SNP ministers have been accused of decriminalising class A drug use “by the back door” after it was revealed police will be advised to issue recorded warnings for possession of any illegal substance instead of referring offenders to prosecutors. 

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain took opposition MSPs by surprise after announcing that “simple possession offences” of all drugs, including class A substances, can now be dealt with by police issuing a recorded warning. 

The offences allowed to be subject to a recorded police warning are usually kept confidential by the Lord Advocate, but Ms Bain has announced the drug possession inclusion due to the public interest over Scotland's soaring drug deaths which have reached record levels. 

The Scottish Conservatives have accused the SNP of “defacto decriminalisation by the back door”. Campaigners have labelled the announcement a "positive move" but have issued caution that the measure is not viewed "as a silver bullet" to solve Scotland's drug deaths crisis. 

Ms Bain stressed that “this scheme extends to possession offences only” and “does not extend to drug supply offences”. 

READ MORE: Scotland's drug deaths: 1,339 Scots died in 2020 after drugs misuse

Speaking in Holyrood, the Lord Advocate also insisted that the move does “not represent decriminalisation of an offence”, but is instead a “proportionate criminal justice response”. 

Ms Bain revealed to MSPs that this advice had already been offered for class B and class C drugs – but has now been extended to possession offences of all illegal substances, including heroine, crack cocaine and crystal meth. 

Ms Bain said issuing a recorded police warning “provides officers with a speedy, effective and proportionate means of dealing with low level offending”. 

A review has taken place into other offences that can be subject to a recorded police warning. 

Ms Bain added: “I have considered the review and 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.” 

READ MORE: Thousands of drug-dependent babies have been born in Scotland

She insisted that despite the changes, “police officers retain the ability to report appropriate cases to the Procurator Fiscal" and "accused persons retain the right to reject the offer of a warning”. 

She added: “Neither offering a recorded police warning nor reporting a case to the Procurator Fiscal prevents an officer referring a vulnerable person to support services.” 

Scotland has the highest rate of drugs-related deaths in Europe with the latest annual figures published in July revealing the highest number of fatalities, 1,339, since records began in 1996. 

Annemarie Ward, CEO of campaign group Favor Scotland, has insisted that more treatment services will be needed alongside the move. 

She said: "This is a very welcome and positive move from the Lord Advocate. 

"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. 

READ MORE: Scotland's drug deaths: Care service plans could sweep up rehab provision

"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. 

"We still desperately need the government to pass a right to recovery bill to guarantee that everyone who needs access to treatment can get it. Otherwise, we will divert people from prosecution but we won't actually help them to get their health or lives back on track." 

Jamie Greene, Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson, criticised the lack of scrutiny over the announcement. 

He added: “Scotland’s drug deaths crisis is our national shame, but surely the way to tackle it is by improving access to treatment and rehabilitation – not to dilute how seriously we treat the possession of class A drugs, deadly drugs like heroin, crystal meth and crack cocaine – the scourges of our streets and scourges of our society. 

“The answer to our drug deaths crisis is treatment, not defacto decriminalisation by the back door, as is the case today.” 

Scottish Labour drugs policy spokesperson, Claire Baker, said: “Scotland’s drugs death crisis is a scandal of national proportions and it is only right that a public health approach is taken to tackle it. 

“Today’s statement from the Lord Advocate is to be welcomed and I hope that it will lead to many more people being directed to the help and support that they need." 

She added: “Nonetheless, with a rise in the number of drug-related cases being diverted, it is incumbent on the SNP government to ensure that our social services are properly resourced. 

“We have a chance to turn the page on Scotland’s drugs crisis, but only if we are willing to meet the challenge with dedication, hard-work and compassion.”