People caught with Class A drugs in Scotland could be given a police warning instead of facing prosecution. Officers can already issue a formal warning for the possession of lower category drugs (Class B and Class C), but the decision to include Class A drugs is in a bid to address the underlying causes of Scotland’s drugs death crisis. The country logged a record 1,339 drug-related deaths in 2020, the highest rate in Europe.
The Scottish government pledged to make it a ‘national mission’ to cut fatalities. Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain told MSPs that the mounting death toll represented a “public health emergency”, and that steps could be taken via the prosecution system to help. The proposed new scheme would not extend to drug dealing and officers would still be able to report certain cases to prosecutors. Prosecutors can also refer people accused of drugs offences for ‘diversion’, where they are dealt with by social work teams or other support agencies, rather than by the criminal justice system.
Public health approach rather than prosecution
Ms Bain said there was no ‘no one size fits all’ response to drug addiction and that every case should be judged individually: “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.”
Commenting on the decision, Police Scotland said it took a health-led approach to addressing drug deaths, saying the change “gives officers another tool to support those at risk of becoming vulnerable in our communities”. Formal warnings would still appear on criminal records, and persistent and serious offenders would still be reported to prosecutors.
The force said it was “steadfastly committed to tackling those who bring misery to our communities by dealing drugs and taking advantage of those who are at their most vulnerable”.
Annemarie Ward, Founder of the addiction charity Faces & Voices of Recovery UK, said that diversion from prosecution will prevent many people who really need help and support from being forced through the criminal justice system: “It should allow people who are caught in addiction to get into treatment, instead of being sent to jail.”
However, the Scottish Conservatives called the scheme ‘de facto decriminalisation by the back door’. MSP Jamie Greene said: “Scotland’s drug death crisis is our national shame. But surely the way to tackle it is by improving access to treatment and rehab, not to dilute how seriously we treat the possession of deadly drugs like heroin, crystal meth and crack cocaine, the scourges of our streets and of our society.”
Other parties backed the move, with Labour’s Claire Baker saying the statement was “very welcome”.