Police Scotland issued nearly 6,000 warnings for cannabis possession as an alternative to prosecution in the first year of a controversial new scheme.
Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday show officers handed out a total of 5,827 Recorded Police Warnings (RPWs) in 2016/17, equivalent to roughly a fifth of all drug possession charges.
The scheme, which was introduced in January last year, is used for a range of minor offences which would previously have been reported to prosecutors and would have led to a non-court disposal or no further action being taken.
However, critics have described RPWs as a “soft touch”, with the inclusion of cannabis possession particularly controversial.
Police Scotland initially refused to release the information under Freedom of Information legislation, arguing it would “compromise” law enforcement and potentially increase low-level offending.
But Margaret Keyse, the acting Scottish information commissioner, said the force had been wrong to withhold the statistics and ordered them to be released.
Superintendent Athol Aitken said RPWs were reserved for those found with an “extremely low” amount of cannabis.
“This was never introduced as a recording process just for cannabis,” he said. “The whole scheme is about proportionality and what’s the most appropriate way of dealing with that individual.
“It might be the first time that person has been in trouble. I don’t think it’s appropriate that that person, if it’s been a minor piece of offending where there’s no harm to a victim, could then carry a criminal conviction for years in their life which may affect their employment possibilities, their education, their travel.
“If they are dealt with proportionately and fairly by Police Scotland and the justice system, then there’s perhaps a chance they won’t offend again and they can get on with their life.”
He said a “by-product” of the scheme was that it frees up police time, allowing officers to deal with more serious offences.
He added: “This is an opportunity for officers to be out in communities doing other work and perhaps be more visible in communities, but also for the procurator fiscal to focus on higher level criminality.”
But Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr said the use of RPWs to deal with cannabis risked sending the “wrong message”.
“There is a place for RPWs to be used when it comes to a variety of offences,” he said.
“And while possession of cannabis may not be the most serious drug-related offence, it is still illegal. If police become too dependent on this, it will send completely the wrong message to dealers who are ruining communities. Contrary to what some say, cannabis is not a harmless drug.”
Cannabis remains a class B drug, meaning anyone found in possession faces up to five years in prison.
Police Scotland has denied that using the RPW scheme to deal with low-level possession is tantamount to decriminalisation.
Following its introduction last year, Professor Neil McKeganey, of the Centre for Substance Use Research, described the announcement as a “massive white flag to Scotland’s drug problem”.