As a journalist I recognise the hideous paradox coiled-up within that quote. Important stories are not always stories the public find arresting. For days there are headlines which would not look out of place announcing The Second Coming, describing an event of the middling sort that will never trouble a historian’s pen. Meanwhile, other news – news that ought to stop right-thinking people in their tracks – disappears into a sludge of quotidian apathy.
One such story was the recent announcement that drug deaths in Scotland had reached another ‘grim milestone’. How did you react to that news? Did you even know it had happened? More importantly, who are the victims and why are not more of us involved in a conversation about how to bring their numbers down?
Let’s start from the assumption of ignorance, which was my position before I considered that obliviousness is a feeble response to an epic tragedy that is unfolding right now in our islands.
We should all be shocked by the official arithmetic. It shows us that you are three and a half times more likely to die of drug misuse in Scotland than in England and Wales. The likelihood of you dying of drug misuse is higher in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe. You are more likely to die of drug misuse in Scotland than you are in the United States.
This is an accelerating tragedy.
The number of Scottish drug deaths has doubled – doubled – since 2014. On average, three Scots are dying from drug misuse every day. The majority are men, though not young men. The median age at death is 44.
I wrote recently about the amazing success story of declining road deaths in the UK, which now runs at about 1,700 a year. Achieving that reduction has cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Traffic calming measures. Speed limit enforcement. Drink-drive and seat-belt advertising campaigns. Regulatory changes to encourage manufacturers to make more crash-resistant cars.
We should rejoice that our collective desire to preserve life has been so obviously and statistically accomplished. Just as we should lament a shift in the opposite direction. Astonishingly, on current trends, the drug mortality number for Scotland (pop: 5m) could overtake the figure for all deaths on the roads of Britain (pop: 65m) before the decade it out.
Even at current levels, there is obviously a profound mismatch between the money and attention given to saving lives on Britain’s roads, compared to the resources spent trying to keep alive drug users in Scotland. We may not be explicitly condemning them as authors of their own misfortune, but how else can we explain away our apparent lack of concern?
It’s a vastly complicated problem and contradictions abound. There is no pat answer to why Scotland’s drug story has become a public health emergency on such a scale. It’s easy to point to the ravages of de-industrialisation in the 1980s which baked-in poverty for generations. Yes, Glasgow, Ayrshire and Tayside suffered. But so did Merseyside, Tyneside and the Welsh Valleys.
Catholic volunteers in Scotland have historically provided some of the most dedicated care at street level. But even the church is split on how to tackle the scourge of drug deaths. Internationally, while the Pope condemns decriminalisation, it is quietly embraced by priests in countries like Portugal.
Part of the problem is global in nature. Heroin and morphine have scarcely been cheaper to buy. And the mixing of them with cocaine and prescription medicines like Xanax is creating a fatal cocktail of illegal and legal drugs. Yet for those inclined to blame ‘Big Pharma’, there is the success of a drug like Naloxone, which counters the effects of opioids and without which the death-toll in Scotland is likely to have been higher still.
Ironically, and tragically, it’s hard to remember a time when Britons have been so attuned to public health data. And in Scotland, where the Covid death toll has passed 4,000, it’s hard to make the case that drug deaths deserve more political and journalistic oxygen. At least, not right now.
One day though, God willing before 2021 is out, our vaccines and testing regimes will have coronavirus on the run. The death toll will plummet. Yet last year’s Scottish drug death number – a faceless figure which hides those marginal stories of life-long deprivation, mental health problems, addiction and woe – is not destined for decline.
Last year 1,264 people died in Scotland from the misuse of drugs.
There is no vaccine or daily press conference for them.
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