Video report by ITV News Scotland Correspondent Peter Smith
ITV News has learned that they will be worse than ever before – the worst in fact ever.
This is especially concerning because last year’s numbers were so bad: cross the 1000 threshold for the first time; catching up on alcohol-related deaths for the first time in Scotland; and catching up with America to make Scottish drug deaths per capita in the developed world.Two years ago, the Scottish government declared these drug-related deaths to be a ‘public health emergency’ and a task force was set up to find out exactly what is going on and how to deal with it.The person leading this task force is Professor Catriona Matheson, who told me that Scotland has a specific problem with what is known as ‘poly drug use’.
“People take multiple drugs at the same time,” she told me.
“That could be a combination of heroin, or an opiate, a benzodiazepine – things like diazepam or itisilam – possibly cocaine, and alcohol too.
“People use combinations of these risky substances all at once, and that certainly makes them more vulnerable to an overdose. This is something that seems to be typical of Scotland.
In the shadow of a quiet Glasgow alley, we witnessed this kind of dangerous poly-drug use firsthand.
Thomas and Frankie – two longtime drug users – got their last fix of the day, but Thomas couldn’t find a vein in his overused legs, so he asked Frankie to inject the heroin directly into his neck.
Their calm told me that they had injected this way before.
We’d spent most of the day with Thomas and Frankie 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 has just killed so many in Scotland – a poor balance of these Valiums combined with the other substances causes the body to shut down.
We also heard that the streets of Scotland have been inundated with street valiums for the past five years.
They’re cheap at around £ 10 for 25; they are easy to find with dealers brutally roaming the city centers; and they are deadly because they have been the most common substance in Scotland’s toxicology reports of drug deaths for the last few years in a row.
There’s also a new trend where users inject a cheaper type of cocaine – known as ‘council’ instead of ‘gag’ or ‘clean’, which would snort the more expensive powder at nightclubs.
The uniqueness of injecting cocaine is that the user craves it more often than heroin, which means they inject several times a day and often reuse needles for convenience.
This has played a role in an HIV epidemic that continues to hit Glasgow – the worst ever seen in the UK since the 1980s and still out of control.
Heroin has not been replaced by these new trends – it is still easy to find, and it took Thomas and Frankie less than 10 minutes to search Glasgow city center on a Friday night.
Users simply use these other drugs in addition to heroin, which is part of the reason so many die.
There are some solutions, and in the past year, lockdown has forced innovation.
Glasgow now has the only ‘supervised injection site’ in the UK – essentially a man with a van where clean needles are distributed and overdose prevention kits are available.
It is improvised and set up by Peter Krykant, a former drug user who has now been in recovery himself for many years, and who is tired of waiting for politicians to take decisive action against the drug deaths in Scotland.
He has refurbished an old white van to provide shelter and a safer place for drug users.
“If somebody overdoses and they’re here where we can supervise them, they’re kept alive, and maybe at some point they can get treatment,” he says. “When they’re dead, they won’t be doing anything.”
Using his van in this way is something of a vigilante, however, as what he does is not strictly within the law as it allows the use of illegal means.
“We have been told it could be illegal, but I would like someone to come forward and show us what part of the law we are actually breaking by saving lives.”
There is also politics.
The Scottish government supports the principle of a supervised injection clinic, but says it does not have the legal powers to introduce one.It is true that drug laws, such as the Misuse of Drugs Act, are the preserve of the UK government.
However, the UK government says it has no plans to approve such a facility and is urging the Scottish Government to use the powers it has more effectively.
It is also true that “health” has been entirely devoted to Scotland, and many of the services used to treat addiction have seen real financial cuts in the last five years, while drug deaths escalated.
And so a stalemate continues, and more people die.
However, the frontline workers and drug experts in Scotland are broadly in agreement that having injection site surveillance can help, but it is not a panacea for the whole drug crisis.
They say this kind of thinking should be combined with support for other addiction treatment options, such as rehabilitation, mental health, and addiction treatment.
Dr. Andrew McAuley, one of Scotland’s foremost drug experts, told us that many of Scotland’s drug deaths were completely preventable.
“You could use that treatment system in the here and now and you would see benefits,” he says.
“All the evidence points to this is the most effective way to keep people alive. We’re certainly not doing it fast enough – if anything, we’ve taken resources out of that system for the past five years.
“It’s not the reaction you’d give if you wanted to keep people alive.”
Thomas and Frankie say that addiction treatment in Scotland is too often a cycle of despair.
“I just came out of rehab, and they even said in rehab that if I was put in a hostel again, I would actually go back to square one,” Frankie tells me. “But I went there.”
‘As long as you are in these hostels you will never escape booze, drugs. Your neighbor on the right is doing cocaine, on the left is heroin, over Valium. And then you go out into the street and you are surrounded by it. “
While politicians debate what to do for another year, in Scotland thousands of drug users are at risk.
And people like Thomas and Frankie will still be out in the alleyways swallowing multiple substances, hoping it’s not their time tonight.
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