If someone dies due to drugs

The death of someone you love, or know, by drugs can leave you feeling a mixture of strong and sometimes overwhelming emotions. It is a devastating and traumatic event in anyone’s life.

Everyone grieves differently, and it is helpful to know that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is also important to know that you do not need to manage alone. It will be helpful now, or in time, to speak about the person you have lost and how you are feeling to those around you – whether this is family, friends, your doctor or one of the support services listed.

Role of the police

Police have to attend all unexplained deaths, including those related to drugs, to try and establish the cause.

There will be investigations carried out to identify the circumstances of the death and preserve any possible evidence. This is the reason the place a person died may be treated as a potential crime scene and may mean you won’t be allowed access during investigations.

This process can be upsetting and difficult but it can play an important part in Police being able to clarify the circumstances surrounding the cause of death. It can also help them confirm whether there has been any criminality involving another person.

The following explains police procedures in more detail and will help you understand the process.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) will be the main department which investigates the death, however, they are often supported by uniformed police officers. Detectives will attend and try to obtain as much information as they can in order to clarify the circumstances leading to the death. This may mean taking statements from family and friends, and though people may find this difficult, it will assist with police enquiries.

Until police are satisfied they know all the facts about the death, they need to ‘preserve the location’ to make sure no potential evidence is lost. During this time no other person will be allowed entry to the property. Photographs of the property may be taken.

Officers will remove items they believe may hold potential evidence or information around the death. This may include personal belongings such as mobile phones, laptops, clothing, and may also include property which belongs to other family members or friends. These items may be required to be examined by experts. Police will make every effort to return items at the earliest opportunity and are aware of the anguish which can be caused by removing personal and sentimental items.

As soon as possible, police will arrange for an undertaker to collect your loved one and take them to the hospital mortuary and will provide you with updates at the earliest opportunity.

For all sudden and unexplained deaths, police are required to send a report regarding the death to the Procurator Fiscal (PF).

Even when the report has been submitted, the investigation is still ongoing and police must continue to preserve any potential evidence. This may include continuing to prevent entry to the place of death and retaining possession of any items removed during the investigation.

To try and establish the circumstances around the death a post-mortem (sometimes called an autopsy) will take place. Every effort will be taken to have this carried out as soon as possible. While the timescale for this can vary, police may be able to provide an approximate indication of when this will take place.

Police will try to keep you updated as the investigation progresses and will release all personal property once the PF authorises them to do so. This property is unlikely to be returned until toxicology reports are issued to the family. Timescales for this vary across Scotland and may take a number of months.

During this period families can often feel progress is slow, but please be assured the various processes are completed as soon as possible and you will be updated on post-mortem results either by the police or the PF at the earliest opportunity.

Role of the Procurator Fiscal

The Procurator Fiscal has a duty to investigate all sudden, suspicious, accidental and unexplained deaths. Where there is a possibility drugs may be a factor in a death, it is likely the PF will instruct some or all of the following to take place.

A post-mortem examination to identify the cause of death.

Before a post-mortem can take place, it will sometimes be necessary for a formal identification to take place. This must be done by someone who knew the person when they were alive. The identification process may take place via a TV monitor or through a glass window. You need to be prepared that you will not be allowed to touch the body at this time. This is due to ongoing investigations into the death and the need to preserve any potential evidence.

It may be possible, after the post-mortem, for you to be allowed private time with your loved one without the need for a glass window. This is very much dependent on circumstances and will be discussed with the mortuary staff.

Before the post-mortem takes place personal property will be removed from your loved one’s body by police. It will be kept at the local police station and can be returned to the next of kin after all enquiries are complete.

During the post-mortem it may be necessary for samples of blood, urine or other fluids to be taken and sent to the forensic laboratory for examination to establish the exact cause of death. The examination of these samples may take some time.

If there are any cultural, religious or other requirements which may affect a post-mortem please bring them to the attention of the CID officer as soon as possible. They will discuss this with the PF on your behalf.

After the post-mortem examination if any family or friends would like to view the body you should speak to the CID officers who will contact the PF for authorisation.

To assist the investigation the PF may ask Police to take additional statements from family and friends and may request access to medical records.

If the post-mortem identifies the final cause of death a death certificate will be issued. If it is inconclusive or requires the results of the forensic samples then a provisional death certificate may be issued.

The funeral cannot take place until the PF has agreed the body can be released.

Registration of death and funeral arrangements

Family and friends can sometimes feel frustrated at the length of time police and PF enquiries can take. However, please be assured both services will try to bring matters to the earliest possible conclusion.

Any death which occurs in Scotland must be registered within eight days of the date of death and can be registered in any registration district in Scotland. Visit the Registering a death section of the website for more info.

You don’t have to wait until the body of the person who has died to be returned to you to contact a funeral director. You can contact any funeral director of your choice and discuss provisional plans for the funeral.

If you’re worried about paying for a funeral, you can apply for support at mygov.scot

Possible clinical review after death

If your loved one was accessing treatment from a clinical professional prior to their death, and toxicology has confirmed they died because of a substance-related death, you may be invited by the NHS to a Significant Clinical Incident Review. These reviews take place after toxicology reports have been finalised, which may take a number of months.

To ensure the review is impartial, the NHS appoint a team of staff who were not involved in your loved one’s care. The review usually involves senior clinical staff, such as a consultant or lead nurse, with support from clinical risk staff who gather information to establish events prior to death. From these investigations, they decide whether appropriate care was delivered and explore any areas where it was unclear.

Families hold a lot of background information which may be relevant to this investigation. It also provides families with an opportunity to ask any questions that they wish to have included in the investigation. If the questions asked are not relevant to the investigation, families may be advised on how best to progress. This is often seen by families as a positive way to be heard, to get answers to their questions and bring a sense of understanding and closure. The NHS welcome families’ involvement in this process.