Drug-related deaths in Scotland rose to a record 1,339 last year
Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain announced Class A drug users can now be let off with a Recorded Police Warning (RPW) rather than being prosecuted. Ms Bain told MSPs the shake-up could help tackle Scotland’s spiralling drugs death toll.
But Tories said the move amounts to the “de-facto decriminalisation” of deadly substances and would do “nothing” to tackle the crisis.
They also criticised SNP ministers for allowing the change without any formal consultation or a Parliamentary vote.
Drug-related deaths in Scotland rose to a record 1,339 last year, the seventh time in a row that the number has risen.
Scotland continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe, with 21.2 deaths per 1,000 of the population.
This is more than three-and-a-half times higher than England and Wales.
Nicola Sturgeon was accused of a soft-touch approach
Ms Sturgeon admitted earlier this year that her government “took our eye off the ball” and pledged to take a more direct role in tackling the crisis.
Police officers already have the ability to choose to deal with supposedly ‘minor’ offences, including for the possession of Class C and Class B drugs.
Those powers will now be extended to include the most highly controlled substances.
Class-A drugs also include ecstasy (MDMA), methadone and methamphetamine (crystal meth).
Under the RPW scheme ‑ which was introduced in 2016 ‑ incidents are kept on record for two years and can be taken into account if the offender comes to the attention of police again.
In a Holyrood statement, Ms Bain ‑ who was appointed as Scotland’s top law officer in June ‑ said: “I have decided that an extension of the Recorded Police Warning guidelines to include possession of offences for Class A drugs is appropriate.
“Police officers may therefore choose to issue a Recorded Police Warning for simple possession offences for all classes of drugs.
“The scheme extends to possession offences only.
“The scheme does not extend to drug supply offences. Robust, prosecutorial action will continue to be taken in relation to the supply of controlled drugs.”
Ms Bain said that RPWs “do not represent decriminalisation”, and insisted they were a “proportionate, criminal justice response to a level of offending and are an enforcement of the law”.
She also told MSPs the warnings were not “mandatory” as police officers will still be able to report cases to the Procurator Fiscal.
Prosecutors can also refer people accused of drugs offences for “diversion”, where they are dealt with by social work teams or other agencies rather than the criminal justice system.
Ms Bain added: “There is no one size fits all response to an individual found in possession of a controlled substance, or an individual dependent on drugs.
“The most appropriate response, the smartest response in any drugs case must be tailored to the facts and circumstances of both the alleged offence and the offender.
“Scotland’s police and prosecutors are using the powers available to them to both uphold the law and help tackle the drug death emergency.”
But Scottish Tory shadow justice secretary Jamie Greene warned it would put police officers in an “impossible situation”.
He said: “Scotland’s drug death crisis is our national shame but the way to tackle it is to improve access to treatment and rehabilitation, not to dilute how seriously we treat possession of deadly drugs like heroin, crystal meth and crack cocaine.
“The answer to our drugs crisis is more access to treatment, not this de-facto decriminalisation by the back door of drugs that are the scourge of our streets and our society.”
Calling for a full debate and vote on the topic at Holyrood, Mr Greene added: “There is a fine line between drug possession and drug dealing.
“This dangerous decision will benefit drug dealers by making it more difficult to stop the supply.”
RPWs were handed to more than 6,000 Scots in 2018-2019 for drugs offences.
In addition, in 2018-2019, 3,957 fiscal fines were imposed for drug crimes ‑ financial penalties imposed as an alternative to prosecution, by prosecutors as opposed to police.
In 2019, it emerged that the average length of prison sentences imposed for drug offences had fallen by 14 percent in five years.
Several police forces in England are using or developing their own diversion programmes though only one pilot in the West Midlands involves Class A drug users.
Annemarie Ward, chief executive of the charity Faces And Voices Of Recovery, said: “Diversion from prosecution will prevent many people who really need help and support from being forced through our criminal justice system.
“It should allow people who are caught in addiction to get into treatment, instead of being sent to jail.
“However, we have to be very careful not to view this as a silver bullet.
“This move will help but ultimately, it will not help people to get well on its own. It will not save lives on its own. It has to be accompanied by increasing access to treatment and rehabilitation or nothing will change.”
Minister for Drug Policy Angela Constance
SNP Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance rejected Tory criticism insisting the Lord Advocate had made clear there was no decriminalisation.
She added: “Recorded Police Warnings represent a proportionate and timely enforcement of the law, but in a manner which avoids the stigmatising impact of a criminal conviction on individuals who need support, not condemnation.
“These warnings provide a tool for police officers to use when they encounter someone in possession of drugs, however we must do more to make the most of these interactions, ensuring this is combined with appropriate referral pathways, to help those at most risk access life-saving treatment and support.
“Developing effective pathways to treatment is a key goal of our National Mission to improve and save lives.
“We are working hard to get more people into the treatment which works for them. Over the next five years we are investing £250 million into tackling this crisis with £100 million going towards increasing the provision of residential rehabilitation.”