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How bad is the drug problem in Leith in 2024?


And how does it compare to the dark days of the late 1980s immortalised by Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting?

The answer, sadly, is that it is worse and likely going to become even more deadly.

Leith is one of the most polarised places in Scotland, if not the whole United Kingdom. It is home to three of Scotland’s dozen Michelin starred restaurants, yet it contains pockets of deprivation that are among the worst in the city.

Two facts provide context for understanding the situation in Leith. The first is that for years Scotland has been blighted by drugs, with the highest number of drugs-related deaths per million of population in Europe. Secondly, the link between drug use and poverty has been established by numerous studies.

In 2022 an official statistical report1 on drug deaths stated that ‘People in the most deprived areas of Scotland are almost 16 times as likely to die from drug misuse compared to people in the least deprived areas. The association of deprivation with drug misuse deaths is much greater than with other causes of death’. It also recorded how the most common types of drug implicated in drug deaths were opiates/opioids (implicated in 82% of all deaths).

Nearly 90% of drug misuse deaths were due to overdoses - or ‘accidental poisonings’ - with ‘only 7% classed as intentional self-poisonings’. Most deaths were linked to heroin, methadone and synthetic opioids, often taken in combination with other drugs - particularly ‘street benzos’ or Benzodiazepines such as diazepam and etizolamsuch.

The building of dozens of upmarket flats recently by the Shore confirm cool Leith has become attractive to the affluent and hip in recent years, but this masks the fact that many long-term inhabitants of the area have missed out on the upside of gentrification. There is also a hard core group of drug users who first became addicted during the Trainspotting era and - for those who survived this far - have never shaken off their addiction.

The reality of deprivation in Leith is official. In 2020 The City of Edinburgh Council, drawing on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), reported the most deprived data zone in Edinburgh is in Great Junction Street, which is in Leith Ward/North East Locality. It ranks as one of the top 20 most deprived areas in Scotland.” The least deprived place in Scotland was Stockbridge - just 1.6 miles away (oddly it has no Michelin starred restaurants...).

The Edinburgh2 Poverty Commission (in 2018) reported on average 16% of the city’s population lived in relative poverty. The figure for Leith Ward was significantly higher at 24%, in joint second place out of 17 electoral wards.

Whilst firm data on the extent of the drug problem in Leith is elusive, it is possible to make some informed guesses using other figures.

According to Police Scotland there were 1,197 suspected drug deaths in Scotland in 2023, of which 118 were in Edinburgh. Leith Ward (c.25,000 people) represents about 4.5% of the total population of Edinburgh, which suggests 5-6 drug deaths a year in Leith. However, given the link between deprivation and drug use, the likely figure is higher. It is also linked to gender and age: men are twice as likely to die from drug misuse than females, and the average age profile of drug misuse deaths is 453.

Bear in mind death figures are drawn from reports from police officers who attend scenes of death. For every person who dies from a suspected drugs overdose on the street or a tenement flat, there will be others who die in a hospital or hospice from illnesses linked to illegal drugs or legal ones such as cigarettes or alcohol. The damage caused to others is also immense, like a spider’s web. Every fatal overdose impacts trauma on family members.

In the Trainspotting-era, official statistics record far lower death figures. In 1984 the Secretary of State for Scotland reported in the Commons that 7 deaths had been recorded due to drug dependence for the whole of Edinburgh between 1979 and 1984. During that same five year period officially ‘there were no such deaths of persons usually resident in postal district EH6, which includes Leith4’. This was not in fact true, as many cases were certified at death as ‘accidental’, ‘asphyxiation’, ‘trauma’ or even ‘non attributed’. Cases of AIDS were not attributed in any statistics to drugs and many other drug related fatalities were similarly missed.

Jump forward to 1996 (when more comprehensive records began) there were 244 drug misuse deaths in the whole of Scotland5. Compare that figure to 1,197 for Scotland in 2023 and it should be obvious how much worse the problem has become. In Edinburgh in 2011 there were just over 40 deaths compared to 118 in 2023. Staggeringly Scotland’s drug deaths remain nearly three times higher than the UK as a whole6.

How many Leithers have a serious drug problem? Again there are no official figures. One survey produced by Information Services Division (ISD) Scotland in 2016 estimated 1.6% of the Scottish adult population had a problematic use of opioids and/or the illicit use of benzodiazepines (with routine and prolonged use as opposed to recreational and occasional drug use). If that figure is assumed in 2024, then that suggests at least 400 serious drug users in Leith (1.6% x c.25,000). Again, given levels of deprivation in parts of Leith, the real figure would likely be higher.

[The estimated number of individuals with problem drug use in Scotland is 57,300 - almost 1 in 60 of our population aged between 15 and 64. [Age7 group in Leith in that demographic is about 65% of ward population so around 65% of 25000 is 16250.1.6% of 16250 is 260]

And - grimly - the problems are almost certainly getting worse due to the carnage being inflicted by the spread of super-strong synthetic opioids such as Nitazenes. Leith is being directly impacted by the Taliban’s crack down on poppy production in Afghanistan. This has fuelled the production of cheaper, synthetic opioids in places like China which (according to The National Crime Agency) are then posted to dealers in the UK and mixed with other drugs before being sold.

It is therefore probably easier now to buy cheap, super-strong and dangerous drugs in Leith than at any time in living memory. Accidental overdoses due to mixing of drugs is also more likely. A friend - a former drug user who I first met after he left rehab - described how the ‘holy trinity’ of street valium, drink and opiates almost guarantees regular overdose, and although medication like naloxone can help reverse the impact of opioids, it may not be available especially if someone is using alone.

Nitazenes are stronger than heroin, described by the BBC as “500 times stronger than morphine.” Even a small amount can lead to a fatal overdose. In8 March 2024 a long list of synthetic opioids, including 14 Nitazenes, were classified as Class A drugs. But it feels like that horse bolted long ago.

Despite the gloom, in Leith there are several charities and agencies trying to help drug users, including Turning Point Scotland. One Christian charity parks a van on the Kirkgate every week, with volunteers trying to persuade passing drug users to join the charity’s rehab service.

While I was talking to a volunteer a local man popped in, his face so damaged from years of abuse I couldn’t tell if he was thirty or sixty. He weighed about seven stone and talked at 100 miles an hour (imagine Spud from the Trainspotting film thirty years on), mixing jokes with describing how he was currently on crack and wanted to give up for his daughters.

Then, taking the rehab form, he was off. Free cup of tea and biscuit in hand, promising to be back next week.

I wonder… will he ever be back? ■









The Edinburgh Divide by Norrie Harman

Nitazenes are stronger than heroin, described by the BBC as 500 times stronger than morphine



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