Ministers were accused yesterday of leading more young people into hard-drug use with their proposal to downgrade legal restrictions on the use of cannabis.
Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said the Government was seeking "spurious short-term popularity" by reclassifying cannabis alongside bodybuilding steroids and some anti-depressants. But Caroline Flint, a Home Office minister, denied moving cannabis from a class B to a class C drug amounted to legalisation and insisted it was necessary to help to fight against hard drugs.
Under the plans, backed by MPs, possession of cannabis will no longer be an arrestable offence in most cases, although police will retain the power to arrest users in certain aggravated situations, such as when the drug is smoked outside schools.
Ms Flint told MPs: "This is not about legalisation. It's about having to have a mature discussion about drugs; about the relative harms. This Labour Government is absolutely right to focus on the most dangerous drugs, to intervene most vigorously in the most damaged communities, to seek to break the link between addiction and the crime that feeds it, and to reduce harm that drugs cause by addressing the chaotic lifestyles of those users harming themselves and harming others."
But Mr Letwin said: "The Government's policy is a dreadful muddle. The tendency will be for more, rather than fewer, young people to be led into hard drugs. I don't think that's a responsible way in which to conduct the government of our country."
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said his party would back the change, which was a "step in the right direction". He said: "We shouldn't allow this to be seen as a green light for taking cannabis."
Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, said the Government would be doing young people a "grave disservice" if it allowed them to think all drugs were the same.
John Bercow, Tory MP for Buckingham, asked the Government to consider legalising cannabis, arguing that "it must be desirable to break the link between the soft-drug user and the hard-drug pusher", whereas Graham Brady, Tory MP for Altrincham and Sale West, said downgrading the drug was "perverse".