THE SCOTTISH Government has been told to stop looking at the country’s drugs death crisis “through a constitutional lens” amid a row with Westminster over the situation being treated as a public health emergency.

Scotland recorded 1,187 drug-related deaths in 2018 – the highest death rate in the European Union and three times the overall UK tally.

Yesterday, the UK Government formally rejected calls to declare the crisis as a “public health emergency” and dismissed a plea for drugs possession for personal use to be decriminalised as part of a campaign to approach the crisis as a health issue.

READ MORE: Ministers say Peter Krykant's Glasgow 'mobile drug fix room' is illegal

The Scottish Government’s Public Health Minister, Joe FitzPatrick told MSPs that the UK Government’s “determination” to concentrate on a justice response to the crisis “is hugely depressing”.

He added: “I fully intend to continue to press the UK Government for action on a variety of matters where we want and need to see action to tackle the public health emergency we are facing in terms of drug death.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Scotland: Overdose reversal drug now more widely available during pandemic

“We are clear that we want to tackle this matter through an evidence-based, health-focused approach but our ability to implement several aspects of this is being frustrated by the areas of reserved legislation and the refusal of the UK Government to take action that will help us to save lives.”

But Labour MSP Neil Findlay attacked the Scottish Government for failing to put a grievance with the UK Government aside in order to focus on solving the issues.

He said: “The Tory approach to Scotland’s drugs crisis is ridiculous and it’s a disgrace but there’s a huge amount that we can do in Scotland on mental and physical heath of drug users and residential rehab, on policy coordination, on care, policing and much, much more.

“Will the minister please stop looking at this desperate situation through a constitutional lens and instead, take the decisions that he has the power over and help save lives now – not in another year’s time, not in five years’ time, now.”

READ MORE: First major study by Glasgow experts finds Scottish public support drug consumption rooms

Mr FitzPatrick replied: “I’ve tried very hard not to look at this issue through a constitutional lens but we have to come to the realisation and the acceptance that there is an uncomfortable interface between the public health approach, the justice approach – both of which are devolved, and drugs legislation which is reversed.

“There is no question that interface is making it difficult for us here in Scotland to take all of the actions that we can take.

“No-one is suggesting that the actions that we can work with the UK Government on, in relation to things like pill prices and things like safe consumption places – no-one is suggesting they are a silver bullet.”

Conservative MSP Annie Wells pointed to decisions taken by the Scottish Government that have reduced support for drug users.

She said: “There were approximately 352 rehab beds in Scotland in 2007. In the 10 years following, that number dropped to less than 70 – that's 282 rehab beds that have been cut under this government.

“Surely the first priority should be to increase the number of people accessing treatment and revising cuts to the drug and alcohol partnerships made by this government.”

Mr FitzPatrick said that it was important that people are not “under the illusion that there’s only one silver bullet”.

He added: “I think all the support we can provide to people is important – that's why we are looking at whether the pathways into rehabilitation are appropriate and are properly accessible.”