Pubdate: Sun, 29 Jun 2014
Source: Independent (Malta)
Copyright: 2014, Standard Publications Ltd
Author: Clyde Puli
Page: 20


The government has already declared its intention to decriminalise
substance abuse but up to now one cannot understand exactly to where
the new drugs' policy is pointing: will it lead to a liberal
progressive quasi legalisation of drugs for recreational purposes on
the basis of a created civil right or will it lead to the humane
system of depenalisation and rehabilitation, albeit still recognising
that illicit drug consumption is not necessarily a desirable thing?
The Prime Minister's declarations seem to lead to the former, while
his Social Policy Minister seems to be at least emphasising the latter.

The controversy of what should be regarded as the legitimate or
illegitimate use of drugs was rekindled following a speech by
ex-Minister of Health Godfrey Farrugia. It was also the subject of a
conference organised by the OASI Foundation that brought together
policy-makers, experts, opinion-makers, professional practitioners and
addicts to discuss the issue on the International Day against Drug
Abuse & Illicit Trafficking and on the eve of the government's
publication of its White Paper on Drugs Policy Reform.

The medical use of drugs

In a parliamentary speech, Dr Farrugia  who is taking the opportunity
to speak more frankly now that he no longer forms part of Cabinet  put
forth his thoughts on the medical use of cannabis extracts which may
have beneficial effects in the treatment of certain diseases such as
cancer. Dr Farrugia's speech sparked controversy between those who
seemingly wanted to nip the idea in the bud and others who were
preparing for another holy crusade. I still have to understand why the
controversy arose in the first place.

As is the case with morphine and any similar substance, it is the
principal aim of usage and the end result that determines whether the
use of that substance is right or wrong. Additionally, as happens on
such matters, we have a National Medicines Authority which, prior to
issuing any approvals, evaluates scientific research and the benefits
and risks associated with the use of any substance. However, even if
the medical use of cannabis should not have stirred any controversy,
the use of the same drug for recreational purposes certainly opens up
the debate.

The apparent failure of prohibition

Quite a few people today argue that the outright concept of "war
against drugs" through a complete prohibition and criminalisation of
trafficking and possession, as well as the personal use of drugs, has
not managed to force down the demand for further drug consumption. The
same advocates also state that this war on drugs has not only led many
governments to spend a large fortune but has also packed most of the
prisons around the world and consequently has swelled further the
criminal career of those who found themselves in prison due to drugs.

Local studies carried out by psychologist Marilyn Clark and
sociologist Albert Bell have revealed that such practices may
encourage relapsing amongst those who abuse drugs which, as a
consequence, hinders their rehabilitation and integration within
society. On the other hand, according to both international and even
local studies  such as the one by psychiatrist Anton Grech  it is
clear that the use of certain drugs, including cannabis, can cause
mental and physical harm.

Nonetheless, not everybody is so keen on anti-prohibitionist methods.
Locally, Caritas has appealed for caution on the subject and,
incidentally, a few days ago the British Medical Association voted to
ban anyone born after the year 2000 from smoking and buying cigarettes
in the hope of creating the first tobacco-free generation by 2035.

Legalisation, decriminalisation, depenalisation: more than a question
of semantics

Should we decide to move away from prohibitionist policies, the routes
available to take are mainly three: legalisation, decriminalisation or
de-penalisation. The difference is more than mere semantics.

Legalisation, generally proposed by libertarians on the basis of civil
rights, would legalise the use, possession, sale and  in some
instances  even the production and trafficking of psychotropic drugs.
Proponents of legalisation advance the notion that the sale of
hitherto illegal drugs would be controlled in the same way as alcohol
and nicotine, with age restrictions, warnings on packaging, and so

Decriminalisation is also seen as an alternative to prohibition. This
entails re-defining the possession of drugs for personal use as a
non-criminal form of behaviour that is not punishable by sanctions
contemplated by criminal law. As such, although different
(non-criminal) sanctions may be imposed on drug users,
decriminalisation pushes drug-related crimes away from the radar of
criminal justice and enforcement policy.

The third option, de-penalisation, would mean that the possession and
personal use of illegal psychotropic drugs would remain criminal
offences (and hence still under the radar of the criminal justice
system), but such offences (with the emphasis being on possession for
personal use and not the trade, cultivation or trafficking of illegal
drugs) would not be punishable by custodial sanctions, i.e.
imprisonment), given the detrimental effect imprisonment has on drug
users. Depenalisation normally entails a diversion/cautioning system
for first-time users or users of small amounts, with the penalties
escalated for repeat use or the possession of larger amounts of
illegal drugs. Such practices would ensure that while the dangers of
imprisoning and coming down too hard on first-time or recreational
users would be avoided, we would also be maintaining the possibility
of preventing the most vulnerable from falling through the network of
drug related social services.

How progressive do we go?

Earlier this year, the government announced that it had plans to
decriminalise the use of drugs whose use is illegal today. Justice
Minister Owen Bonnici had already indicated that the intended drugs
legislation reform is intended to be wider in scope than previously
imagined but perhaps the Prime Minister's slant was the more
significant one. Back in April, Joseph Muscat hailed the proposed
decriminalisation of drugs as the next struggle in the acquisition of
more civil liberties for Maltese citizens, following the campaigns for
divorce and civil unions.

The government's consultant on civil liberties, Cyrus Engerer, had
also argued that he deemed the decriminalisation of cannabis as only
the first step. The experience gained from such decriminalisation
would then be applied in decriminalising the use of more dangerous
substances at a later stage. So the intention, as expressed here, is
clearly set for an outright decriminalisation of all type of substance
abuse and at least from the reporting of the political discourse it is
being wrapped in a liberal progressive package, the logic of which
will finally lead to legalisation. Social Policy Minister Michael
Farrugia was quite evasive during the mentioned OASI Foundation
conference and would not quench my thirst for more clarity about the
subject but the slant of his argument was more pro rehabilitation, if

The fundamental question: civil rights or societal problems?

In my humble opinion, prior to taking hasty decisions about which road
to take we need to know which destination we wish to reach. Do we
soften prohibitionist policies because we have discovered better ways
to combat illicit drug consumption or do we soften prohibitionist laws
and eventually do away with them because we consider the consumption
of drugs as a legitimate form of recreation as good as any other?

The government thus has to decide, without fudging the issue, if it
finally wants our country to take the course of decriminalising
recreational drug use  which is effectively the first step towards
legalisation  on the basis of civil rights, which would unavoidably
send the message that today's illegal substance abuse has become a
legitimate means of recreation as any other. If it does not, then the
alternative is to favour a de-penalisation policy which, while
regarding the recreational use of drugs as a serious act, adopts a
more humanitarian and compassionate stance and consequently favours
professional assessment, therapy, rehabilitation and social
integration to the system of imprisoning victims.

The Nationalist Party eagerly awaits the publication of the white
paper on drug legislation reform to contribute to a hopefully mature
discussion with all the stakeholders.
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MAP posted-by: Matt