Experience: I manage the drug service in the ‘drug death capital’ of Europe

Every week a person dies from drugs in Dundee. It has a massive impact on everyone.

By Dave Barrie, Service Manager Addaction Dundee

I manage Addaction’s drug service in Dundee, the city with the unenviable title of the ‘drug death capital of Europe’.

Unsurprisingly it can be a tough job. Last week I arrived at work to find out a person who we supported had passed away from a suspected drugs overdose. Every week a person dies from drugs in Dundee. It still has a massive impact on everyone. For families, it’s unimaginably hard.

I’ve worked in the drug and alcohol sector for 30 years and managed the service in Dundee for five. In the past few years the accessibility and availability of a range of substances has exploded. At £30 a gram, heroin is the cheapest it’s ever been. The illicit sale of prescription drugs is also driving up the shocking level of overdoses.

Opiate users often use prescription drugs like Valium or Xanax to lessen the withdrawal effects of heroin. These drugs are dangerous and can be addictive. They’re becoming harder to get on prescription but the black market is filling this supply void. This means the strength of these pills varies massively. One illicit tablet may be the same strength as 10 prescribed tablets.

Among our clients you’ve got a group of people that are used to taking multiple doses of medication. If they have 20 pills it’s unlikely they’ll take a half of one, it’s more likely they’ll take four or eight. People become intoxicated very quickly, losing inhibitions and taking more risks. They might take more opiates or inject when they haven’t they haven’t done so for a while.

People sometimes forget days through blackouts. If you’ve lost four days imagine the risks you’re putting yourself under during that time? It’s like playing Russian roulette.

The day-to-day reality of our work is tough, but it’s also motivating. We know we make a real difference and our work saves lives. We’re constantly engaging with individuals and the community to reduce risk. Our family support group educates families around overdosing, including training people in the use of naloxone, a vital drug which reverses opioid overdoses.

And we’re also working tirelessly on the bigger picture. This includes meeting with the Health Minister Joe Fitzpatrick and influencing the redesign of the Recovery Oriented System of care in Dundee.

Dundee football grounds from Dundee Law. FHL2 / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Yet this is also a national issue. Dundee is at the top in terms of drug deaths, but Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Fife have all had similar upward trends of fatal overdoses. Scotland needs to be bold and brave in its response with a harm reduction philosophy at its core. The new drugs strategy is a great start but nothing should be off the table, from drug consumption rooms to prescribing heroin.

We also need to do more to address the link between poverty, trauma and drug use. In Dundee we regularly support clients who have experienced significant trauma and who’s relentless poverty makes it hard for them to plan for the future. That’s why we’re working closely with the charity Social Bite to implement a Housing First model to give people more stability and support.

People often ask me what keeps me going in this job? It’s the fact that you’re immersed in a vibrant and passionate community. Some days I might be delivering a family support group, giving people information that could save lives. Other days I’ll participate in defining the city’s future recovery strategy. It’s never boring. At Christmas I dressed up as Santa for nearly 60 kids. This isn’t a job where you go home at five and clock out.

The statistics may look bleak now but I think times are changing. People are coming round to the idea of harm reduction, leaving the failed ‘war on drugs’ approach behind.

This is at the core of what we do in Dundee and that makes me immensely proud.