SIR Keir Starmer has sparked a row about drug use on the eve of his party conference after backing a controversial change in the way possession is dealt with in Scotland.

The UK Labour leader said allowing the police to issue warnings to people caught with small amounts of Class A drugs such as cocaine and heroin was “probably the right thing to do”.

Sir Keir, the former head of the prosecution service south of the border, was attacked for making the comments in an interview with ITV last night.

Inverting a slogan made famous by Tony Blair, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that under Sir Keir, Labour was “weak on crime and weak on the causes of crime”.

The controversy comes on the day before Sir Keir tries to relaunch his leadership at UK Labour’s party’s weekend conference in Brighton.

He is already under fire from the left of his party for trying to change the internal rules which led to the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn.

Scotland’s top prosecutor, the Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain QC, told Holyrood on Tuesday the police would now be allowed to issue warnings for Class A drugs.

She insisted this was not decriminalising hard drugs, and the police would still be able to use their discretion to refer people to prosecutors, and would still arrest drug dealers.

The move is part of a shift towards treating drug abuse more as health issue than a criminal justice one, with people diverted away from prosecution into support services.

However the Tories said the change meant the “de facto criminalisation” of drugs such as heroin, crack cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy, LSD, and magic mushrooms.

Possession of Class A drugs is punishable by up to seven years in jail.

With Scottish Labour backing the change, Sir Keir was asked in an interview with ITV’s Representing Border whether he was supportive.

He said: “There is a world of difference between a decision not to prosecute a particular case and ripping up the drug laws. It is not unusual in any legal system for those caught with small amounts of cannabis not to be prosecuted.

“I don’t think many people would argue that that discretion isn’t sensible.

“The very same in Scotland – there is a world of difference between that exercise and saying ‘do you think drug laws should be scrapped?’ to which my answer is no.”

Pressed on Ms Bain’s decision, Sir Keir said: “It’s probably the right thing to do.

“It’s an independent decision that has been made.”

When police officers in Scotland were advised by the Crown Office in 2019 that they could issue warnings for possession of Class B and C drugs, such as barbiturates and cannabis, the number of diversions soared from 57 in 2017-18 to 1000 in 2020-21.

Scotland’s drugs minister, Angela Constance, defended the change on Thursday.

“We can’t arrest our way out of a drugs death crisis,” she said. 

READ MORE: SNP minister Angela Constance defends change in policing of Class A drugs

Describing the change as a “smart use of the law”, Scotland’s drug minister Angela Constance hailed the move as “very significant” as Scotland aims to reduce drugs deaths – which reached a record 1,339 in 2020.

She added the change will only be an option in cases of possession for individual use, not where someone is suspected of being involved in supplying drugs to others.

Ms Constance told BBC Radio Scotland the change had been welcomed by all parties at Holyrood “with the exception of the Conservatives”.

Tory justice spokesman Jamie Greene MSP said: “It looks like Keir Starmer is joining Scottish Labour and backing the SNP’s plans to soften drug laws.

“This dangerous position will benefit drug dealers and make it more difficult for police officers to cut down on the supply of deadly substances including heroin and crystal meth.

“The way to end Scotland’s drugs crisis is by improving access to rehabilitation, not by decriminalising Class A drugs through the backdoor.”