Smoking cannabis will be downgraded in the eyes of the law if provisions in a White Paper on drug reform are adopted by Parliament, with users facing a traffic-style tribunal rather than court.

The Sunday Times of Malta has learnt that the consultation document, out tomorrow, recommends that cannabis users appear before a commissioner based in Valletta who would be empowered to issue warnings and administrative fines.

These transgressions would not be noted in a criminal record, though more severe action may be taken in “exceptional cases”.

The White Paper also proposes the depenalisation of simple possession of all drugs for first-time offenders.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici declined to comment when contacted yesterday, saying only that the government did not support the use of illegal drugs but wanted to shift the focus away from punishment and towards the provision of care.

“There is a need for change in the penalties given to victims and the introduction of proportionality in sentencing. This is a process where we are rationalising the laws using a common sense approach,” Dr Bonnici said.

The 25-page document is expected to go through a brief two-month consultation process before being tabled in Parliament in October.

The White Paper also calls for the implementation of a system where first-time offenders found in simple possession of any drug will stand before the same justice commissioner governing cannabis use.

However, if users are caught a second time using drugs apart from cannabis, they will then face a special “social board” made up of probation officers, retired judges, psychologists, social workers and police officers. The board will set strict conditions which users will be legally obliged to follow. These, the consultation document proposes, can range from community service to submitting to routine urine tests.

Tribunal would issue warnings, fines

Violating any of the conditions will be seen as a new offence which would carry a criminal penalty. This would maintain a form of criminal deterrent.

The White Paper also recommends that the board be granted discretion to judge each case on its merits.

The proposals, however, are not limited to simple possession. The document also recommends a review of penalties in cases of aggravated possession (cases where drugs are not intended solely for personal use).

Instead of a mandatory prison sentence, the report proposes giving authorities the discretion to also sentence offenders to community service coupled with rehabilitation.

The proposal would see magistrates’ courts given new powers to transform themselves into a specialised drug court, albeit not in terms of a physical building.

The drug court will also have jurisdiction to combine all other drug-related offences, such as minor theft, committed by relapsing offenders to sustain their habit, to reduce repeat appearances by offenders in court.

While laws on drug trafficking will not be relaxed, the reform seeks to spark a debate on whether those who turn to trafficking to sustain their addiction should be given rehabilitating alternatives to prison.

The reform also recommends setting up a new body which would seize and manage drug barons’ illicit profits.

The asset management bureau would be similar to other institutions already in place across the EU and would go a step further than simply taking stock of big-time traffickers’ earnings.

The drug reform will go through a two-month consultation process before being discussed in Parliament. Here are some of the main points:

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