Overdose protection activists have warned experts in Dundee that policies must change before drug deaths soar.
Professor Bernie Pauly and Dr Bruce Wallace, from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, made the plea at a national conference held at the Steeple Church, Nethergate.
They spoke about their experiences working in British Columbia, where a province-wide public health emergency was declared in 2016.
This was a political response to a dramatic rise in drug overdoses and deaths due to an increase in the use of fentanyl – an opioid drug far stronger than heroin.
At the time, about 80% of drug-related deaths there were caused by fentanyl and it was the highest unnatural cause of death in the province. The plight has a resemblance to the battles faced by Dundee, with drugs continuing to cause havoc in the city.
Dundee Drugs Commission was set up last March in a bid to curb the rising numbers of deaths and is set to issue its findings next month.
The commission has sought to identify ways to put a halt to the city’s spiralling drug death toll – 51 drug-related deaths were recorded in 2017, up from 38 in 2016.
Prof Pauly said: “People were phoning us up telling us something was going wrong.
“We’ve learned to listen to people on the street – when they tell you that something is different and is going wrong, then something is different and is going wrong.”
The emergency state saw mass distribution of home-use kits containing an antidote medication called naloxone and pop-up safe rooms for supervised drug use opened across the province.
There are now 1,519 of these sites at hospitals, community facilities and other support services, all supervised by paid, trained staff members.
However, Dr Wallace said this has solved only a “small part of the big puzzle” as recent figures show that the number of drug-related deaths has levelled but not reduced.
He said: “There have been over a million visits to these sites since they were set up, with zero deaths at them.
“Staff have managed to prevent overdoses by getting people up and rubbing them to reactivate their respiratory system.
“They have proved effective, yet insufficient. The drugs they are taking are still toxic.”
He is now focusing on drug testing in a bid to reduce overdose deaths.
Canadian figures show there are 11 deaths every day due to drug overdoses and four of those are in British Columbia.
Health officials are turning their attentions to prescribing safer opioid agonist treatments, such as methadone or suboxone.
Prof Pauly added that in British Columbia they are now “trying everything” in the hope of reducing death tolls – and she has urged Scottish ministers to follow suit.
She said: “Political leaders need to recognise the devastating effect these deaths have. Don’t pretend it’s not happening.”
Prof Pauly added: “Part of the problem is that we have bad drug laws and need to see changes, so that we are not criminalising people or judging them.
“There is a belief that people use substances for fun but it’s much more complex than that. In our society some drugs are legal and others are not, with no rhyme or reason – alcohol is not regulated but there are many problems related to alcohol addiction.
“We need to challenge the idea that because it’s illegal it should be treated differently.”