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Drug laws must be tweaked to avoid ruining lives - magistrate

'The courts should not be so draconian'

Magistrates often have their hands tied by 'draconian' aspects of current laws.

Magistrates often have their hands tied by 'draconian' aspects of current laws.

A magistrate has called for the revision of certain “draconian” drug laws, saying the courts should have more discretion.

She referred in particular to imprisoning a first-time offender who is not an addict. “At times it is with a heavy heart that I have to send somebody to prison for having shared ecstasy pills with friends just once in their life, because in the eyes of the law, they are treated as drug dealers,” Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras told a public debate yesterday marking two years of the Drug Dependence Act.

Under this law, simple possession of small quantities of drugs is no longer punishable by imprisonment but a fine. Moreover, such minor cases are heard by a drugs tribunal, chaired by a social worker, to ease the burden on the Magistrates’ Court.

Dr Galea Sciberras, who mostly hears drug-related cases, welcomed the reform, saying the reduction in workload made it possible for magistrates to address the backlog of cases. However, she felt that two years down the line, certain aspects of this and other drug laws should be “tweaked”.

She mentioned as an example the cultivation of a single cannabis plant which, under the Drug Dependence Act, no longer carries a mandatory prison term. Noting that this provision had already been applied, the magistrate wondered whether, once it was not a case of aggravated possession, it should be left to the court’s discretion to evaluate the significance of the number of plants.

“At present, a person who cultivates just one plant for personal use is not liable to a jail term, but such a proviso cannot apply in the case of two very small plants,” she pointed out.

She also flagged cases involving one-time offenders who were not addicts. She cited the example of teenagers being arraigned after procuring ecstasy pills to try them out with friends.

“In the eyes of the law, this does not constitute trafficking by sharing but proper trafficking. Despite the person having a clean criminal record, the court has no other option but to send the offenders to jail,” she noted.

“In such cases, I feel I am destroying somebody’s life. By the time the offender starts serving, they would have built a family, finished their studies and found a good job,” Dr Galea Sciberras said.

“I feel the courts should not be so draconian in such cases,” she remarked.

Police Inspector Jonathan Cassar, however, cautioned that even the decision to adopt a more lenient stance on simple drug possession had given rise to certain legal loopholes. He said the police were investigating a group who raised suspicion after being found carrying a small amount of drugs in Paceville.

“Despite being below the trafficking threshold, this was probably not for personal use but for trafficking purposes,” he pointed out.

A total of 1,045 cases were heard by the drugs tribunal between September 2015 and the end of last month. These involved 808 Maltese nationals and 176 foreigners, including 32 relapsers, who were referred to the Drug Offenders Rehabilitation Board, headed by former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello.

Prior to the debate, three rehabilitation organisations were given €15,000 each. The money was raised through fines imposed by the drug tribunal. The donations to government agency Sedqa, Caritas and Oasi were made by the Local Enforcement System Agency.

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