THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 19th August 2012

Figures for drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2011 have been published1 and have produced, as would be expected, some fairly hysterical reporting with cherry-picking of information to mislead readers.

The Herald Scotland, stating that drug-related deaths in 2011 were, at 584, the highest annual level ever reported, made a point of noting that this was ‘20% more than the previous year's figure of 485’2. Now, that is true, but the implication that drug deaths are running out of control is not justified.

It is indisputable that drug-related deaths have shown an upward trend for some time. This is because the drug users who started their use after drugs were outlawed and, thus, commercially attractive to criminals, are ageing. Drug-related deaths in the over 35 age groups have risen from 55 in 1996 to 301 for the 2010/2011 average (see below for the reason for using the average of the past two years). At the same time, deaths amongst under 35s have gone from 189 in 1996 to 234 in 2010/2011.

As the official report points out, year on year comparisons are misleading especially as 2010 had an unusually low level of deaths. The 584 figure is only 10 higher than the previous highest, in 2008. A more realistic way to look at the data is using a three year moving average. This shows that, while the long-term trend is up, the slope of the curve has turned down in recent years.

Chart showing drug-related deaths in Scotland

Incidentally, I prepared that chart because the one in the official publication has five plots on it and the one for the three-year moving average is a thin, pale line. It is almost as if the authors hope you won't notice it.

If you take the year on year figures and average 2010 and 2011 you see an apparent decline.

Drug-related deaths in Scotland

There is a possible justification for this approach. These are figures for registered deaths for the calendar year. Though deaths have to be registered within 8 days of a death certificate being issued no certificate can be issued, if a drug-related death is suspected, until the Procurator Fiscal has completed his investigation. Unusually, in 2010, severe winter weather arrived in late November and lasted to the end of the year. This disrupted many areas of everyday life and it would be surprising if the Procurator Fiscal did not fall behind with investigations.

In a normal year, when the worst winter weather tends to be in January and February, any delays in certifying deaths will be picked up in the same calendar year and the annual figures will not be distorted. The catch-up from any delays to the Procurator's work in December 2010 would fall into 2011.

If, and it is only ‘if’, you assume no drug-related deaths were registered in December 2010 then the monthly average for the 2010 total of 485 deaths is 44 for each of 11 months and the 2011 monthly average for each of thirteen months is also 44. Now, it is highly unlikely that no drug-related deaths were registered but it just shows how few deaths would need to be moved from one year to another to remove the shock element of the 2011 numbers.

Whether you rely on the three-year average or accept my suggestion about the weather, it is clear that the apparent increase from 2010 to 2011 is not as dramatic as it is being made out to be.

This is important because shock figures are used to justify extreme policies and the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Ruth Davidson, wasted no time in saying "This appalling loss of life illustrates the human disaster that is the methadone programme. It would appear hundreds of families are being blighted by what is little more than legalised drug-taking on an industrial scale."

You need to look closer at the numbers to see if there is any justification in placing the blame on opiate substitution therapy (OST) where heroin addicts are given methadone instead. The simple year on year figures show that methadone related deaths rose from 174 in 2010 to 275 in 2011.

The official statistics are not able to say whether the methadone concerned had been prescribed or misappropriated. The report in the Herald, however, quotes Biba Brand, head of the Scottish Drug Forum's National Quality Development Programme, as saying that its surveys suggest that the majority of methadone deaths are to people for whom methadone was not prescribed.

This might suggest that those on OST are able to obtain surplus methadone which they can divert to other users. That may be the case but it does not support the argument that OST should be ended. If anything, it shows that more investment in OST is required so that the needs of individuals can be better matched to the amount of methadone prescribed.

The danger of inadequate funding for treatment services has been illustrated, within the past week, by reports from Portugal that its economic difficulties are jeopardising the progress made since its change in the way it deals with drug users.3

The other point made by Ms Brand in the Herald was that problems with the quality of street heroin can lead users to seek supplies of diverted methadone. Lack of quality control of street heroin is a permanent problem but it is almost certainly worse just at the moment as, once again, there are reports of anthrax infected heroin causing deaths.4  

Pressure to end or curtail methadone based OST will be helped by another event this week. Oddly this also involves someone called Brand but, rather than trying to help problem drug users, this Brand, Russell Brand, is happy for his ill-informed arrogance to harm them.

Russell Brand, a comedian and ‘celebrity’, was a dependent heroin user. For him, total abstinence was his route to ending his addiction. That’s fine, it is good that he has been able to end his need for opiates but the ill-informed arrogance comes from his belief that what worked for him is the only way for anyone to get clean.

