HAVING met with Nicola Sturgeon on more than one occasion, I am positive that one of her “deep regrets” from her time as Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister is being unable to reduce Scotland’s drastic drug death toll over the last few years.

No progress has been made since Scotland declared a “national mission” and the outgoing First Minister said she would take personal responsibility.

Drug deaths remain out of control, with the latest figures for 2021 showing 1330 fatalities in a single year. When the SNP came to power in 2007 Scotland recorded 455 deaths. We now consistently record some of the highest drug-related deaths rates per head of population in the world.

Signs of progress? Suspected drug deaths reported by Police Scotland fell in the first half of 2022. However, as reported in The National, they rose again at the end of the year. We won’t know until July, when official figures from National Records of Scotland are released if any real progress has been made.

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These are not just figures to be bandied about. In the 10 years from 2011-21 nearly 10,000 lives have been lost, each death someone’s someone, and most, if not all, preventable.

When I first met with Nicola Sturgeon and Drugs Minister Angela Constance in January 2021, I was glad to hear that £5 million extra was being invested in drug services immediately and from April 2021 an extra £50m would be invested for the next five years on top of the existing budget.

However, we are yet to see any impact. Questions must be asked if the money is being spent in the right areas or if we are rehashing policies and mistakes we have seen go wrong in Westminster for decades.

At the same time, Scottish Government ministers continue to apologise for the lives lost yet seem unable to reduce the catastrophic death rates. So what will a change of leader bring? Frontrunner Angus Robertson’s last extensive comment was to blame Westminster, which Nicola Sturgeon tried to steer away from. Kate Forbes’s likely stance is unclear but her leaning to the right on certain issues could be mirrored by her drug policy stance.

Humza Yousaf has stood on both sides saying that drug deaths “sit at the feet of the SNP” but also saying “progressive” drug laws are a priority after independence.

THE biggest impact could be from a reshuffle. Could the new leader replace Constance? She has now been in post for nearly as long as Joe FitzPatrick who inherited budget cuts rather than extra funding Will the SNP go back to blaming Westminster or, most worryingly, will they go down the Conservative road already travelled with abstinence as a top priority, support the Road to Rehab Bill and again not follow the evidence to get the basics right with good dose optimisation of substitute medication and introduce new ways of supporting people, such as diamorphine assisted treatment (DAT) that, along with other substitute prescribing and overdose prevention centres (OPCs), has helped countries such as Switzerland practically eradicate drug deaths and harms that were spiralling out of control nearly three decades ago?

Within current frameworks we could open OPCs. If I was breaking laws, Police Scotland would have shut down the unsanctioned service I ran in Glasgow for nearly a year.

It proved impact, running on a budget of just £25,000 for the year with limited hours. It reversed nine overdoses and saved eight lives. In key locations these health centres could not only save lives but also introduce people into lifesaving drug treatment.

Could the current Drugs Minister turn the tide? Possibly, but a lot rides on the leadership. Will the new leader see this as a priority or will it be marked for “after independence”?

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Any reshuffle means building new relationships. I have met the minister numerous times as part of my role with the charity Cranstoun and we have discussed at length the potential for us to work with them to support opening OPCs and offer a more effective DAT service in Scotland.

If there is a new Drugs Minister, this may cause more delays.

With devolved health, policing and crime, so much more could have been done years ago. Many lives could have been saved. Currently, services are not meeting the needs of the people trying to access them, with only 40% of people experiencing problems with substances estimated to be in any form of treatment.

The new leader of the SNP has to be brave, break away from the drug-free utopia and war on drugs narrative, and face the issue head on. Our family and friends are dying, on average three people every day. A “sorry” at the start of every ministerial statement is just not good enough.