Jack Straw says that heroin should be given to drug users as a way of “reducing the harm they do to themselves”.
Mr Straw’s comments follow the results of a project carried out in England where addicts who were prescribed with heroin appeared to reduce their use of the drug.
But the approach has been criticised by a drugs expert who said it was “far removed from how we normally consider treatment”.
Opponents of such so-called ‘harm-reduction’ approaches to drug addiction say abstinence-based residential rehabilitation is the best way to help addicts become drug free.
However, Mr Straw, writing in a Lancashire newspaper, said he wanted to move away from tougher drugs policies which he had been part of in the past.
The Justice Secretary said “we need to keep an open mind on alternative approaches, not dismiss them if they don’t fit in with the adjective ‘tough'”.
The Government’s National Treatment Agency said that any move to give heroin to addicts would only affect a “very small proportion” of the 160,000 heroin addicts in treatment.
But last week Professor Neil McKeganey, of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, said the trial to give heroin to users “seems like a good idea, but it’s a very troublesome situation when your health service starts taking responsibility for the drug which the addict is consuming”.
He added the approach “creates a potentially difficult and unwelcome set of circumstances in which doctors run the risk of becoming like dealers”.
He said the success of the pilot should not lead to the wider use of heroin prescription programmes, pointing to the poor results from using methadone.
In May a report said the UK Government’s harm reduction approach had been a £10 billion waste of taxpayer’s money.
Kathy Gyngell who authored the report for the Centre for Policy Studies said the Government’s strategy was trapping people in “state-sponsored addiction”.
The report called for the Government to “abandon the harm reduction approach”, “develop treatment support aimed at abstinence and rehabilitation” and “include a far tougher, better-funded enforcement programme to reduce the supply of drugs”.
The UK has the most liberal drugs system in Europe, with rising levels of drug use and falling numbers of prosecutions, the report said.