David Liddell: Benzodiazepines – we need to disrupt the criminal market and deliver on The National Mission to reduce drugs deaths

2nd  August 2021

The latest drug death figures show a continued upward trend in benzodiazepines being implicated in the deaths of people dying of drug overdoses.

The numbers are stark and deeply troubling.  The newly released 2020 figures show benzodiazepines were implicated in the deaths of 974 people – 76% of the total. The comparable figures for 2019 are 902 (70.0%) and for 2015 are 122 (25.0%).

Polydrug use, particularly the use of a range of depressant drugs in combination, has been a feature of Scotland’s drug problem for over thirty years. However, this increase is alarming and requires urgent attention.

There are two very concerning trends that are closely linked – over the last ten years, the NHS prescription of these drugs to people who have a drug problem has reduced considerably; while, over the same period, there has been a massive increase in the range and volume of ‘street benzos’ supply. They are cheap and readily available across Scotland.

People dependent on these drugs are forced to a market run by organised crime. The results are obvious – a whole range of harms including around 19 deaths a week in Scotland where benzodiazepines are implicated alongside other substances.

There is huge support within the drug treatment services for policymakers’ moves to ensure more people get into treatment but this strategy will be undermined if the needs of people using high doses of benzodiazepines are not adequately addressed. The situation is now beyond urgent.

Prescribing offers a way to stabilise use and offers a platform to provide support to people.  Draft guidance on responses to benzodiazepines has been produced and consulted on – these need to be implemented as a matter of urgency.  This draft guidance recognises the need to support people with underlying mental health problems and to address the issues that drive their use of benzodiazepines. Addressing people’s mental health is almost impossible when people are using street benzos every day.

David Liddell, CEO, Scottish Drugs Forum


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