Pubdate: Sat, 26 Jun 2004
Source: Times Of Malta (Malta)
Copyright: 2004 Allied Newspapers Limited
Author: Cynthia Busuttil
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)

Legal Distinction Between Users and Traffickers 'May Save Lives'

Richard Muscat: "Without a job it is very easy to fall back into the drugs 
trap, making it a vicious circle".

The lack of a clear legal distinction between drug users and traffickers is 
leading to a situation in which people suffering from an adverse reaction 
to drugs are not getting the immediate care they need.

Because of this aspect of the law, fellow users are hesitant to seek 
medical help for users in distress out of fear that they will be arrested 
and charged, explained Richard Muscat, the chairman of the National 
Commission on the Abuse of Drugs, Alcohol and other Dependencies.

"Sometimes drug users are left on hospital or health centre door-steps 
instead of being taken directly to the hospital emergency department for 
treatment. Sometimes they are found in some obscure place when it is too 
late," Prof. Muscat said in an interview with The Times.

He said something needed to be done about the situation and making a clear 
distinction between users and traffickers would end the hesitation. "Maybe 
more lives could be saved," he said.

The need for a clear distinction to be made between drug users and 
traffickers was last week stressed by Justice and Home Affairs Minister 
Tonio Borg and supported by the opposition's spokesman on home affairs, 
Gavin Gulia.

Prof. Muscat was pleased to hear that both political parties appear to 
agree on the issue and that Parliament's Social Affairs Committee will now 
meet to make recommendations.

The committee has also been asked to consider the report drawn up by a Drug 
Forum initiated under then President Guido de Marco.

Prof. Muscat said another positive change in the law would take place if 
more of the main recommendations made in the Drug Forum report were to be 
accepted. He preferred, however, not to reveal what these recommendations 
were before the report is made public.

Once a young person is arraigned he has a difficult time finding a job 
later on in life. "Without a job it is very easy to fall back into the 
drugs trap, making it a vicious circle," Prof. Muscat said.

He said a pilot project dealing with first-time young offenders under 18 
may be launched and if successful could be extended to those aged under 21.

Prof. Muscat said another local problem was that because Malta was so small 
and everyone knew one another, it was very difficult for an individual to 
start afresh.

"In the United Kingdom, if one has a drug problem and completes a treatment 
programme in Edinburgh, for example, one could move to London and start a 
new life, meet new people, make new friends, get a job and keep away from 
drug problem areas," he said.

He added that although there were a number of programmes organised in 
schools to provide information to children about drugs, more was perhaps 
needed. The number of young drug users had not changed much over the last 
couple of years, so there might be a need for more to be done.

He explained that it was not easy to change behaviour and one way of 
increasing the impact of prevention programmes would be to identify the 
people who are at risk of falling into the drug trap and initiate secondary 
prevention programmes.

Asked how it would be determined which children are at risk, Prof. Muscat 
said results of the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other 
Drugs (ESPAD) indicated that children who live in single parent families 
seem to be more prone to drug use.

"The risk factor is family dysfunction," he said, adding that emotional 
problems were sometimes manifesting themselves in drug use.

He said the commission was in favour of carrying on with the 
across-the-board prevention programmes but secondary programmes for high 
risk groups currently organised by the government's agency Sedqa should be 
given more prominence.

At the moment Malta is conducting a twinning project with the Trimbos 
Institute in Holland. The European Union has assigned 130,000 to the 
project, which aims to put in place a drug-information system that will 
enable Malta to better monitor the drug situation.

This week Dolores Cristina, Minister for the Family and Social Solidarity, 
launched the National Focal Point for Drugs and Drug Addiction through 
which drug information will be collected and collated to provide the 
background material through which a national report will be compiled on an 
annual basis following discussions with all parties involved.

Prof. Muscat said the point of the drug information system was to provide 
an overall picture of the situation in general. It was important to know, 
for example, how many people were seeking treatment, how many get infected 
with HIV because of the sharing of needles and how many suffer from 
overdoses. It was also vital to have information on the amount of drugs 
seized by the police and Customs.

"When all this is combined, we would be able to get a picture of the drug 
situation in Malta," he said.

Asked whether he agreed that the country should be more tolerant towards 
soft drugs, Prof. Muscat said: "I don't think we should be tolerant at all 
in the context of our own local situation."

He said every country implemented policies that suited its context and 
stressed that he did not think it would be in Malta's interest to make 
local laws more tolerant. "In Holland, the idea behind this policy was to 
separate the people who use heroin from those who use cannabis and one way 
to do this was to open 1,600 cafes."

He explained that the tolerance policy was not in place throughout Holland 
but only in Amsterdam. "If you smoke cannabis in Rotterdam, the police will 
arrest you and even in Amsterdam there are tight controls to ensure that 
only cannabis is used in cafes," he said.

The situations in Malta and Amsterdam were not the same and there was no 
point in emulating that policy.

The national commission is making recommendations to the government 
regarding the formulation of a national drugs policy. Prof. Muscat said a 
drugs strategy was also needed in order to put the policy into practice.

One of the first activities of the commission after it was reconstituted in 
1999 was to organise a national conference at which all the players in the 
field discussed improving coordination and meeting future challenges.

In 2001 the commission published the report Licit And Illicit Drug Use in 
Malta. A survey, carried out among 1,755 people between the ages of 18 - 
65, showed that the use of cannabis is quite rare in Malta with only 0.5 
per cent making use of the drug, while 3.5 per cent have tried it. Cannabis 
is usually first used in late adolescence.

Also, 1.2 per cent - also rare, the report says - have tried ecstasy, 
amphetamines, cocaine, heroin and LSD, with 0.3 per cent being current users.

Asked what the commission thinks of the services offered to drug users, 
Prof. Muscat said both Caritas and Sedqa offer a number of services but the 
former is mainly recognised for it programmes related to long-term 
rehabilitation while the latter is better known for its operation of the 
Substance Misuse Outpatients Unit in the grounds of St Luke's Hospital. 
OASI organises a four-month programme in Gozo.

Prof. Muscat explained that some people do not need a two-year programme, 
especially if they are still young and have already missed out on important 
education because of their drug abuse. They could not afford to miss more 
of their formative years.

Asked whether he believes Sedqa and Caritas should merge, Prof. Muscat said 
evaluation suggested that Caritas should be the expert in long-term 
rehabilitation since it has been doing this for a long time while Sedqa 
should focus on other things, such as day programmes.
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