MaltaToday survey • Majority in favour of clemency for first-time drug users

85% think drug users caught for the first time should not be taken to court • 51% think that cannabis users should never be arraigned in court.

james
James Debono
21 July 2014, 7:20am
Decriminalisation • What do the Maltese say and think about cannabis use? | Create Infographics
Nine out of every 10 respondents agree with the proposal made by the government under which drug users carrying small amounts of drugs for personal use will not face proceedings in court. 

Moreover slightly more than half agree with the proposed decriminalisation of cannabis use.

This emerges from a survey held among 400 respondents contacted by telephone over the past week.

The white paper issued by Justice Minister Owen Bonnici proposes that people caught in possession of drugs intended for their own personal use for the first time, should not be prosecuted in court. 

The law also proposes that those caught for a second time are referred to a social board which would include experts such as social workers. 

Only those who breach the conditions imposed by the board will be prosecuted in court. 

The proposed law also makes a distinction between cannabis and other drugs, in a way that cannabis smokers will never be prosecuted in court but could face warnings issued by the Justice commissioner.

The MaltaToday survey reveals a generational change in attitudes towards cannabis. 

While 70% of under-35-year-olds agree with the proposal to exempt cannabis smokers from court proceedings, a majority of over-35-year-olds are opposed to this aspect of the reform.  

The survey also shows that more than one in every three, within the 16- to 34-years-old bracket knows someone who makes use of cannabis.  

Although public opinion remains split on the proposed decriminalisation of cannabis use, only 14% of respondents think that marijuana is as dangerous as hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. But while respondents are more liberal with regard to drug use, the vast majority still agree with the imprisonment of addicts found guilty of trafficking.

Consensus against arraigning first time users

The survey reflects the widespread consensus in favour of the proposed exemption from court proceedings of people who are caught the first time so that their police conduct will not be blemished. 

The proposal enjoys the support of the Nationalist Party opposition, and Sedqa experts and NGOs such as Caritas who work with drug addicts.

All age groups and people of from all educational backgrounds support this proposal.

Support ranged between 78% among those aged over 55 years to 92% among those aged between 16 and 34 years.

Support for the reform was lowest among those with a primary education.

Support for the reform was higher among those with a post secondary or secondary level of education than among those with a university level of education.

But while the university-educated bracket includes a greater segment of traditionalists opposed to any relaxation of drug laws, support for the decriminalisation of cannabis is higher in this bracket than among the secondary educated. This suggests a greater polarisation between liberals and traditionalists among the most educated segment.

Older respondents oppose decriminalisation of cannabis

In general respondents were split in half when asked for their opinion on whether cannabis smokers should be completely exempted from facing court proceedings, as proposed in the white paper.

This split reflects the diverging opinions in civil society on this aspect of the reform, which is opposed by the opposition and NGOs such as Caritas who oppose any distinction between soft and hard drugs.

But while an absolute majority of respondents aged over 55 and a relative majority of those aged between 35 and 54, oppose the decriminalisation of cannabis, seven out of every 10 respondents aged under 35 years of age support the reform.

This suggests a generational change which sees younger people being more liberal in their views on cannabis.

This may reflect a greater awareness among younger people of international trends like the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts in many European cities and the full legalisation of cannabis in a number of US states and in Uruguay.

But while older respondents oppose decriminalising cannabis, the vast majority of respondents in all age and educational brackets make a sharp distinction between cannabis and hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. This suggests a consensus on the government’s policy of creating a distinction between hard and soft drugs.

Less dangerous than heroin, more dangerous than booze

When asked to compare cannabis with other legal or illegal drugs, nearly half replied that it is less dangerous than cocaine and heroin but more dangerous than alcohol.

Only one fifth replied that cannabis is equally dangerous or less dangerous than alcohol, which is legal.

The university-educated were the most likely to think that cannabis is equally dangerous or even less dangerous than alcohol. In fact among this category one in every four expresses this view. 

The survey suggests that for the vast majority of the population cannabis is still perceived differently from legal drugs such as alcohol even if they are perceived to be less dangerous than harder drugs. 

This may also reflect greater awareness on the risks of alcohol use, which is increasingly being seen to be as dangerous as illegal drug use.

All age groups concur with this view although younger people are slightly more likely to put cannabis in the same category as alcohol.

Moreover only 8% of younger people think that cannabis is as dangerous as heroin and cocaine in contrast to 16% of over-55-year-olds and 15% of those aged between 35 and 54.

One third of young people frequent cannabis smokers

The survey clearly shows that people who actually know cannabis smokers tend to hold more liberal views on drug policy. 

Respondents were asked whether they know a cannabis smoker and were subsequently asked whether this person has more or less problems in his or her life than people who use alcohol.

The survey shows that only one in every five knows a cannabis smoker. 

But this figure rises to 35% among 16- to 34-year-olds and to 34% among university educated respondents.

Significantly the vast majority of those who personally know a cannabis smoker think that these people do not experience more problems in their life. In fact this view is expressed by 59% of those who know cannabis smokers. Moreover another 12% think that cannabis smokers actually face less problems than alcohol users.  Among those who have personal contact with cannabis smokers, only 18% think that cannabis smokers experience more problems in their life than alcohol users.

Moreover this category also expresses more liberal views. While only 51% of the general population thinks that cannabis smokers should never be prosecuted in court, the figure rises to 67% among people who know cannabis smokers. 

Significantly when asked to choose the best drug policy from a number of options, 20% opted for legalising the sale of cannabis while 54% opted for the decriminalisation of drugs.

This suggests that personal experience of cannabis users makes people less disposed to punish these people.

Only 3% will try cannabis if it is decriminalised

Only 2.6% would try cannabis if it is decriminalised. The vast majority of respondents in all age groups replied that they would not be more inclined to try the drug if its use is decriminalised as proposed in the current law. This suggests that people are not likely to change their behaviour if the legal status of cannabis is changed.  All those who indicated that they will be more inclined to try the drug if its legal status is changed were respondents who replied yes when asked whether they know a cannabis smoker.

32% of younger respondents want cannabis legalised

Respondents were asked to choose the five options ranging from harsher penalties for users to complete legalisation of the sale of drugs.

The most striking finding is that among 16- to 34-year-olds one in every three (32%) agrees with a system in which cannabis is legally sold to consumers while all other drugs remain illegal.

Interestingly, university-educated respondents were slightly more likely to advocate harsher penalties for users, (19% compared to 17% of general population) but also more likely to advocate the complete legalisation of drugs.

While only 3% of the general population agrees with a system where all drugs are sold legally, the percentage rises to 9% among the university-educated.

The survey shows that among the general population 40% advocate either keeping drugs illegal or harsher penalties against users, while 57% advocate either decriminalisation or some form of legalisation.

Yet this more liberal outlook contrasts with a vast majority in favour of imprisoning addicts who sell drugs to finance their habit.

62% want addicts who sell drugs imprisoned

The survey shows 62% of respondents favouring imprisonment of addicts caught selling drugs to finance their addiction. 

Respondents were given a choice between three options: imprisonment, depenalisation and imprisonment only in case where the addict refuses attending a rehabilitation programme.

Only 30% replied that addicts who sell drugs should be imprisoned only if they refuse rehabilitation. But the survey also suggests a more compassionate attitude among younger respondents, 43% of whom believe that addicts should be jailed only if they refuse to follow a rehabilitation programme.

Methodology

A total of 532 respondents were contacted by telephone between Thursday 10 July and Thursday 17 July. Of these 400 accepted to participate. The results of the survey were weighed to reflect the age and balance of population. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 4.9 points.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...