By Mark Brown
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2766

Blame legacy of Thatcherism for Scotland’s drug death figures

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Issue 2766
A ‘polydrug’ habit involves mixing opiates such as heroin with alcohol and prescription drugs
A ‘polydrug’ habit involves mixing opiates such as heroin with alcohol and prescription drugs (Pic: Lauri Rantala on Flickr)

The latest research into drug deaths in Scotland shows a horrifying 1,300 people died last year as a consequence of drug misuse.

Scotland’s drugs death rate is more than three and a-half times higher than the rest of Britain. And this year marks the seventh consecutive year where Scotland has had the highest drug death rate in Europe.

The majority of people dying in Scotland’s drugs crisis are said to have a so-called “polydrug” habit. That is mixing opiates, such as heroin and methadone, with alcohol, prescription drugs and illegal copies of prescription medicines, such as “street Valium”.

The research shows people living in Scotland’s most deprived communities are 18 times more likely to die a drug-related death than people living in less deprived areas. This includes places like the East End of Glasgow, which is home to the two poorest electoral constituencies in Britain.

Much of the debate over the crisis has centred on the failure of the Scottish National Party government to provide sufficient treatment and support services for drug users.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admits that the situation is a “national disgrace”. Last year she sacked public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick and appointed a new drugs minister, Angela Constance.

The Scottish Tories are trying to make political hay over the crisis, putting a Right to Recovery bill before the Scottish parliament.


A huge increase in drug treatment and support services is clearly needed. But the catastrophic number of drug deaths in the country is rooted in decades of social neglect.

When asked what’s behind the figures, Dr John Budd of the Scottish Drugs Forum pointed to the destruction of vast swathes of Scottish heavy industry in the 1980s. From shipbuilding to steel making, coal mining to car manufacturing, a huge number of Scottish industrial communities were plunged into mass unemployment.

Treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one
Treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one
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Places such as Greenock, Clydebank, Linwood and Motherwell were turned into virtual ghost towns.

In Scotland’s cities, most notably in Glasgow, hundreds of thousands of working class people were left to rot in peripheral housing schemes. The housing was poor and amenities almost non-existent.

All of this was a direct and deliberate consequence of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s war against the trade unions throughout the 1980s.

Dr Budd is right to point to the 1980s as the historical basis of Scotland’s drugs crisis. He is also correct to call both for investment in drug services and a Portuguese-style policy of decriminalisation of drug use.

But, ultimately, the solution to this blight on Scottish society rests on the eradication of the deep poverty and social neglect that’s driving so many people into drug addiction. 

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