SCOTLAND'S drugs minister has defended a change in stance which will allow police to issue warnings to those caught with drugs such as heroin or cocaine, saying: “We can’t arrest our way out of a drugs death crisis.”

Angela Constance hit back after the Conservatives claimed the new approach – announced by Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain QC – amounts to “defacto decriminalisation”.

Tory MSP Russell Findlay hit out at the policy in Parliament.

He later tweeted: "SNP-Green coalition today effectively decriminalised heroin and crack possession by stealth.

"Alternatives to prosecution for other drugs already exist - but those who reject 'fiscal fines' etc are often not prosecuted. Surely now inevitable that will happen with Class A drugs."

But advocates of the change have criticised the Tories, arguing that drug policy should be a health issue and not a criminal issue.

Iain Smith, a criminal defence lawyer, replied to Findlay: "Drug Addiction is a health issue not a justice one.

"50 years ago the UK decided to criminalise traumatised folk who take drugs to ease their pain.

"Scotland now top the league for drug deaths & incarceration I profit from that system but wish it to change."

Police officers can already use their discretion to issue warnings to those caught with Class B and C drugs – such as barbiturates and cannabis.

READ MORE: Drug deaths Scotland: More than 700 recorded in first half of 2021

Bain announced on Wednesday that that power is now being extended to Class A substances, which also include ecstasy, crack cocaine and magic mushrooms.

Describing the change as a “smart use of the law”, Constance said it will be at the discretion of police whether a warning is issued, and she stressed this 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.

She hailed the move as “very significant” as Scotland aims to reduce drugs deaths – which reached a record 1339 in 2020.

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

Speaking on the Good Morning Scotland programme, Constance added: “There is a recognition that as we embark on our national mission to reduce drug-related deaths in Scotland, we need as much as we can within our powers towards a public health response.

“I think the Lord Advocate’s statement was very significant.

READ MORE: Drug deaths Scotland: Alex Cole-Hamilton calls for WHO to intervene

“In her first statement to Parliament as the new Lord Advocate, she recognised the extent of the public health emergency that we face in Scotland and acknowledged the ability of police and prosecutors to help with that.

“The Lord Advocate was speaking about possession only. I would of course as the drugs minister argue that people caught in possession of heroin should be supported into treatment because we can’t arrest our way out of a drugs death crisis, and we need to be reducing demand for drugs as well as supply.

“This is of course a discretionary power by the police.

“But it is an example of how we can tailor our criminal justice system to be more proportionate and be more timely and a more smart use of the law.”