A FORMER Scottish justice secretary has branded the so-called war on drugs a failure and called for a sweeping reform of laws governing the use and possession of illegal substances.

Kenny MacAskill is by far the most senior British politician to back decriminalisation and said Scotland should to get the power to introduce the kind of liberal drug legislation currently being implemented in other countries.

Speaking in a personal rather than party capacity, Mr MacAskill said: "My view is that we should look to treat drugs as a public health problem rather than a law and order one.

"We should stop locking up young people and the, frankly, the poor.

"This is the direction of travel all over the world in countries like the United States and Portugal.

"It allows you to invest the resources that currently go in to law and order, policing, in to health."

The SNP stalwart's intervention comes after Police Scotland last week revealed it would no longer report cannabis users it caught with small quantities of the drug for prosecution.

The Conservatives - whose Westminster government oversees similar police policies in England and Wales - said the Scottish police cannabis announcement amounted to the "back-door declassification of this dangerous drug".

But Mr MacAskill has echoed major drugs and health groups in welcoming the police move.

But the former lawyer added he wanted full devolution of Britain's unreformed 1971 drugs prohibition legislation to follow that of other key moral and social issues, such as abortion.

And he has called for a national commission to look at bringing Scotland in to line with changes taking place in countries like Ireland, where possession of small quantities of drugs, including cocaine and heroin, for personal use will no longer be a crime.

Mr MacAskill said: "As parties prepare their manifestos for the Holyrood elections none of them will be calling for the devolution of drugs laws. But they should. For two reasons.

"One of them is that the argument you can't have a separate policy has been blown apart by the devolution abortion. We don't have a pan-UK law on abortion or a pan-UK law on drink-driving.

"The other is that the UK policy is not working well. The law on cannabis, in particular, is in disrepute.

"The time has come for Scotland to both seek to devolve drug policy and to go - I would submit - in a different direction. "

He added that the remit of any commission should go beyond cannabis and join a debate, including the issue of so-called legal highs.

"During the referendum nobody went anywhere near drugs policy. Why? It is viewed as a no-win area. I don't think that is sustainable in the long term."

There is near consensus among drug policy experts in Scotland of the need for reform. Andrew Horne, of Addaction, which supports addicts, said: "The 1971 act is no longer fit for purpose.

"There doesn't feel to be an energy in the UK Government to change the act therefore it needs to be devolved to Scotland where we can adopt a better social and public health response."

David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said: "We welcome the brave lead taken by the former Justice Minister in opening up a debate on the decriminalisation of drugs.

"The need for an open debate on the subject was called for by our members at our annual general meeting last month.

"We have to focus our measure of success in terms of reducing harm, and there is significant emerging evidence from a number of countries that decriminalisation can do this - provided it is combined with a broader public health approach."

Mr MacAskill's intervention echoes that of the scientist who chaired the UK Government on advisory committee on drugs, David Nutt, and Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker.

From January Scottish officers will start issuing new "Recorded Police Warnings" to many of the tens of thousands of people a year found committing minor offences such as carrying cannabis.

Senior police sources stress they are looking for a "proportionate" and "effective" disposal to the kind of offences that until now would either result in a fixed-penalty notice or a report to the Crown Office that ended either in no proceedings or a fiscal warning.