Pubdate: Sun, 19 Dec 2010
Source: Times, The (Malta)
Copyright: 2010 Allied Newspapers Limited


Rational debates in this country on important subjects that are not
party political but affect society profoundly have become an
endangered species. If we cannot shout at each other or seek to
undermine the other side, it seems we are not interested in talking
about anything of substance at all.

In recent weeks we have been served up two examples. First the
government distanced itself from the common sense call by the Central
Bank Governor to means-test student stipends; and now it has shot down
a call from a doctor at its own drug and alcohol abuse agency to have
an urgent debate on whether drug use should be decriminalised.

The reason is fear of political repercussions -- Maltese
undergraduates are currently the only students in Europe who seem to
like their government, while any mention of relaxing drug laws opens
the proposer up to all sorts of 'soft on crime' accusations -- and the
opposition plays its (silent) part because it's sole objective is to
pussyfoot its way into power without saying anything at all.

Yet the government's approach is rather like the old-fashioned advice
given to Catholics when Jehovah's witnesses knock on their door: 'Turn
them away as hurriedly as you would a plague carrier, and whatever you
do, do not engage them in conversation.' This stance only serves to
enhance prejudice at the expense of knowledge. The same applies to the
drugs argument.

It is important to get one thing straight: drugs are bad. While we
should not entertain the scare stories that are quite frankly not
believed by many growing up today, there is clear scientific evidence
to prove that even (intense use of) cannabis leads to mental problems
- -- while harder drugs like heroin and cocaine wreak havoc on human
beings' lives.

Yet when the Seqda doctor George Grech called for a debate, that was
not the argument he was addressing. He was looking at the manner in
which society is handling this scourge and how the approaches so far
have obviously failed on a grand scale.

Malta has among the harshest penalties for drug use. Yet it is
rampant. From the comfort of people's homes, to entertainment
establishments, to ad-hoc parties around the island. And when drug
users are sent to prison -- which seems to happen with more regularity
than is the case for wife beaters -- rather than kicking the habit,
they are exposed to more drugs and learn of new sources both inside
and outside.

Dr Grech sensibly suggested the first step would be to classify
different drugs rather than treat them all on the same level as is
currently the case.

Then, he said, we should learn from what has happened in Portugal,
which has decriminalised -- as opposed to legalising -- the personal
use of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. This has led to a drop
in drug use, as those who are caught are sent on mandatory
rehabilitation programmes.

With money and resources being re-directed into education rather than
penalisation, it is also likely that prisons will be less crowded and
that police can dedicate more time to solving crimes such as theft,
assault and, of course, drug trafficking, which is where their focus
ought to be.

But before any of this can happen, we need to weigh up the pros and
cons of any such move on our society. That can only happen if a debate
takes place. Ignoring the issue will only make it worse.
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D