Revealed: drug-driving linked to hundreds of accidents on Scotland’s roads
DRUG-DRIVING has been linked to more than 250 road accidents in Scotland over the past five years – including 21 deaths, writes Judith Duffy.
The figures have been revealed in an analysis of official figures carried out by this newspaper, which record what factors may have influenced the accident in the opinion of police officers attending the scene – which can include everything from road and vehicle conditions to poor manoeuvres and driving too fast.
The figures, published by Transport Scotland, show that between 2011 and 2015, the driver or motorcyclist in 262 accidents was assessed as impaired by either illicit or medicinal drugs, 21 of which involved fatalities. The Scottish Government has been accused of lagging behind England and Wales by failing to introduce drug-driving limits and roadside “drugalyser” tests. Last month, the Sunday Herald revealed research which showed the same number of drivers died on the roads in Scotland after taking cannabis as those who died after drinking.
A spokesman for road safety charity Brake said: “The number of road crashes affected by individuals under the influence of drugs is worrying ... We are calling for zero tolerance on drink or drug-driving from the Scottish Government and the public, for stronger legislation, more roadside testing and greater resources for the police to enforce a ban on drug and drink driving.”
The total number of accidents linked to drug-driving is around four times the number where the use of a mobile phone affected the driver – which was cited as a factor in 67 accidents over the five years.
However, alcohol is a more commonly cited contributory factor than drugs, which is believed to have been involved in around 1,300 accidents between 2011 and 2015.
The publication from Transport Scotland notes that figures have to be treated with caution as they are based on opinion at the time of the accident, but aim to provide insight into how road accidents occur and how they can be prevented.
David Stewart, Labour MSP for Highland and Islands and a veteran road safety campaigner, said he was planning to meet formally with Justice Secretary Michael Matheson over the issue soon. “The main issue is to have a deterrent so people considering driving who are impaired because of drugs – either prescription or not – will think twice.”
Matheson said: “Scotland has longstanding legislation used by Police Scotland, prosecutors and our courts that makes it an offence to drive while being impaired due to drugs. We are considering very carefully whether evidence shows that specific drug-driving limits should be introduced in Scotland.”
THE changing face of “recreational” drug use in Scotland is having a profound impact on health - with admission to hospitals doubling, the Sunday Herald can reveal. New trends include Spice, a powerful new strain of a synthetic alternative to cannabis hitting the streets, which is currently causing alarm thanks to images of users being turned into the “living dead”.
Spice is one of a number of new laboratory-created substances which have emerged as a feature of the modern drugs scene, with an increase in potent forms of homegrown cannabis and the use of powerful painkiller drugs in a trend dubbed “codeine housewives” also identified.
Drug-related hospital admissions in Scotland as a result of use of cannabis-type drugs have doubled over the past 30 years, the Sunday Herald can reveal. Hospital admissions due to opioids – which include painkilling drugs such as codeine, methadone and morphine as well as heroin – have also doubled over that time.
Harry Shapiro, director of DrugWise, an online drug information service, said the type of cannabis being used today was now more likely to be homegrown indoors, which can include the potent “skunk” form. He said a rise in people coming forward for treatment for issues related to cannabis coincided with this trend.
“It is not like you start smoking skunk and then a fortnight later think I had better go and get some help,” he said. “It can take years before someone thinks I need to do something about this – and it would be fairly regular and heavy cannabis use, it wouldn’t be the odd spliff.
“That would tie in with when homegrown cannabis began to take over the market and a small proportion of people would at some point think I need to get some help with this, and that has been reflected in the treatment statistics.”
An increase in cannabis users coming forward for treatment is highlighted in a recent report published by DrugWise, which provides an annual snapshot of trends in UK street drug markets using information from across the country, including Glasgow and Edinburgh. One drug worker in England said: “Lots of young people coming in for cannabis problems, including addiction, saying it’s taking over their life, can’t do anything.” Another said: “Big rise in cannabis users accessing services that are more usually accessed by opiate users. All for skunk.”
The report also notes concerns over the problematic use of prescription or over-the-counter drugs such as tranquilisers, opiate painkillers and antidepressants. This includes the existence of Breaking Bad-style DIY laboratories manufacturing drugs such as diazepam – commonly known as valium – which is said to be a particular problem in Scotland.
Rising numbers of people using over-the-counter painkillers containing codeine in a bid to reduce the stress of everyday life was also highlighted in the report. Shapiro said: “We came across drug workers, particularly in the northeast, who were talking about that calling it ‘ codeine housewives’ – the mother’s little helper-type idea. This is people taking codeine tablets not because they were in pain, but just to get a bit of a light buzz to take the edge off the day. That is a widespread and hardly acknowledged problem really.”
In Scotland, figures point to a trend towards certain types of drugs causing increasing problems. In the 1990s, the percentage of drug-related hospital admissions due to cannabinoids was just over six per cent – that has now doubled to 13 per cent.
Hospital admissions as a result of use of opioid drugs like heroin, codeine and methadone have also risen, from 31 per cent in the 1990s to 57 per cent in 2014-15. But there has been a slight drop in the proportion of admissions due to sedative or hypnotic drugs like valium, while cocaine only rose slightly from just under one per cent to 6.5 per cent.
A trend in recent years has been the emergence of so-called legal highs, also known as new psychoactive substances (NPDs), which were banned under new legislation introduced last year. David Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, pointed out that these were the first drugs to be professionally marketed, with packaging and particular logos.
He pointed to the “significant change in importation and supply via the internet and the development of the dark web, where supply can be hidden.” There are a wide range of legal highs, but Liddell points to synthetic cannabinoids – such as Spice – as being of “significant concern”.
He said these drugs are most likely to be used by vulnerable young people – such as those in prison – and there can be “significant harmful consequences” in their use. When it comes to the harm that other recreational drugs can cause, he said the picture was not clear.
“It would be useful to have more research in this area to establish whether recreational drug users simply do not experience drug-related harm, or whether services in Scotland need to be doing more to meet new treatment populations,” he said.
The problem of synthetic cannabinoids is also highlighted by Edinburgh drugs advice charity Crew 2000. Although these drugs have been available for around a decade, chief executive Emma Crawshaw pointed out they were previously little used and resulted in less intense side-effects.
Now there are over 200 different synthetic cannabinoids under surveillance by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Crawshaw said: “Effects are more exaggerated and unpredictable than cannabis and people using them can experience an intense but short-lived high, enhanced sensations, feelings of heaviness and nausea as well as anxiety, paranoia, heart palpitations and strong cravings to redose. People have also reported an increase in severe mental health issues when using these substances including ‘detachment from reality’, suicidal thoughts and depression.”
Tony Marini, psychotherapist at Castle Craig, a private residential addiction clinic in the Borders, said it had seen an increasing number of patients being admitted due to “legal highs”.
“We are mainly seeing people under the age of 25 and legal highs are concerning us as you get a lot more paranoid and psychotic episodes – they don’t know what is in these drugs,” he said.
Spice is one of a number of new laboratory-created substances which have emerged as a feature of the modern drugs scene