This past week, the BBC screened a documentary telling his story and providing a vehicle for his abstinence as the only form of treatment message with only minor inclusion of dissenting voices.

When I stopped smoking, in 1985, I did it by deciding, one day, to see if I felt better as a non-smoker than as a smoker. From that day, I never smoked again. I didn’t use any form of nicotine replacement nor any diversionary tactic such as chewing gum. It worked for me but I’m not arrogant enough to promote my method as something for other people and I most certainly wouldn’t argue that all other forms of smoking cessation are unnecessary and should be scrapped.

Ruth Davidson and Russell Brand are two of a kind. They are both happy to promote themselves at the expense of problem drug users.


1. Drug-related Deaths in Scotland in 2011 General Register Office for Scotland 17th August 2012
2. Drug deaths in Scotland reach highest ever level The Herald Scotland 18th August 2012
3. Once a model, crisis imperils Portugal's drug programme Reuters 13th August 2012
4. Addict dies of anthrax caught from infected heroin supply The Independent 18th August 2012  

Submit a Comment

You can send comments via the contact page but please be sure to say what blog entry you are commenting on.

Follow @thepoisongarden on Twitter

Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016 Saturday 20th August 2016 Sunday 6th March 2016 Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015 Friday 27th November 2015 Monday 17th August 2015 Wednesday 15th July 2015 Friday 26th June 2015 Thursday 25th June 2015 Thursday 30th April 2015 Wednesday 29th April 2015 Wednesday 11th March 2015 Tuesday 3rd March 2015 Saturday 28th February 2015 Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014


Monday 24th November 2014 Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014 Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014 Saturday 16th August 2014 Tuesday 5th August 2014 Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014 Wednesday 23rd July 2014 Sunday 13th July 2014 Sunday 6th July 2014 Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014 Tuesday 24th June 2014 Sunday 22nd June 2014 Monday 9th June 2014 Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014 Sunday 18th May 2014 Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014 Saturday 5th April 2014 Thursday 3rd April 2014 Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014 Tuesday 25th March 2014 Friday 21st March 2014 Monday 17th March 2014 Sunday 16th March 2014 Tuesday 11th March 2014 Thursday 6th March 2014 Wednesday 5th March 2014 Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014 Monday 24th February 2014 Wednesday 19th February 2014 Monday 17th February 2014 Thursday 13th February 2014 Monday 4th February 2014 Monday 3rd February 2014 Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014 Thursday 23rd January 2014 Friday 17th January 2014 Wednesday 15th January 2014 Monday 13th January 2014 Thursday 9th January 2014 Tuesday 7th January 2014 Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013 Friday 20th December 2013 Tuesday 17th December 2013 Friday 14th December 2013 Thursday 12th December 2013 Sunday 8th December 2013 Wednesday 4th December 2013 Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013 Wednesday 27th November 2013 Tuesday 26th November 2013 Friday 22nd November 2013 Monday 18th November 2013 Friday 15th November 2013 Thursday 14th November 2013 Sunday 10th November 2013 Thursday 7th November 2013 Wednesday 6th November 2013 Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013 Sunday 27th October 2013 Wednesday 23rd October 2013 Monday 21st October 2013 Friday 18th October 2013 Friday 11th October 2013 Wednesday 9th October 2013 Tuesday 8th October 2013 Monday 7th October 2013 Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013 Saturday 28th September 2013 Friday 27th September 2013 Monday 23rd September 2013 Sunday 15th September 2013 Monday 9th September 2013 Sunday 8th September 2013 Tuesday 3rd September 2013 Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013 Sunday 25th August 2013 Monday 19th August 2013 Friday 16th August 2013 Tuesday 13th August 2013 Friday 9th August 2013 Friday 2nd August 2013 Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013 Sunday 21st July 2013 Wednesday 17th July 2013 Monday 15th July 2013 Saturday 13th July 2013 Friday 12th July 2013 Thursday 11th July 2013 Wednesday 10th July 2013 Tuesday 9th July 2013 Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013 Tuesday 25th June 2013 Friday 21st June 2013 Thursday 20th June 2013 Wednesday 19th June 2013 Saturday 15th June 2013 Sunday 9th June 2013 Saturday 8th June 2013 Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 blog June 2012 blog May 2012 blog April 2012 blog March 2012 blog February 2012 blog January 2012 blog December 2011 blog November 2011 blog October 2011 blog September 2011 blog August 2011 blog July 2011 blog June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.