounting for 918 deaths.

In 93% of all drug misuse deaths, more than one drug was found to be present in the body.

Of those who died from the misuse of drugs last year, 65% were aged between 35 and 54 and more than two-thirds (70%) were men, NRS said. Dundee City had the highest drug misuse death rate of all local authorities, with 45.2 deaths per 100,000 population from 2017 to 2021, followed by Glasgow City, with 44.4 and Inverclyde, 35.7.

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Reacting to the figures, Scotland’s drugs policy minister Angela Constance said the situation remains “unacceptable”, adding work will continue at pace to address the emergency.

“These latest statistics provide yet more heart-breaking reading, and the situation remains unacceptable," she said.

"While there is so much more work to do, every life saved means one less family grieving and I am determined we can use this halt in the upward trend of recent years as a platform for real change."

Ms Constance added she was particularly concerned about the rise in deaths among women.

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross called the latest drug death figures “heart-breaking” as he urged Holyrood ministers to change their approach to the issue.

Douglas Ross said the SNP government should accept their current approach to the drugs crisis isn’t working. Credit: PA

He has now called for the Scottish government to back his Right to Recovery Bill, which is set to go before parliament later this year. The legislation would enshrine in law the right of those with addiction problems to receive potentially life-saving treatment. Mr Ross said: “The enormity of this national emergency is laid bare in this heart-breaking toll of fatalities. “These figures are a badge of shame for Nicola Sturgeon, who has presided over a huge escalation in Scotland’s drug-deaths epidemic during her time in office.

In 2020, the most recent year available for the rest of the UK, Scotland’s drug misuse rate was 3.7 times that for the UK as a whole and higher than any other European country.

Last year, ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith travelled to Glasgow, one of the worst-hit areas, to see why Scotland had such a high drug-deaths record.

In the north of Glasgow, he witnessed the devastation drugs were causing and the misery it heaped upon users stuck in a vicious cycle of addiction.

In 2021, Peter Smith reported on Scotland's drug crisis as the nation recorded its highest number of drug-related deaths since records began in 1996

This video contains distressing images

The Scottish government has announced funding of £250 million over the parliamentary term to tackle the crisis which still plagues many areas in Scotland.

The latest NRS figures follow the head of Scotland's drug deaths taskforce urging for an overhaul of addiction services and reform of drugs laws to help reduce overdose deaths. David Strang, ex-chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, echoed earlier calls for a "public health approach" to the crisis, with an emphasis on treatment rather than criminalisation.

If you or someone you know if affected by the issues raised in this article, the following charities offer support:

  • Action of Addiction works across all areas of treatment, research, family support and professional education - 0300 330 0659

  • Frank offers confidential advice and information about drugs, their effects and the law - 0300 123 6600

  • Narcotics Anonymous offers support for anyone who wants to stop using drugs - 0300 999 1212

  • Release offers free and confidential advice about drugs and the law - 020 7324 2989 or email helpline:

  • We Are With You supports people with drug, alcohol or mental health problems, and their friends and family

  • People can also discuss addiction issues with their GP