Drug Toll 'Could Be as High as 400' as Forces Figures Differ; CONTROVERSY AFTER FAMILY TOLD KERRY-ANN WAS 146TH VICTIM

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THE increasing toll of the drug scourge in Scotland was highlighted yesterday with figures showing that it claimed at least 215 victims last year.

But the true cost in lives could be nearer 400 - which would leave Scotland with the highest toll in Europe The discrepancy in figures arises because the eight police forces in Scotland do not agree on the definition of a drugs death.

Varying definitions used have led to calls for Scottish forces to use a standardised approach to allow anti-drug workers and the Government to gauge the success of anti-drug campaigns.

If fears of 400 deaths are accurate Scotland stands apart from the rest of Britain where the number of victims per head of population is far lower.

Confirmation of at least 215 drug-related deaths came in early figures from six of Scotland's eight police forces.

More than half the number recorded so far were in Strathclyde, the biggest police force, which also has the widest definition of drug death.

Last year 148 deaths were recorded in which drugs played a factor - a toll sadly achieved after a tragic surge in deaths over the holiday period.

Strathclyde Police record suicides, fatal accidents and murders involving drugs in their total, whereas some forces record only accidental overdoses as a drug death.

This difference in approach allowed Lothian and Borders Police, which covers an area with pockets of drug abuse as bad as any found in Strathclyde, to claim there had been only 15 drug deaths in its area during 1999.

However, the figures add to the pressure on the new Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, which will start work later this year.

The Scottish Executive has given the new agency a budget of [pounds sterling]10million and it will have a staff of 200 officers dedicated to ridding the streets of illegal drugs. The drug problem in Northeast Scotland was underlined by 31 deaths in the Grampian Police area - almost the same death rate per head of population as Strathclyde.

Tayside Police recorded ten deaths, while Fife had nine, and Northern Constabulary dealt with three drug related deaths.

The official tally will rise still higher later this year when Central Scotland Police and their colleagues in the Dumfries and Gal-loway area release final figures.

The difficulty of defining a drug-related death has led to police in England and Wales setting up an advisory committee to look at the problem after research showed wide variations in death rates reported by forces south of the Border. The study was ordered after Keith Hellawell, the drugs czar in England and Wales, said his assessments of the scale of the drugs problem were being hampered by unreliable statistics.

He claimed some police forces were keen to avoid citing drugs as a cause of death to improve crime statistics and to avoid further pain for the victim's family.

Alistair Ramsay, director of Scotland Against Drugs, said the estimates were proof positive of a need to improve anti-drug initiatives aimed at young people. …