Pubdate: Sun, 22 Sep 2013
Source: Times, The (Malta)
Copyright: 2013 Allied Newspapers Limited
Author: Kristina Chetcuti


I drive past the imposing, barbed-wired building
of the prison in Paola every day. I should stop
saying ' prison' really, seeing as for several
years now it's been a ' correctional facility'.

I quite agree with this turn of phrase, even
though it's a mouthful. Corradino is no Norwegian
prison - where inmates live in ' pods' and get
lessons in respecting neighbours - but at least
the intention is that one day it will become less
of ' behind the bars' and more of a place for people to adjust their

I am not Peppi Azzopardi - I do not believe
society should ' make do' with prisons. I think there is need for them.

I think that if someone's action is criminal and
causes a lot of harm then that someone has to pay the consequences.

Sometimes, however, some actions would be
minimally harmful but people are still handed out
harsh sentences. Like Daniel Holmes, the Welsh
dad, jailed for 10 years and fined =80 23,000 in
November 2011 for growing cannabis - which he
claims to have been for personal use - at his
Gozo apartment. The 35- year-old has for the past
16 months been sitting in his prison cell,
striking off days on the calendar until October
31 when the judgment on his appeal will come out.

At present, the law dictates that somebody caught
with drugs for personal use can potentially face
a one-year prison term and a fine, but the
sentence is left to the magistrate's discretion.
Mostly, first-time offenders are put on probation.

However, Holmes was sentenced to more than a year
because he was also charged with trafficking, and
that carries a heftier penalty. Ten years is a
lot for something that is minimally harmful;
especially when you consider that someone who
committed rape got four years for that heinous crime.

This verdict will be crucial not just for Holmes
but also for the prevailing of common sense.
Former European Court of Human Rights judge
Giovanni Bonello, who heads the Commission for
Justice Reform, has said that personal drug use
should be treated as a social problem, not a crime.

Bonello's commission is proposing to
decriminalise first-time drug possession by
having such cases dealt with by a specialised
board rather than the courts; in other words, taking it off the criminal

This means that drug users would no longer have
to be arrested, interrogated and hauled to court
by the police but would simply be fined. In my
book, this means the police would be free to
chase the big fish - the real traffickers - rather than the small fry.

Let's face it, people who use the drug for
occasional, recreational purposes do not need
help, nor do they need to be thrown in prison.
Corradino is already overcrowded, and yet we keep
locking up people on possession-related charges.

The truth is that use of weed in Malta is
prolific. If you don't smoke it yourself, you
know someone who does. According to the United
Nation's 2011 World Drug Report, about 4.5 per
cent of the population in Malta smoke weed at
least once a year. That's roughly 18,000 people
and that's only the ones who are truthful in
surveys. I'm sure if we all had to be honest and
raise our hands, we'd break the Guinness Book of
Records for the largest Hola' in the world.

It does not mean that we're a pothead nation (
although sometimes, by the way we get worked up
about the stupidest of things, I think it would not be such a bad idea).

I have no doubt that at some point in her late
teenage life, my daughter will tell me that she
shared a joint with her friends. I won't dance
for joy, but I won't exactly be tearing my hair out.

I'll be happy if she sticks to one rule when it
comes to mild vices: moderation. And to stave off
addiction, these creature comforts should always
be consumed in social contexts. For example, I
never drink wine on my own, however good the
bottle  it would taste way too lonely.

Same thing for smoking  if we all were merely
social smokers rather than dragging solitary
puffs on cigarettes, then there'd be no need for
all these smoking cessation campaigns.

An occasional joint, like the occasional downing
of a bottle or two of wine, won't harm anyone.

I really wish Malta would follow in the footsteps
of Portugal, where criminal penalties for drug
users were eliminated 12 years ago and those
caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine
or heroin are not indicted. It seems to be working.

Meanwhile, we hope that Holmes' verdict will take
into consideration his repentance, his character,
his outlook on life, his determination and his family.

This needs to be a sentence to restore our faith in our courts.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom