THE biggest study of heroin and cocaine abuse in years has been launched amid new indications that Scotland's drugs crisis is now worse than ever.
The Scotsman understands that the number of people who died from drug overdoses last year is likely to be well over 400, and could be the highest ever.
There were 421 drug-related deaths recorded in 2006, a record figure that compared with 336 the previous year.
The need for toxicology reports to confirm causes of death means the final 2007 figure will not be known for some months. But The Scotsman understands that by the beginning of October the figure was about 20 higher than that for the same period the previous year.
It had been hoped that the unusually high number of drug deaths in 2006 would turn out to be a blip, but the indication that the number of deaths last year is likely to be even higher has raised serious concern that it could be part of a trend.
The Scottish Government has now commissioned a massive study into the number of heroin and cocaine users.
The study, which is costing about £175,000 and will be led by Dr Gordon Hay, from the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, is the first of its kind since 2003.
That research concluded that there were 50,000 serious drug users in Scotland – about 1 per cent of the population.
But nobody knows what the current scale of class A drug use is. Experts say this is hampering action to tackle a drugs problem that is among the highest in western Europe.
Dr Neil McKeganey, the centre's director, yesterday called for an independent review of drug misuse.
"If the drug death figures show an increase on the previous year, or are even on a par with 2006, it really must generate a very detailed review of the thrust of our drug treatment services in Scotland," he said.
Tom Wood, chairman of the association of drug action teams in Scotland, warned it would take years to turn around the number of drug deaths.
"It's going to be difficult to envisage a great reduction in drug deaths in the next year or so because the people who are dying are dying at the end of a substantial career of drugs use. The typical profile is a 38-year-old man who has a ten year history of drug and alcohol abuse.
"They're usually not dying because of what they did yesterday, they're dying because of what they did for the last ten years."
A spokesman for the Scottis
h Government said: "We are determined to ensure better quality data and recording systems to monitor and evaluate best practice in treatment.
"We also want to see the development of a more robust national evidence base."
GRIEVING SISTER URGES HELP
THE sister of a man who died from a heroin overdose called yesterday for more support for addicts.
Kevin Morgan, 30, was found dead in the toilets of a McDonald's in Edinburgh last September, days after he was released from a short prison sentence for stealing to fund his habit.
Tracey Johnston, 36, of Gifford, East Lothian, said her brother's life had spiralled downwards following the death of their mother. She said: "The prisons are getting better at stopping drugs getting in, but I don't think there's enough support when they come out. He was just a lost soul. He had a heart of gold when he wasn't on drugs."
source: The Scotsman