The body responsible for redrafting the National Drugs Policy is not considering decriminalising drugs, favouring instead a scheme whereby only first-time offenders arrested for possession for personal use will be processed through an extra-judicial body.

Marilyn Clark, the chairperson of the National Commission on the Abuse of Drugs, Alcohol and other Dependencies, emphasised that the aim of the scheme was to divert first-time offenders from the criminal justice system, to secure timely intervention when needed, and to reduce the negative impact of labelling resulting from a criminal conviction.

Times of Malta contacted Prof. Clark following Justice Parliamentary Secretary Owen Bonnici’s comments on TV programme Times Talk last Tuesday, stating that the Cabinet will be considering a proposal by a justice reform commission to stop treating drug possession for personal use as a crime.

Dr Bonnici said he was advised by the reform commission, led by former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello, that simple possession should not be treated by a criminal court because it is a social problem.

“Decriminalisation may have unintended effects, such as conveying a message to society that the decriminalised substance is not viewed as a serious issue, and that it carries little risk, which may in turn lead to increased levels of use in the community,” Prof. Clark explained.

Drug abusers should be assessed, put under surveillance and provided with counselling

She also argued that the current legal drugs, namely alcohol and tobacco, cause a substantial burden of illness and social problems in society. A more liberal approach to other forms of drug use may result in more health problems.

She added that two experts will be visiting Malta in November to advise on setting up a drug treatment court system.

Meanwhile, church agencies have warned that the decriminalisation of simple possession of drugs was a “very delicate” issue which could potentially lead to the liberalisation of drugs.

According to Oasi Foundation director Fr Manuel Cordina, Dr Bonnici’s comments lacked prudence in the light of the fact that the commission had yet to present its report.

“I am convinced that following the introduction of drug decriminalisation, the next step would be its legalisation. The law mustn’t be weak. People know what the law states and therefore should not break it.”

Concurrently however, Fr Cordina professed himself to be in favour of removing drug possession charges from the criminal court.

He stressed the importance of having a drug court set up, something he has been passionately advocating for the past 25 years, only to have his pleas fall upon deaf ears.

“Drug abusers should be assessed, put under surveillance and provided with counselling.”

Asked whether he would discriminate between hard drugs and soft drugs, Fr Cordina said that in terms of social responsibility, there is no difference between them.

“The abuse of hard drugs is easier to detect due to its overt symptoms. Yet marijuana is known as the silent killer. It affects the mind, leaving the abuser constantly high. People who abuse of it may abandon their families and their responsibilities.”

Caritas assistant director Fr Carm Farrugia shared Fr Cordina’s opinion regarding the setting up of a drug court.

“A drug court would be dealing with drug-related cases immediately, as opposed to the current reality where offenders may sometimes have to wait some three years before their case is heard in court.”

He referred to the 10-and-a-half-year jail sentence given to Daniel Holmes, a Welshman serving for growing cannabis plants he insists were for personal use as “humiliating”.

“Offenders should be treated with dignity. We especially advocate the rights of minor or first-time offenders. They should be given a suspended sentence, allowed rehabilitation and encouraged to help society in a constructive way. But what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong.”

Aġenzija Sedqa pronounced itself in favour of decriminalisation of all types of drugs in the case of simple possession.

“However, this does not mean that people found in possession of drugs should be allowed to walk away free, with their drug simply being taken away from them. This is not identical to legalisation.”

The agency believed that such people should be referred by the police for assessment at a professional agency. Should the person be found to have a significant problem, he is expected to undertake a rehabilitation programme, being either on a residential or community basis.

Asked whether he was in favour of the decriminalisation of simple drug possession, Opposition spokesman for Justice Beppe Fenech Adami said that not enough studies have been conducted for him to pronounce himself in favour or against.

“The Government should have the courage to open up a serious and informative discussion on the issue. There are a lot of divergent opinions out there.”

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