'You fall back': inside Scotland's drug death crisis

Joe JACKSON
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A third of Scotland's nationwide total of drug-related deaths occurred in Glasgow and surrounding areas

A third of Scotland's nationwide total of drug-related deaths occurred in Glasgow and surrounding areas (AFP Photo/ANDY BUCHANAN)

Glasgow (AFP) - One-armed addict Michael arrives at a derelict scrap of land near Glasgow city centre littered with used syringes and other drug detritus to inject cocaine.

He is helped by a fellow user, Bryan, who quickly mixes the white powder with distilled water in a small spoon and draws the liquid up into two needles.

Moments later, the pair, barely hidden in the wasteland site, drop their trousers and shoot the narcotic-laced fluid into their leg veins.

Bryan, an addict since the age of 16, licks the tip of his needle to get every last drop.

"It's from just living on the street constantly -- (it's) just readily available," Michael, 42, said, of his chronic cocaine habit, noting it was also currently easing the pain from a severe abscess on his ankle.

"I started out with heroin but I'm on a methadone programme so I don't touch heroin anymore," the gaunt and emaciated addict added, in his thick Glaswegian accent.

The pair, identified only by their first names, are examples of worsening drug misuse across Scotland, where drug-related death rates are now the highest in the European Union, according to the National Records of Scotland office.

The statistics released in July show a record 1,187 such fatalities last year -- up 27 percent on 2017 -- with heroin, the synthetic substitute methadone, other opioids and depressants most commonly involved.

Cocaine was implicated in nearly a quarter of the deaths, while a third of the nationwide total occurred in Glasgow and surrounding areas.

- 'Go into a coma' -

The average age of those dying was 42 -- placing Michael in a particularly at-risk category.

"Most of the people I grew up with are dead, through heroin and cocaine," he told AFP, while begging near one of Glasgow's busiest shopping centres.

He also blamed the spike in deaths on street valium -- thought to contain benzodiazepines like the potent Etizolam, but often simply a "cocktail of everything" -- which is increasingly rife.

"People take like 30 of them for a tenner (£10, 11 euros, $12), go to sleep and go into a coma and die," Michael said.

He added that he had resisted the so-called "street benzos" after seeing their "Jekyll and Hyde" effect.

"A good friend of mine hit me with a bottle one night, gave me six staples in my head and the next day couldn't remember doing it," he recounted.

- 'Not enough money' -

Raised in Pollok, a historically deprived neighbourhood in south Glasgow, Michael became homeless at 14.

A year later, he was electrocuted by a power pylon while "messing around" on railway tracks and lost his right arm.

With a spiralling substance abuse problem that eventually led to a heroin addiction, he went on to father five children from two relationships.

But he is estranged from them now and has spent much of his adult life on the streets.

"You end up clean and then you fall back," he said, of his constant relapses, noting it was getting increasingly hard to get support in an era of government austerity.

"There's not enough money for the addiction services, they're shutting too many rehabilitation centres down".