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Debating decriminalisation (2)

Last May, I wrote about Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party’s position in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use (May 25). I argued that people who are really victims of drugs should be helped by health and rehabilitation professionals rather than criminalised.

I also stated that “when people are sent to jail because of drugs for personal use, this not only reflects an authoritarian policy that locks up people because of their habits. Even worse, it risks worsening one’s situation if, for example, use of harder drugs results during one’s time in prison”.

I added that “drug use is not characterised by one single all-encompassing type of behaviour and one single type of drug. Marijuana, for instance, is a soft drug. Heroin, on the other hand, is a hard drug”.

AD believes in the need to classify drugs according to their physical, psychological and social effects.

Different drugs have different effects. For example, they can be highly addictive and harmful or they can have therapeutic and medical benefits, though the latter would need professional advice. They can enhance one’s mood in positive or negative ways.

Scientific research coordinated by Britain’s former chief drugs adviser has also shown that, as regards harm both to users and to others, alcohol is the most harmful drug, followed by heroin and crack. Cannabis (also known as marijuana) ranks less harmful than tobacco.

A few weeks ago, AD reiterated its policy on decriminalisation for personal use at a press conference in Valletta. This event captured the attention of various sections of the media and a debate pursued.

It was confirmed that supporters of decriminalisation for personal use include Sedqa, the Government’s national drug agency, while opponents include the Nationalist and Labour parties as well as Caritas.

In The Sunday Times (November 3), reference was made to the Government’s recent introduction of the arrest referral scheme. This holds that first-time users of any drug, if caught, would be handed a warning, counselling and, possibly, community service rather than a criminal record. Both the Nationalist and Labour parties support this scheme.

AD holds that the arrest referral scheme is problemetic, not only because it is arbitrary and can therefore still result in the criminalisation for personal use of drugs but also because it goes back to square one without solving the main challenges on drug use.

Indeed, it could still result in a spiral of hardships through imprisonment or one’s personal criminal conduct. It adopts a paternalist approach with regard to people’s lifestyles and it has a simplistic understanding of the complex and plural possible reasons why people take drugs.

In short, it will not solve the main challenges with regard to drug use. And if its main scope is to act as a deterrant, this will probably not be the case.

Drug users caught for the first time for simple possession of drugs rarely go to jail. It is when that simple possession is considered as aggravated, such as through growing a plant, even though for personal use, or because they are caught more than once, that people usually end up imprisoned.

These people will not benefit from the arrest referral scheme and can still go to jail.

Education remains a key tool for policies on drugs. The various effects of drugs should be communicated without prejudice and if users seek help they should receive it. There are various models to follow in this regard.

As The Sunday Times reported last Sunday, Portugal and the Czech Republic have both decriminalised drug possession and use while Israeli and Australian lawmakers are looking at legalising marijuana for medical use.

Uruguay decriminalised marijuana in 2000 and the Government is now on track to become the first to completely legalise its production and sale.

Studies show that in about 25 countries, mainly in Europe and South America, people found in possession of drugs are not prosecuted and they simply may have their drugs confiscated. Conversely, drug offences are given the death penalty in 32 countries, with most executions being carried out in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. In Iran alone, 590 out of 650 executions in 2010 were for drug offences.

Some more interesting facts: the US – which has restrictive drug policies – has the highest cocaine use in the world. Likewise, Australia and New Zealand have the highest cannabis use.

Deaths due to tobacco and alcohol are 20 and 10 times higher than deaths attributed to illicit drugs. Alcohol and tobacco use also result in a greater reduction of life expectancy than illicit drugs.

The Portughese experience should serve as an eye-opener. In this country, decriminalisation of drugs for personal use took place in 2001 with succesful result.

Indeed, the number of hard-drug addicts dropped by half after 10 years and the general increase in drug use was slower than that of neighbours France and Spain, which have more restricitive legislation. Opiate-related deaths and HIV infection were also down. State health programmes to help people get off drugs were influential in this regard.

The fact that the drugs debate has took off in Malta is in itself healthy. The next step should be to have legislation that is not based on predjudice, is in-synch with social trends and which really helps those in need rather than sending them behind bars.

AD has already contributed to the debate. If in Parliament, we will present legislative proposals.

Dr Briguglio is chairman and spokesman for economic policy and culture of Alternattiva Demokratika.

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