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Proposals for relaxed drug laws welcomed

Government proposals to relax drug possession laws for first-time offenders have been received with cautious optimism by drug rehabilitation experts and lawyers.

Cases of simple possession often take three or four years to reach court

If the amendments are approved by Parliament, first-time offenders caught with any drug for their personal use will be formally warned rather than face court proceedings. A drugs court, on the cards for several years, will also be established.

National Commission for Drugs, Alcohol and other Dependencies chairman Marilyn Clark welcomed the government proposal, saying it was very similar to one the commission had been working on.

The commission’s proposals shed some light onto how the amended possession laws could operate.

A cohort of Arrest Referral Officers, adequately trained in youth, justice and delinquency issues, would liaise between offenders and an extra-judicial body.

The body will comprise three members, all qualified in dealing with drug-related issues, and will be able to refer offenders to counselling or rehabilitation courses, assign them community service or require regular drug tests.

“Our proposals are currently being reviewed by the police,” Dr Clark said.

Psychotherapist Mariella Dimech was also positive. The proposals appeared to indicate “a more positive attitude”, moving away from perceiving drug addiction as a criminal act, she said.

Caritas director Mgr Victor Grech was also pleased with the proposals, saying he had been calling for a specialised drug court for years.

“We need to speed up the existing system. There are people who are arrested, undergo rehabilitation, go on to graduate, and are still waiting for their case to be heard.”

There were positive noises from the legal sphere, with Chamber of Advocates president Reuben Balzan calling the proposals “an interesting development” which could signal a shift in Malta’s approach to drug-related offences.

Legislators were “sometimes using a sledgehammer” for drug offences, Dr Balzan said.

“Putting first-time users through the court system is probably not the best solution, even for the accused themselves.”

According to criminal lawyer Joe Giglio, the proposed amendments make sense in the Maltese context.

A youth caught smoking cannabis recreationally is one thing; a couple of youths found shooting heroin is something different

“Changes in our conduct certificates ordinance meant that first-time offenders were ending up with a criminal record. This amendment will prevent that from happening.”

The issue is especially relevant to young people, with more than four out of every five arrests for drug possession concerning 15 to 34-year-olds.

“Cases of simple possession often take three or four years to reach court,” Dr Giglio said. “By the time a case is heard, the offender has often turned their life around.”

Under the proposals, individuals given a formal warning could be compelled to attend rehabilitation courses or counselling sessions. But Mgr Grech is sceptical how effective forced rehabilitation would be.

“One of rehabilitation’s key tenets is the victim’s desire to be rehabilitated. You can’t force someone to overcome their addiction unless they want to,” he said.

Not so, argued Ms Dimech. “Contrary to popular perception, international research has shown that drug rehabilitation is just as effective when users are coerced into doing it. Ultimately, coercion can work.”

She said that much resistance to rehabilitation lay in misguided perceptions of what it entailed.

“Most rehabilitation is not residential. People can live at home, keep working and still be enrolled in a rehabilitation course. It’s not necessarily the radical change people assume it is.”

That didn’t mean the proposals would be an automatic success. Lumping all first-time offenders into one basket could be dangerous.

“A youth caught smoking cannabis recreationally is one thing; a couple of youths found shooting heroin is something different altogether. Although the law may classify both as first-time offenders, any eventual drug court would have to be sensitive to such distinctions.”

Ms Dimech insisted that a drug court would not work unless it adopted a multidisciplinary approach. Magistrates already consult social workers and psychological experts when dealing with drug cases, but these consultative structures need to be institutionally entrenched into any eventual drug court.

Lawyer Ramona Frendo voiced similar concerns. She fears that any specialist rehabilitation committee would end up being underqualified and understaffed.

“Unfortunately, government agencies are very often understaffed and the pay is very low, so people tend to move on very quickly,” Dr Frendo said.

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