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Scottish government demands Home Office help to tackle ‘tragic’ drug deaths epidemic

May Bulman

The Home Office must work with the Scottish government to help tackle “tragic” drug deaths, Scotland's public health minister has said after they hit their highest level since records began 23 years ago.

Joe FitzPatrick MSP has called on Home Secretary Sajid Javid to hold an urgent meeting following the publication of figures revealing deaths caused by drugs rose by more than a quarter last year – a higher rate than anywhere in Europe.

In a letter to Mr Javid, Mr FitzPatrick described the “tragic” increase in drug-related deaths – which now stands at 1,187 – as “unacceptable", adding: ”I take seriously the impact this has on individuals, families and communities".

Asking for a government minister to attend a proposed emergency summit, expected to be held in Glasgow, he added: “In response to these shocking statistics, I am inviting the UK government to work with the Scottish government to tackle this problem which claims so many lives.”

The Scottish government has already agreed to host a summit where government representatives, local authorities and the chair of Scotland's new drug deaths taskforce would be invited, ensuring the voices of those with experience of using drugs, and their families, are also heard.

The new statistics, published by the National Records of Scotland on Tuesday – suggest the country's drugs death rate, per head of population, is almost three times that of the UK as a whole.

The majority of deaths involved more than one substance, with heroin and other opiates a factor in 86 per cent of fatalities and “street” benzodiazepines like etizolam, which have flooded the market in recent years, seen in 57 per cent of recorded deaths.

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs described the situation as a “national emergency” and called for “serious and detailed conversation” about how to tackle the crisis.

He said: “This is a crisis that spans political divides, so we would hope that both Scottish and UK governments are involved. What's now vital is that all parties make this national emergency a national priority. We can and must rise to the challenge.”

But the responses of the SNP and Scottish Conservatives to the release of the drug death statistics on Tuesday were lambasted by former prime minister Gordon Brown, who argued that it demonstrated how the “extremes” of the two parties were failing Scotland and putting the union at risk.

Mr Brown said: “Nothing illustrates the sterility of this head-to-head confrontation than when in the wake of news of Scotland having the worst and most deadly drugs problem in Europe, SNP and Conservatives simply blamed each other.

”There should have been a call for joint action to end a crisis that is needlessly destroying thousands of lives."

The Home Office said they would be responding to Mr FitzPatrick's letter in due course and a spokesman added: ”Any death related to drug misuse is a tragedy.

“The causes of drug misuse are complex and need a range of policy responses and many of the powers to deal with drug dependency such as healthcare, housing and criminal justice are devolved in Scotland.

”We are combatting the illicit drug trade with the National Crime Agency and Border Force working to prevent serious organised crime and importation across Scotland."