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Two years after drugs law reform

It is two years since the enactment of the Drug Dependence Act, which introduced a new set of laws to deal with drugs in Maltese society. Over 1,000 cases have been heard by the drugs tribunal since. Those involved in such cases included over 800 Maltese nationals.

The changes meant that those found guilty of simple possession of small quantities of drugs are not jailed but fined. Also, such cases are heard by a drugs tribunal, easing the burden on the Magistrates’ Court.

At a recent public debate, Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras, who is mostly employed hearing drug-related cases, declared that although she welcomed the reforms, she felt certain aspects of the law were “draconian” and some revision would be in order.

She cited as examples the imprisonment of first-time offenders who were not addicts, say, somebody “who shared ecstasy tablets with friends just once in their life” and are then treated “as drug dealers” under the law and imprisoned. Or the cultivation of a single cannabis plant “which, under the [current law] no longer carried a mandatory prison sentence” but which would amount to “aggravated possession” if it were “two plants” and attract a prison sentence. She pleaded for greater sentencing discretion in such cases.

The magistrate also flagged up cases involving one-time offenders who were not addicts but were arraigned after procuring ecstasy pills and were charged with “trafficking”, an offence punishable by imprisonment.

On the other hand, a police inspector present at the debate cautioned that “the decision to adopt a more lenient stance on simple drug possession had given rise to certain legal loopholes”.

Subsequent to the public debate, both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition appeared to agree there was also a need for a “national discussion” about the legalisation of cannabis.

While there seems little doubt from the tone of what has been publicly stated that there is a need for a review of the workings of the Drug Dependence Act with a view to, in the magistrate’s word, “tweaking” it where necessary, any discussion of illicit drug use and its treatment is inevitably fraught with potential difficulties. It is a particularly sensitive issue for lawmakers also because it mostly affects teenagers and young people. As the magistrate lamented: “In such cases, I feel I am destroying somebody’s life” (by imprisoning them).

Although some people will always believe that tough punishments deter drug addiction, it seems reasonable to argue on the evidence adduced by Caritas and other agencies involved with treating drug problems – and on grounds of common sense – that an addiction that intrinsically becomes an ‘illness’ is not cured by imprisonment.

Nor is there any evidence to prove that sending a first-time offender to jail will discourage his/her drug use in future. Indeed, few people who have worked with victims of drug abuse would be willing to say that prison deters those who are addicted.

It would seem sensible for legislators to review the workings of the Drug Dependence Act – broadening the discussion to include the social and other implications of the legalisation of cannabis  – and to make judicious improvements to ensure that preventive education and rehabilitation would continue to offer better solutions to drug problems in our society than incarceration.

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