Pubdate: Tue, 14 Jan 2014
Source: Independent (Malta)
Copyright: 2014, Standard Publications Ltd
Author: John Cordina


Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has hinted at
reforming Malta's drug laws in a recent speech.

The logic behind making recreational drugs
illegal can appear, at first glance, to be simple
enough: Drugs are bad for one's health, and legal
sanctions prevent people from harming themselves through their use.

But it is clear that tough legislation across the
world has done little to deter people from using
illegal drugs, and calls for an overhaul of drug
policies are becoming increasingly vocal in recent years.

As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising to see
Maltese politicians enter the fray, as Dr Muscat
did last week when he addressed the media during
a New Year reception organised by his Labour Party.

Dr Muscat is actually far from being the first
Maltese politician to argue that drug laws are in
need of reform. Over 20 years ago, former Prime
Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, then leader of
the Opposition, had even suggested that drugs
should be legalised across the board. If
anything, however, this proposal only spurred the
government of the day to toughen up its anti-drugs stance.

At present, the only Maltese political party
openly calling for the liberalisation of drug
legislation is Alternattiva Demokratika, which
argues that Malta should decriminalise the personal use of drugs.

What Dr Muscat's declaration will tangibly lead
to is presently unclear, but other national and
regional governments have already reformed their
own drug laws, suggesting possible courses of action.

Malta's drug laws are among the harshest in
Europe, with possible life sentences and no
distinction between hard and soft drugs. Beyond
addressing such issues, however, there are two
main choices for liberalising drug laws  decriminalisation and legalisation.

Decriminalisation is far more popular: So far,
legalisation has only taken place in one country
and two US states, and only covers cannabis.


Decriminalisation does not make possession of
drugs legal, but reduces it to an administrative
offence. Criminal penalties, however, are still
applicable for drug traffickers.

Perhaps the most notable example  the one cited
by AD as the example to follow  is Portugal,
which decriminalised possession of all drugs in
2001 in a desperate bid to address a spiralling
drug problem. Addiction was skyrocketing, and the
country registered the highest rate of HIV
infections among injecting drug users in the EU.

Following decriminalisation, those in possession
of small amounts of drugs are summoned to an
interview by a 'Commission for the Dissuasion of
Drug Addiction,' made up of a social worker, a psychiatrist and a lawyer.

Offenders who are not deemed to be drug addicts
typically receive fines of up to =80150, but the
commission can impose a wide variety of
sanctions, depending on the circumstances of the
case, to encourage problem drug users to seek
treatment. They are empowered to suspend these
sanctions should offenders voluntarily seek treatment.

As one might expect, the move had been quite
controversial, and critics were predicting
nightmare scenarios including spiralling drug use and countless drug

But these scenarios have not materialised: There
is no drug tourism of any significant scale and
no apparent adverse effect on drug usage rates,
which are, in a number of categories, among the
lowest in the EU. At the same time, there has
been a dramatic decrease in drug-related health
issues, including sexually-transmitted diseases and deaths from overdoses.

In recent years, simple drug possession has also
been decriminalised in several other countries,
mainly in Europe and in Latin America.

In a number of others, drug possession has been
effectively but unofficially decriminalised
through a policy of non-tolerance. One notable
example is the Netherlands: The selling of
cannabis or any other drugs remains illegal, but
the law is not enforced against its famous
"coffee shops," provided they follow regulations,
including a ban on advertising and on selling
more than 5g of cannabis per customer.


As the name suggests, legalisation goes one step
further, treating previously-illegal recreational
drugs in a similar way to the two popular legal ones: Cigarettes and

So far, however, no country has taken up Dr
Mifsud Bonnici's suggestion to legalise drugs
across the board, but Uruguay  which had never
criminalised drug possession for personal
use  became the first country only last month to
legalise the production, distribution, sale and
consumption of cannabis. The US states of
Colorado and Washington have followed suit this
year, in the wake of referenda approved in November 2012

Colorado, which had already approved the use of
cannabis for medicinal purposes, already has the
necessary infrastructure up and running, with
existing dispensaries now selling the drug to the public.

Uruguay is still finalising its own system: An
April deadline has been set to determine how the
drug will be grown and sold. In the meantime,
however, individuals and registered "smoking
clubs" are allowed to cultivate a limited number of plants.

The stated aim of the Uruguayan law is to reduce
drug trafficking profits for organised crime, and
to reduce drug-related violence and social problems.

The Uruguayan government is set to be the sole
legal seller of cannabis and will also be
responsible for commercial cultivation and
quality, even though private cultivators may be
licensed. Cannabis may only be sold to Uruguayan
residents, as the country is seeking to avoid
drug tourists and the problems they may cause.

Proponents of drug legalisation often draw
parallels to the prohibition of alcohol in the US
between 1920 and 1933. That law proved to be an
abject failure, leading to a significant rise in
criminal activity as organised crime took control
of the distribution of alcohol, while cases of
alcohol poisoning spiralled due to improperly
distilled alcoholic beverages and a controversial
programme to poison industrial alcohol to prevent its abuse and deter

Legalising drugs also provides the government
with a source of revenue, as they would be taxed
similarly to cigarettes and alcohol, and
controlling the production of recreational drugs
would also make them safer  by ensuring, among
other things, that the drug sold has not been
adulterated. This is often not the case: For
instance, what are sold as ecstasy pills often
contain other drugs instead, ranging from
relatively harmless substances such as caffeine
to potentially more dangerous ones.

On the other hand, however, there are no case
studies countries taking the bold step towards
legalisation can follow. As a result, for
instance, there is no evidence for or against the
claim that legalising drugs would increase their use.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has described
legalisation as an experiment, pledging to
backtrack if the experiment goes awry. Should it
be deemed successful, presumably, legalisation
may well spread to other countries  and cover other drugs.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom