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‘I’ve always tried to be a good man’

Just days before his appeal, Patrick Cooke talks to Welshman Daniel Holmes who was given a 10-and-a-half year prison term after police found cannabis plants in his Gozo flat.

Daniel Holmes has had a long time to reflect on the decisions he has made. Sitting in an office at Corradino Correctional Facility designated for this interview, he is in a reflective mood.

“I know a lot of people think that I got what I deserved,” he said.

“But I think the punishment should always fit the crime. I never said I was innocent, I know I’ve broken a law. But I’ve always tried to be a good man. I’ve not broken a law of God, I’ve broken a law of the land.”

Now aged 35, Mr Holmes was 28 when he was arrested in June 2006 at his €300-per-month Gozo flat, where he was growing cannabis plants that he has always maintained were for his own personal use.

In November 2011 he was handed a 10-and-a-half year prison term; another year will be added if he does not pay the €23,000 fine that came with it. Unwittingly, the sentence made him a cause célèbre for drug reform campaigners who felt his punishment exposed glaring problems with the law and justice system.

When the Welshman arrived on the island in 2004, he was hopeful of starting a better life in the sunshine. A qualified chef and scuba diver, he thought Malta would be the perfect place to combine his work and hobby.

Mr Holmes readily admits that he was a heavy cannabis smoker when he left Wales and had been for some time.

He settled in Gozo and met fellow Briton Barry Lee – “a ‘Jack the lad’ from Bolton.”

In those carefree early years it was impossible for them to imagine that their friendship would lead to one of them serving a lengthy jail term and the other committing suicide in a prison cell.

The pair decided to grow cannabis to save money while sustaining their habit, Mr Holmes said.

Although he confessed to police that he imported the cannabis seeds from the UK, Mr Holmes now claims it was actually Mr Lee who imported the seeds and he was trying to cover for his friend.

“I have tried to make another statement. In fact, I wrote another statement and tried to submit it to the courts, but my lawyers, the police... no one wanted to know.”

When the Welshman’s flat in Għajnsielem was raided in June 2006, the police found five mature plants and 25 baby plants. Mr Holmes claims only five of the baby plants would have been worth cultivating properly, and the rest would have been discarded.

Here it gets technical. The court expert estimated that the weight of the plants was 1,063 grams, with a street value of over €13,802.

Mr Holmes maintains that the actual “useful dry weight” (the leaves) was around 400 grams, to be shared between himself and Mr Lee, and the court expert had mistakenly weighed the roots and stalks, which would not be smoked.

This argument forms part of the appeal against his sentence, which will be determined on October 31.

According to the defence, the court expert’s report referred to the total weight of the plants, but the Attorney General stated that this was the weight of the leaves alone.

“The plants would have given us about three grams a day – not much at all for a heavy smoker,” Mr Holmes said.

“Unfortunately,” the chef said he was not aware when he started growing the plants that Maltese law did not have a drug classification system, and there was no distinction between soft and hard drugs. He acknowledged that the intent to supply was a serious crime in most countries, regardless of the classification.

“But in most countries, if you are growing for personal use, you will certainly not receive the sentences you get in Malta.”

He cast his mind back to the day he was arrested and claims that he cooperated fully with the police, showing them the room where the plants were growing, “even though I did not see a warrant”.

When he was taken to Floriana police station, Mr Holmes alleges that he asked to speak to a lawyer and was told: “This is not TV.”

His initial statement was taken over three interviews, compiled into one for him to sign.

“I was told if I don’t sign it I’ll be there for the long haul. Eventually I signed. I admitted straight away to growing the plant and using it for myself. I wanted to confess that to the court straight away. They wouldn’t split the charges; they would not let me not plead innocent to trafficking and importation,” Mr Holmes alleges.

The charges were very serious: importation, trafficking, cultivation and two counts of possession of illegal drugs.

“I can’t remember when I originally saw the indictment. But it was four life sentences, a 20-year sentence, and a fine of up to half a million euros. Truthfully, I laughed. I couldn’t really believe that for a few plants they would consider four life sentences.”

They send a message that you’re more dangerous to society if you smoke cannabis than if you rape your own children

Mr Holmes was released from jail on bail after 11 days, but found himself back behind bars when he was discovered in the passenger seat of a stolen car driven by Mr Lee in December 2007.

He served a year at Corradino Correctional Facility following his arrest over that incident before being granted bail, but has since been acquitted of all charges in that case.

“That year in jail was not taken into account with my current sentence. I will have to go to the European Court to get that year back,” he said.

Upon his release, Mr Holmes turned his life around. He found steady employment as his chef and met his future wife, Marzena, with whom he had a daughter, Rainbow.

As he awaited sentencing for the cannabis case, Mr Holmes was “imprisoned” in Malta as his passport was confiscated and he was under curfew, with strict instructions to sign-in at the police station.

He estimated that he was summoned for 65 court appearances from the time of his initial arrest until his sentencing.

“The whole court proceedings have been unbelievable really, especially as I was always travelling from Malta to Gozo. I’d have to pay my lawyer for the whole day, because he didn’t have other clients in Gozo. A third of the time I would get there and it would be put off. Other times my lawyer didn’t turn up.”

Mr Holmes’s defence claimed he contemplated suicide while he was out on bail, something he reluctantly agrees to talk about.

“It certainly crossed my mind a lot. It was very hard. I was trying to stop all drug use, trying to change my life. I’ve missed my sister’s wedding, births of her children... I was imprisoned in Malta. Thanks to a few friends and family I struggled through. When I finally got the sentence it was a relief, in a way, because I knew the next part was coming.”

Mr Lee was not so lucky. Aged 44, the ‘Jack the lad’ from Bolton hung himself in prison before his trial was over.

“I had support from friends and family, but Mr Lee had burnt a lot of bridges. He was in a very dark place. When he came to prison his mental state was not very good. They gave him a lot of tablets. When we got our indictments stating four life sentences and 20 years he didn’t handle it very well. It broke him.

“A few cannabis plants have taken the life of a good man – he wasn’t a bad man – destroying his family.

“It has taken all these years from me and destroyed my family, and it seems they still want more. It’s not enough that all this has happened. They still want more blood. I don’t know how much more they want to take.”

When Mr Holmes was finally sentenced in November 2011, he thought he was attending another routine court hearing.

“I had work that night. My daughter was two months old. I thought it would just be another quick session. It only lasted a few minutes but they told me I was going to prison. I wasn’t even allowed to call my girlfriend or my boss.”

The fact that he was a reformed man was not taken into account when the sentence was handed down, Mr Holmes claims.

“I had held a job for three years. We were moving into a new flat. Everything was about my wife [then girlfriend] and daughter; there was none of the old life. I had turned my life around with no help from the system. I did it myself.”

He always knew from the day he was arrested that there was a good chance he would receive a long custodial sentence.

However, he was led to believe that there was a verbal agreement between his lawyer and the attorney general that he would plead guilty to trafficking and importation in exchange for a sentence of between six and eight years.

“I understood I was pleading guilty to a deal. But straight away I was told the deal was not binding. The Attorney General asked for 14 years.”

Mr Holmes’s case has received a lot of publicity, with a petition to reduce his sentence receiving over 5,500 signatures to date.

Even Joseph Calleja has waded into the debate, calling for an overhaul of drug laws so that cannabis is not classified in the same way as heroin and other ‘hard’ drugs.

“I would like to thank everyone. It helps my family, knowing that I’m not a bad person and a lot of people realise that,” Mr Holmes said.

Critics of the Welshman’s sentence often point to the more lenient sentences handed down to paedophiles and other drug offenders. “I don’t think any paedophile in this prison has been sentenced to more than me, most get a lot less. They send a message that you’re more dangerous to society if you smoke cannabis than if you rape your own children.”

Earlier this year, a man received an 18-month sentence for attempting to smuggle heroin into prison. This month, one of three men involved in the sale of seven-and-a-half kilos of cannabis was jailed for 10 years and fined €24,000, which Mr Holmes believes to be a less severe sentence than his own.

“If you have seven-and-a-half kilos of hashish resin, you are obviously selling it. For a few plants, it is personal use – I know they are trying to say it wasn’t but it was,” Mr Holmes said.

“All I’ve ever done is smoked cannabis. I’ve not forced it on anybody else, never given it anybody else, and I have never wanted to. So many people across the world smoke it. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Obviously you have issues with yourself, but I have never affected society with the choices I have made.”

Mr Holmes’s wife, daughter and parents all now live in Wales and he speaks to them on the phone every day. He knows they are hopeful about his upcoming appeal, but he is trying to be realistic.

“The best case scenario would be that they slash the sentence in a big way, and reduce the fine. I know I will not get out straight away. Even after all these years of prison they still want more off me. The way it stands now I leave prison in November 2019, realistically anything less than that is good.”

So far he estimates his parents have helped him to the tune of €30,000 since his arrest and he will be repaying them for the rest of his life.

Even after all these years of prison they still want more off me

Asked how he feels not about the country where he arrived in 2004 full of hope, Mr Holmes replied: “I have met a lot of good people here. They say you can’t let some rotten apples spoil the barrel. I’ve always loved the island.

“It would have been very easy to be filled with hatred, but I can’t fill myself with hate. I met my wife here, my daughter was born here, her name Rainbow means hope. I try to believe it has made me a stronger person, and I have not lost hope.”

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