The classification system for illegal drugs should be scrapped, according to a radical Home Office report proposing a shake-up in how people caught taking them are treated and punished.
A review ordered by Charles Clarke before he quit as Home Secretary, is understood to propose dropping the 35-year-old system under which all illegal substances are categorised as either Class A, B or C with corresponding penalties.
Instead it proposes ranking drugs along a 'spectrum of harm' ranging from those which almost never kill their users and cause minimal social impact, such as tranquillisers, to substances such as heroin that cause fatal overdoses and fuel crime by addicts. Crucially that would open the door to lighter penalties for drugs which experts argue do not justify the most serious Class A status, such as magic mushrooms and ecstasy.
The findings, which come as a senior chief constable called for a debate on whether criminalising drug users works, have now been passed to Clarke's successor, John Reid, and place him in an awkward position. He is expected to try to kick the issue into the long grass rather than face accusations of going soft on drugs, with officials speculating he could try quietly to kill off the review.
However, the issue is unlikely to go away. The government's own advisory body on drugs is backing an overhaul, while there is private support among some senior Tories for a rethink of drug classification. A report due later this year from the Commons science and technology select committee is also expected to attack a system many scientists regard as illogical and dictated by historical quirks rather than clinical evidence.
Martin Barnes of Drugscope, the drugs charity which welcomed Clarke's original decision to overhaul the system, said there should be a public discussion of any proposed changes: 'Any review will raise difficult and challenging questions, not least how the relative harms of legal and illegal drugs are understood and reflected in policy. It may be more than the Home Secretary wishes to bite off at this time.'
The revelation comes amid fresh debate about how users are treated. Tim Hollis, chief constable of Humberside Police and the new spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers on drugs, told The Observer that the government must weigh the merits of prosecuting individuals against those of targeting organised drug syndicates who made vast profits from the misery of users, adding: 'We are talking about our own sons and daughters at the end of the day.
'Do I want to criminalise my children? Well frankly, no. Do I want to help them make the right choices when they go out and about into the world? Then the answer is probably yes.'