Glasgow eye of storm as drug deaths spiral in Scotland

Deaths involving cocaine have increased 658 per cent in Scotland since 2008 - more than any other drug - while Glasgow has seen Britain's worst outbreak of HIV in decades, city health officials say.
Deaths involving cocaine have increased 658 per cent in Scotland since 2008 - more than any other drug - while Glasgow has seen Britain's worst outbreak of HIV in decades, city health officials say.PHOTO: AFP

GLASGOW (AFP) - Mr Gary Kelly and Mr Bruce Munro, reforming drug users from Glasgow, count themselves lucky.

They have survived the kind of lethal addictions to substances that have left Scotland with the highest drug-related death rate in the European Union, according to official Scottish statistics.

And both are now in a rehabilitation programme at a residential clinic paid for by local authorities that they hope will turn around, and even save, their lives.

"I'll die if I go out there and I'm not ready", said Mr Kelly, 46, a dad-of-two who has worked most of his adult life in construction but slowly succumbed to an alcohol, cocaine and opioids addiction.

Mr Munro, 45, also a father-of-two, now estranged from his family, developed a heroin addiction while serving a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery.

Eventually becoming homeless after his release and addicted to other drugs, he said he nearly died from several overdoses and knows at least a dozen people who have lost their lives to drugs in the last year.

"They were at their rock bottom, reaching out for help, and they just never got help in time", he said, sitting in the rehab centre's hotel-like sitting room.

After years of British government-led austerity cuts to services as well as cheap new cocktails of drugs increasingly prevalent, Mr Munro thinks the situation may get worse still.

"I don't even think it's reached its peak yet...There's going to be many more deaths."

Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city, is the epicentre of a substance abuse crisis, which saw an unprecedented 1,187 drug-related deaths last year across the nation of 5.4 million people, according to the National Records of Scotland office, which said the rate was the EU's highest.

Figures for England and Wales released last month by Britain's Office of National Statistics show drug deaths there have also reached record levels.

The Scottish rates - which have nearly doubled over four years - appear on a par with the United States, where the level of deaths from opioids has been declared a public health emergency.

The nation's historical problems with heroin addiction became infamous worldwide following Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle's 1996 hit film "Trainspotting".

More than two decades on, the drug death rates are being fuelled by a so-called Trainspotting generation, who began predominantly using heroin in the 1980s and 1990s.

"There's a generation of people who've been using drugs for so long", said David Brockett, a manager at Phoenix Futures, the charity running the rehab clinic.

"Their health issues are so severe that if they currently keep using, a large minority of them are going to end up dying through a drug-related death."

The annual drug death statistics released in July by the Scottish records office show that multiple substance abuse is to blame in the vast majority of victims' cases.

Heroin and synthetic opioids like methadone, codeine and oxycodone were involved in 86 percent of the 2018 fatalities.

"Street valium" depressants - benzodiazepines also known as "benzos" sold on the streets in bulk for as little as 15 pence (S$0.25) a pill - were also found in two-thirds of cases.

The dangers are compounded by opioid users in Glasgow also increasingly injecting cocaine sold in small quantities as the best way of getting a quick high, heightening the risks of lethal overdoses and needle sharing.

Deaths involving cocaine have increased 658 per cent in Scotland since 2008 - more than any other drug - while Glasgow has seen Britain's worst outbreak of HIV in decades, city health officials say.

 
 

Some 156 new cases have been recorded since 2015.

Jim Thomson, a former heroin addict turned outreach worker for the Simon Community Scotland charity, said addicts were mixing methadone, heroin, street valium and cocaine.

"They're using everything possible to take their head away from how they're feeling", he said, while handing out clean needles to addicts begging on the streets.

Many in Glasgow blame the British government's austerity programme for cutting funding to services.

Mr Brockett noted that the number of residential rehab centres now available to addicts through local authority funding had fallen from four to two, with the total number of beds available dropping from 52 to 30, in recent years.

Phoenix Futures' six-month programme has also been cut to 13 weeks due to funding shortfalls.

The Scottish government, which has devolved powers over health and social services as well as policing, has responded to shock at the latest drug death rates by creating a taskforce to find solutions.

Glasgow officials are set to open a pioneering drug treatment centre offering medical-grade heroin administered under strict medical supervision.

"Brave and innovative treatments like these are vital to reduce the death toll," said Mhairi Hunter, a city councillor in charge of health.

Others want more wholesale reform of Scottish drugs policy.

"We need to move away from the criminality that's attached to drug use," said Roseanne McLuskie, an associate director at Addaction, a Britain-wide charity, which assists around 600 Glasgow addicts with everything from housing to mental health needs.

More investment is key, says Mr Thomson, who speaks of a "vicious circle" of addiction and social problems.

"We've not got the places to put them to go and get clean and find a better way of life," he said.