The Armed Forces has secretly lifted its blanket ban on the use of Class A drugs, the Sunday Telegraph can reveal. Soldiers, sailors and airmen caught using cocaine, ecstasy and heroin no longer face automatic dismissal from the Services following the controversial change in policy. The new rules come as the Army faces recruitment problems, blamed largely on the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. Until last year, any member of the Armed Forces found in possession of or using Class A drugs would have been automatically discharged. Now soldiers below the rank of lance corporal, or its equivalent in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, will not face instant dismissal if they confess to taking Class A drugs or test positive under the military's compulsory drug testing programme. Those above the rank of lance corporal still face instant dismissal.The rule change, not announced by the MoD when it was introduced last year, emerged after this newspaper learnt that a recruit who filmed himself snorting a line of cocaine was allowed to remain in the Army. Pte Richard Levell, an 18-year-old recruit at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire, confessed to taking the drug in his barrack room after an instructor found the video evidence on his mobile telephone. Pte Levell, now with the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, was put on an "early intervention programme" designed to warn personnel of the pitfalls of drug abuse. He can be discharged only if he fails to complete the three-day course to the satisfaction of his commanding officer. Compulsory drug testing was introduced in 1998 when the Army had a zero tolerance policy on illegal drugs. That position altered several years ago when defence chiefs ruled that recruits who had taken "soft" drugs early in their life should not automatically be ruled out of a military career. About 600 servicemen and women test positive for drugs every year. Earlier this month 18 soldiers from the Staffordshire Regiment, which had recently returned from Iraq, tested positive for cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. Most of them are expected to be dismissed from the Army. To date 53 soldiers who had previously served in Iraq have tested positive for illegal drugs. Confirming the change in policy, an MoD spokesman said: "Only those servicemen with the potential to succeed in the forces will be allowed to continue." Patrick Mercer, a former infantry commanding officer and the Tory shadow homeland security minister, said the ruling defied belief. "While I understand the difficulties the forces are having recruiting, this defeats the whole intention of having a drug-clean Army that can be relied upon under intense pressure."