SBC watchdog to probe youth drug use amid ‘grave concerns’

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ALTHOUGH the latest available statistics suggest drug misuse in the Borders is still below the national average, the watchdog scrutiny panel of Scottish Borders Council has agreed to hold a hearing in its work programme for 2011/12 into how the local authority can improve is policy towards youth and drugs, writes Andrew Keddie.

And Dr Eric Baijal, joint director of public health with SBC and NHS Borders, will tell councillors today that he remains gravely concerned at the impact of substance abuse in the Borders.

In agreeing to probe the youth drugs issue, scrutiny is acceding to a request from Hawick Community Council, although the watchdog intends to include alcohol misuse among young people in its deliberations.

Although statistics referred to in Dr Baijal’s annual report on public health for 2010 do not include a town-by-town breakdown, Hawick is considered a growth area for substance abuse.

In 2009, the Big River Project, which supports drug users with advice and advocacy, reported it was operating at full referral capacity in Hawick.

And 20 per cent of all needle exchange contacts in the Borders took place at Hawick Health Centre, a facility which was at the centre of a scare the same year when contaminated needles were left in toilets on at least five occasions.

If needle exchange activity is a barometer of drug misuse, then figures reported in private to NHS Borders suggest an alarming regionwide increase. The total number of needles and syringes distributed in the Borders in 2005/06 was 6,687. This had rocketed to 35,102 by 2008/09.

Dr Baijal expresses his disquiet in his annual report which will be presented to a full meeting of SBC today.

Recently appointed, the chairman of the Borders Alcohol and Drug Partnership, he reveals that in 2007/08, 182 newindividuals in the region were reported to the Scottish Drugs Misuse Database (SDMD), a signficant increase of more than 40 per cent on the previous year and higher than the average of around 150 individuals reported to the SDMD each year since 2001.

Dr Baijal’s source is a recently-published major needs assessment of drug and alcohol problems, carried out by an independent consultancy and commissioned by the Borders Drug and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT).

The research revealed that a smaller-than-average proportion of individuals in the Borders self-referred, while in contrast, almost 60 per cent were referred by a health service, including GP practices.

More than three-quarters of the new referrals (77 per cent) were unemployed, higher than the Scottish average of 70 per cent, while 78 per cent funded their drug use with benefits (Scottish average 67 per cent). A fifth of the new Borders users said crime was the source of their funding, 38 per cent lived alone and 18 per cent reported they lived with other drug users.

A higher-than-average rate of psychiatric discharges related to drug misuse per 100,000 of the population was recorded in the Borders between 2003 and 2007.

There were seven drug-related deaths in the Borders in 2008, comprising three involving heroin, two Diazepam and one cocaine, with the other two involving drugs and alcohol.

In 2008, 708 drug-related offences were recorded in the Borders, up four per cent on 2004.

Although drug crimes are still lower than the Scottish average, a higher proportion of arrests in the Borders related to possession with intent to supply.