NO drug-related deaths were reported in Shetland last year – seemingly bucking an upwards national trend in drug deaths which has seen Scotland’s rate rise to nearly three times that of the UK as a whole.
Shetland’s figure of zero is a decrease from two in 2017.
Across Scotland drug deaths rose by 27 per cent from 2017 to 1,187 – the highest rate of any country in the EU.
NHS Shetland’s public health principal Elizabeth Robinson said as Shetland’s numbers are very small, it is “impossible to say whether this is the beginning of an even more positive trend or just a one–off”.
She said that while the NHS was “really pleased” that Shetland had zero drug deaths in 2018 – the only health board area in Scotland to do so – it does not mean there are no concerns over the use of substances in the isles.
“We do have some protective elements in Shetland which means that people with drug problems are potentially less likely to die – for example, we don’t tend to have people sleeping on the streets as they do in some places, and probably better access to hospital or emergency services if required,” Robinson said.
“Shetland is following other national trends with increased cocaine use, increased illicit benzodiazepine use and increased uptake of needle exchange services – all indicative of a changing landscape around drug use.
“We are taking this opportunity to reflect on what is happening elsewhere, and look at enhancing local harm reduction services.”
Robinson also stressed that the number of drug related deaths is only one way of measuring harm to a society.
She said people often don’t die of the actual drug use, but rather from chronic long-term conditions which “accompany drug use, poor housing, poverty and lack of supportive relationships that run alongside this”.
“We have to challenge the stigma accompanying drug use and see it as a complex health and social issue which cannot be treated separately to mental health, family support and other issues,” Robinson said.
Nationally, 72 per cent of people who died through drugs last year were male, with most cases involving heroin.
The Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area had the most deaths reported – 394.
Public health minister Joe FitzPatrick said: “The number of people who have lost their lives because of drug use is shocking.
“It is vital this tragedy is treated as a public health issue, and we are prepared to take innovative and bold measures in order to save the lives of those most at risk.”
Scottish Greens’ Highlands and Islands list MSP John Finnie commented that criminalisation of drugs has “caused more harm than it can claim to have prevented”.
“The ‘war on drugs’ approach has self-evidently failed,” he said.
“Addiction is better tackled by trained medical professionals, not with the strong arm of the law, and dangerous substances need to be taken out of the hands of gangsters.”