SCOTLAND’S drug crisis took a further turn for the worse last week with news of a record-high number of deaths for the sixth consecutive year, reinforcing our position as the “sick man of Europe”.

The latest figures, for 2019, revealed a 6% rise to 1264, the worst rate in Europe of drug deaths per capita and three and a half times higher than England and Wales. Scotland had 295 drug deaths per million of the population between 15 and 64 with the next highest Sweden at 81.

That prompted First Minister ­Nicola Sturgeon to apologise “to ­every family who has suffered grief’” and to say that she would be driving ­forward the response after the next ­Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce (SDDT) meeting on January 12.

On Friday, Joe FitzPatrick (inset) resigned from his position as the Scottish Government’s public health minister. Angela Constance has since been charged with the role of Drugs Policy Minister.

In the wake of the release of the figures, FitzPatrick had faced calls from Labour and the LibDems to resign and were preparing to push for a no-confidence vote in the minister.

The SDDT was set up last year and has identified in particular the areas of life support, risk reduction and societal perception towards drug use.

Drugs advisers across the issue point to our continental neighbours as an example of how to arrest a descent into drugs dependency and despond.

Portugal preceded Scotland as the worst in Europe, opted for a decriminalisation model, the 20th ­anniversary of which they marked last month. The nation’s drugs tsar Dr Joao Goulao saw first-hand the damage drugs can do in his young days when he turned down his friend’s offer of heroin. “He became ­addicted to heroin and died from Aids,” he recalled.

It was unfortunately not an isolated incident with Dr Goulao witnessing an epidemic of drug abuse across the country from his practice in the Algarve in the Eighties. “Nobody was spared. All the social groups were ­affected. About 1% of the population – or 100,000 – died.”

Portugal’s redemption came when a left-wing government emerged to challenge the country’s traditional ­institutions, most powerfully the Catholic Church, to emerge with a decriminalisation programme which reaped immediate dividends.

Between 1995 and 2019, the estimated number of addicts fell from 100,000 to 50,000, of whom 30,000 are receiving treatment, according to the Portuguese government.

“We took drugs out of the criminal system and into the health system. We want to see how we can give ­people a chance to improve their lives – not necessarily quit drugs, just reduce consumption,” says Dr Goulao.

In all there are 29 countries around the world which have decriminalised to varying levels including in Europe Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Croatia, the Czech

Republic, ­Estonia, Poland, Russia and ­Switzerland.

The International Drug Policy Consortium says that we have reached a critical crossroads and must follow best international practice to reverse the decline. A spokesman said: “The numbers from Scotland are terrifying and tragic but should not come as a surprise. Years of state neglect and criminalisation have fuelled and ­entrenched cycles of poverty and marginalisation, with the catastrophic results we’ve seen over the last seven years.

“There’s something incredibly gut-wrenching in knowing this situation was, and is, wholly preventable.

“The EU’s agency on the matter has published clear guidance on what needs to be done. Solutions hinge on adopting a public health and harm ­reduction approach.

“This means that people who use drugs should not be criminalised and punished but empowered to protect themselves and others. And that ­tailored and effective services and programmes should be readily available and accessible to those who need them. The current situation is the exact opposite.

“And it also stands in contrast with what ­European neighbours have done.

At least 10 countries in Europe have removed criminal penalties for the simple possession of drugs.

“In countries like Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, these reforms have gone hand in hand with ­ significant investments into systems of care and support. And the results are very clear; those countries have overdose death rates significantly lower than the EU average. Comparatively, the situation in Scotland is nothing short of carnage.

“In 2018, the coordinating body of the UN, which regroups all agency executives, released a UN Common Position on drug policy. The UN, speaking with one voice, now urges all states to promote alternatives to punishment, including the decriminalisation of possession.”

The SNP has consistently called on drugs control to be devolved from Westminster to Scotland to enable “the decriminalisation of possession and consumption of controlled drugs”. That is echoed by Transform Drug Policy Federation, whose CEO David Nicholls said: “Scotland’s drug deaths are an avoidable, shameful tragedy. For too long, political stalemate and partisan squabbling have prevented action that could address this crisis. As a result, Scotland has the highest drug-related death rates in the world. This has been getting worse for years, and it needs to stop now.”

HE continued: “Bereaved families across Scotland have the right to demand change, and ministers in Westminster and Holyrood have a duty to deliver it.

“The Home Office must allow ­Scotland to adopt a health-led ­approach in order to tackle the ­crisis – including allowing overdose prevention ­centres to be legally established, rather than leaving individuals to risk arrest providing this vital service.

“The growing calls for the decriminalisation of people who use drugs should also be heeded. We know from Portugal and elsewhere that this can reduce deaths. Treatment services should be seen as a social priority, not left to struggle under endless cuts.

“No part of the UK should be the drug death capital of the world. The UK and Scottish Governments need to act now before this catastrophe gets even worse.”

While Jolene Crawford of the campaign Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control stressed that drug deaths touch many of us personally.

She said: “It is with a very heavy heart that I read the news of drug deaths in Scotland rising again to a record high, making us the drug death capital of the world. How many more families must endure the agony of losing a loved one, like our family did?

“They talk, while we are dying. How many more need to be sacrificed before real action is taken?”