Individuals caught in possession of class A drugs in Scotland could be issued with a police warning rather than facing prosecution, in a significant policy shift announced by the country’s new lord advocate as a direct response to the ongoing drug death crisis.
Dorothy Bain, who was appointed to the role in June, said the decision to give police discretion over class A drug offences did not amount to decriminalisation but told MSPs there was “no one size fits all response” to dealing with drug addiction.
She added that the policy did not extend to drug supply offences and that neither offering a recorded police warning nor reporting a case to the procurator fiscal prevents an officer referring a vulnerable person to support services.
Police can already issue warnings for category B and C drug users, rather than refer them to the prosecution service.
In her first address to the Holyrood parliament since her appointment, Bain told MSPs: “I recognise the extent of the public health emergency we face in Scotland and the ability of prosecutors to help.”
Bain went on to outline the success of the current “diversion from prosecution” policy, whereby an individual can be referred to a programme of support with the aim of addressing the underlying causes of their offending.
Bain told the Holyrood chamber: “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.”
Campaigners hope that the announcement indicates a cultural as well as policy change, with the Scottish government willing to consider radical alternatives in the face of soaring death tolls, which saw a record 1,339 people die last year.
Welcoming the announcement, David Liddell, the chief executive of Scottish Drugs Forum, said: “The extension of recorded police warnings to all substances reflects a determination to stop the differentiation between substances which is often based on prejudice and class concerns. The extension of diversion from prosecution for crimes associated with problem drug use takes us closer to having a criminal justice system that can deal more effectively with supporting people away from criminal activity.”
The announcement prompted an immediate backlash from the Scottish Conservatives who described it as “de-facto decriminalisation by the back door” of drugs such as heroin, crystal meth and crack cocaine.
Other parties welcomed the shift. Maggie Chapman, justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, who entered a power-sharing agreement with the Scottish government last month, said: “Given Scotland’s worryingly high drug death rate, it’s important we move to a harm reduction approach, and this move is an important step given the limited powers Scotland has to address it. It is especially needed in places like Dundee, where whole communities are devastated by the failures of the ‘war on drugs’ approach.”