News that the government intends publishing a White Paper on drug use policy with the aim of decriminalising drug use has given rise to different reactions from different quarters.

Although the White Paper is still not published, it appears that the government’s proposals will be limited to decriminalisation of the use of cannabis and not much else. Many might, however, consider this as a very big step while others will complain that it does not go far enough.

Meanwhile, the government has also announced that it intends to prohibit the importation and sale of khat, a mild stimulant used in Africa that has been introduced to Europe via immigration. This follows recent similar legislation in the UK which was enacted against the advice of that country’s official advisory panel on drugs that opposed this step as this could push khat users to turn to more harmful alternatives.

PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami was reported by Times of Malta last Wednesday as saying that the Opposition believes drug users should receive treatment rather than face criminal action but this must not be an indefinite ‘get-out-of jail-free card’.

This is rather a half-baked idea about what some already consider being a halfway measure. Moreover, I see a bit of emotion taking over from logic in this ‘reasoning’.

If society does not consider taking drugs as a crime in the first place, how can doing it repeatedly become a crime? One can argue that persistent drug taking is tantamount to self harm. Should self harm be declared a criminal act?

Should we therefore conclude that all drug addicts, people with eating disorders, heavy smokers and alcoholics are criminals, when, at the same time, our laws do not consider attempting suicide as a crime?

Opting for halfway measures simply shows that we are confused about how to tackle the drug problem – as, in fact, we are.

By sheer coincidence, a recent edition of The Economist published a leader on this subject, arguing that “decriminalising drugs leaves the crooks with the cash” and that there-fore the real ‘solution’ is the legalisation of drugs.

In fact, The Economist has long held that the war against drugs has been lost and that in the long term, the only practical solution to end this scourge is the legalisation of drugs, such that these are available in retail outlets – as has happened in the case of cannabis in Uruguay and in two US states: Colorado and Washington.

The Economist argues that in these places, drug dealers have become redundant and the business has “been snatched away from criminals and given to law-abiding entrepreneurs”.

Talk of legalisation is probably limited to cannabis, as the negative effect on users of hard drugs such as heroin is too serious to warrant their availability on the free market. However, if one accepts the argument that decriminalising cannabis is only ‘half the answer’, one would have to face the same argument in the case of hard drugs. Herein lies yet another big dilemma.

Much has been said of what has happened in Portugal where the law has been changed so that drug – not just cannabis – users no longer face criminal charges and instead of appearing before a court of law, appear before a board that can compel them to attend courses about the dangers of drug addiction and give them help to assist them to get out of their habit.

Other countries have taken similar steps to save young people from the ignominy of a criminal record and spare the state the expense of sending them to prison.

The Economist argues that although those who buy cocaine in Portugal face no criminal charges, “their euros still end up paying the wages of the thugs who saw off heads in Latin America”, and insists that going easy on drug users while insisting that the product remains illegal “is the worst of all worlds”.

On this one, Joseph Muscat should ensure that Malta is a follower, not a leader

The harsh truth is that the war against drugs declared by US President Richard Nixon in 1971 – when during a press conference he said that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States” – has been lost. Ironically, the Nixon era was the only time in the history of the war on drugs when the majority of funding in the US went towards treatment, rather than law enforcement.

Acknowledging this harsh truth is not easy. The drug business has become the world’s number one illicit trade, spawning murders and other despicable crimes all over the globe from Mexico to Malta; apart from millions of deaths by overdose.

All over the world, people are starting to look at the problem with a different perspective. The Economist concluded its leader by saying that “steps away from prohibition are to be welcomed. But half-measures could be as dangerous as overdoses”.

In Malta, we should tread carefully, avoid rushing, and learn from what is being done in other countries. We can afford to let other countries do the experiments.

On this one, Joseph Muscat should ensure that Malta is a follower, not a leader.

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