Publication - Statistics

Suspected drug deaths in Scotland: April to June 2021

This new report focusses on Police Scotland management information as a key indicator of recent drug death trends in Scotland.

Suspected drug deaths in Scotland: April to June 2021
Suspected drug deaths in Scotland: April to June 2021

Suspected drug deaths in Scotland: April to June 2021

1. Background

In January 2021 the Scottish Government announced a National Mission to reduce Scotland’s unacceptable drug death rates. Part of this commitment is to improve data and surveillance. This report focusses on management information from Police Scotland on suspected drug deaths to provide as timely an indication of current trends in drug deaths in Scotland as is possible. Statistics from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) are also presented for wider context.

2. Summary

Suspected drug deaths during the first six months of 2021 fell very slightly but were at a similar level to those recorded during the first six months of 2020. Overall, there continues to be an upward trend in suspected drug deaths over the period for which data is available.

3. Drug death definitions

Classifying a death as drug related is complex. There are a number of different definitions of drug deaths, and this report focusses on two:

  • Annual drug-related deaths (sometimes referred to as drug-misuse deaths) from National Records of Scotland (NRS) - this is the annual headline measure used in Scotland. NRS’s National Statistics ‘Drug-related deaths in Scotland’ use this definition, with the most recent publication (July 2021) reporting 1,339 drug-related deaths for 2020. It covers all deaths with an underlying cause of drug poisoning or drug abuse but only where any of the substances involved are controlled in the UK. This means that deaths from only e.g. aspirin or paracetamol are excluded.
  • Quarterly suspected drug deaths – the operational measure used by Police Scotland, this includes deaths that the Police suspect involve illicit drugs based on the reports of attending officers’ observations and initial enquiries at the scene of death.

More information on National Statistics drug deaths definitions can be found within the official drug-related deaths publication on the National Records of Scotland webpage.

4. Recent trends in Police Scotland suspected drug deaths

Police Scotland management information gives an indication of recent trends in drug deaths in Scotland based on reports from police officers attending scenes of death. Classification as a suspected drug death is based on an officer’s observations and initial enquiries at the scene of death.

Figure 1: Number of Police Scotland suspected drug deaths by calendar year quarter (Scotland, January 2017 to June 2021)
Bar Chart showing the number of suspected drug deaths each calendar year quarter with line graph showing rolling annual suspected drug death (sum of latest 4 quarters)

Source: Police Scotland

The number of suspected drug deaths during the first six months of 2021 was 722, a similar level to the first six months of 2020 where 731 suspected drug deaths were recorded. While suspected drug deaths fell between the first and second calendar quarters of 2021, there continues to be a general upward trend over the period for which data is available.

During the first six months of 2021:

  • There were 722 suspected drug deaths, 1% (9) fewer than during the first six months of 2020.
  • Males accounted for 72% of suspected drug deaths. This compares with 76% during the first six months of 2020.
  • Just over two thirds (69%) of suspected drug deaths were of people aged between 35 and 54.
  • There were 35 suspected drug deaths in the under 25 age group, 29% (14) fewer than during the first six months of 2020.
  • The Police Divisions with the greatest number of suspected drug deaths were Greater Glasgow (187), Lanarkshire (67), Edinburgh City (64) and Tayside (64).

For quarter 2, April to June 2021:

  • There were 329 suspected drug deaths during the period April to June 2021, 16% (64) fewer than the previous calendar quarter (January to March 2021), and 20% (84) fewer than during the same calendar quarter in the previous year (April to June 2020).

Note that numbers of suspected drug deaths fluctuate from quarter to quarter and care should be taken not to interpret movements between individual calendar quarters as indicative of any long term trend.

For the rolling 12 month period, i.e., adding the most recent four quarters together:

  • There were 1,402 suspected drug deaths over the 12 months to June 2021.
  • This is the third highest number recorded in any rolling 12 month period during the timeframe for which data is available.
  • The three highest numbers of suspected drug deaths recorded using a 12 month rolling period have all occurred in the most recent 18 months (January 2020 to June 2021).

A breakdown of suspected drug deaths by police division by calendar quarter for the period January 2020 to June 2021 can be found in Annex A.

More detail on the statistics presented above is available in the workbook provided as a supporting file alongside this report.

5. Other sources of drug deaths information in Scotland

5.1 Drug death data

There are two different sets of statistics on the number of drug deaths in Scotland:

i. National Statistics published annually by National Records of Scotland.

These are the official figures on the number of drug-related deaths registered in Scotland each year. Drug-related deaths are identified using data from death registration records supplemented with information from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and forensic pathologists. ‘Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2020’ includes more detail on the sources of data used to produce these National Statistics.

ii. Management information from Police Scotland on suspected drug deaths.

This new operational data, presented here for the first time, is available more rapidly and more frequently than the NRS annual statistics described at (i) and provides a more timely indication of the likely trend in drug-related deaths. However, this management information is not subject to the same level of validation and quality assurance as National Statistics as it is based on officers’ observations and other circumstantial evidence, and it is not a replacement for the final drug-related death statistics produced by NRS. Section 5.3 of this report, “Relationship between Police Scotland suspected drug deaths and NRS drug-related deaths”, has more detail on how this data correlates with the National Statistics produced by NRS.

More information on the data sources, methodologies and interpretation of the data can be found in Annex B.

5.2 NRS National Statistics - Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2020

On 30 July 2021 National Records of Scotland published ‘Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2020’. These official statistics are used in the development of policy by the Scottish Government and other interested parties such as the Drug Deaths Taskforce, NHS Boards and local Alcohol and Drug Partnerships.

In 2020, there were 1,339 drug-related deaths registered in Scotland, 5% (59 deaths) more than in 2019. This was the largest number ever recorded since the series began in 1996. Drug-related deaths have been increasing since 1996 but since 2013 the upward trend has been steeper.

Figure 2: Number of drug-related deaths in Scotland, 1996 to 2020
Line Graph showing the number of drug related deaths over time, 5-year average and likely range of values (due to random variation) around 5-year average

Source: National Records of Scotland

5.3 Relationship between Police Scotland suspected drug deaths and NRS drug-related deaths

Figure 3: Comparison of Police Scotland suspected drug deaths with NRS drug-related deaths
Line Graph showing NRS drug-related deaths and Police Scotland suspected drug deaths over time

Source: National Records of Scotland and Police Scotland

The Police Scotland suspected drug deaths correlate very closely with the NRS drug-related death statistics. Since the period ending in December 2018, the rolling 12-month Police Scotland figures have ranged between 3% and 6% above the NRS drug-related death figures.

The table below shows both of the measures for calendar years 2018, 2019 and 2020:

Table 1: Police Scotland suspected drug deaths and NRS drug-related deaths, 2018 to 2020
2018 2019 2020
Police Scotland suspected drug deaths 1,257 1,356 1,411
NRS drug-related deaths 1,187 1,280 1,339
Percentage difference between NRS and Police Scotland figures 6% 6% 5%

Source: NRS and Police Scotland

More information on the data sources, methodologies and interpretation of the data can be found in Annex B.

6. Next update

The next ‘Suspected drug deaths in Scotland’ quarterly report will be published in December 2021, reporting on deaths up to September 2021.

The next annual drug-related deaths publication from NRS is due to be released in Summer 2022.

7. Accessing help and support for problem drug use

If you or anyone you know is affected by drug use, support is available via the following organisations:

8. Other drug death data and resources


Contact

Email: HSCAnalysisHub@gov.scot