And just like that, we’re back in the 90s

There is a word for that, you know: it’s called ‘regression’…and it happens to be the very antonym of the ‘progressive’ label the Labour Party had so successfully campaigned upon at the last election

Roadblocks. People getting arrested in hotel-rooms, over negligible quantities of cannabis. Prison sentences handed down to petty offenders, despite various complaints – often coming from the judiciary itself – that incarceration is counter-productive, and only adds to Malta’s overall drug problem…

Honestly, if it wasn’t for certain small indications to the contrary – like the speed of my Internet connection; or the fact that shops can now open on Sundays – it feels almost exactly as though we’ve suddenly reverted all the way back to 1994. And just like that, too… in the bat of an eyelid.

Then as now, we had draconian drug laws which somehow failed to properly distinguish between ‘trafficking’ – which could (and still can) land you with a life sentence – and ‘personal use’. And just like today, the law also stipulated mandatory imprisonment for all cases which matched the (already vague and arbitrary) definition of ‘intention to traffic’. You know, just to maximise the chances of a miscarriage of justice…

And indeed, miscarriages of justice were promptly forthcoming. Remember Gisel Feuz? The Swiss teenager who was imprisoned for importation of a single joint in her handbag? Well, 35 years on,the situation doesn’t seem to have really changed all that much. Except perhaps in one or two details

For instance: while cases such as Gisela Feuz were few and far between, back in the 1990s… and caused great embarrassment to the government when they did occur (so much so that, after much international bad press, the Nationalists eventually had to amend the law)… today, people are being arrested for entirely analogous offences, almost every single day.

If it isn’t a police press statement about the latest bust of a 17-year-old caught with a couple of grammes of cannabis in his pocket… it’s a court report about the latest young adult, sentenced to prison over a minor possession bust that took place around eight or nine years earlier.

And as a rule, these stories come complete with exasperated comments by the judge or magistrate concerned: lamenting the lack of any legal discretion, which would permit the courts to at least make the punishment actually fit the crime.

And it looks to me like it’s happening far too often to be a mere coincidence. It’s almost as though there is, once again, a deliberate government policy drive to clamp down as hard as possible on drugs… which, I suppose, would be all well and good - it is, after all, a legitimate political platform in its own right, regardless whether you or I disagree with it - if only the government had made those intentions just slightly clear from beforehand.

But – and this brings me to the second point – in reality, the very opposite is true. The Labour government is, as we speak, still bound by a 2017 electoral promise to launch a national discussion on reforming Malta’s drug policy; and among the things it is committed to discuss, are the possibility of decriminalization (if not outright legalization… which was also hinted at in the Labour Party’s manifesto).

Now: I am not exactly naïve enough to expect a government to fully implement all its electoral pledges, in the first term since they were made… and I can fully understand how something like COVID-19 can suddenly come along out of nowhere, and disrupt the economy to such a point where some of those pledges become dangerous to actually implement.

But what we’re seeing here is not quite of the same order. For starters, there has been no explanation for government’s failure to implement this promise, all the way up to the eve of the next election. What we have seen, on the contrary, is the Home Affairs Minister himself publicly ‘disagreeing’ with the recent spate of petty drug arrests… and even calling for a ‘change in the law’.

Which reminds me: who gets to actually change laws in this country… if not the government: of which Byron Camilleri is himself a prominent Cabinet member? And while I’m at it: who also gets to dictate such matters as ‘law enforcement policies’, which would circumscribe the actions of the police in such cases?

I was under the impression it was the Home Affairs Minister, myself. But I could, of course, be wrong…

Besides: it’s not a case that government has merely reneged on its ‘drugs discussion’ electoral promise. It is that it has effectively delivered the precise opposite instead: enacting policies which reverse the course of more than 30 years’ worth of legal advances – including the 2015 introduction of a Drugs Tribunal: specifically to avoid jail sentences for drug users – and landing us right back at a time when we could all see that our national drug policy was simply not working at all (with one annual ESPAD report after another, to prove that the situation was actually worsening with each passing year).

There is a word for that, you know: it’s called ‘regression’…and it happens to be the very antonym of the ‘progressive’ label the Labour Party had so successfully campaigned upon at the last election.

At which point: sorry, but an explanation of some kind is now in order. Partly because it is simply unconscionable for a government – any government – to so openly hoodwink the electorate that way; but partly also because the only tangible result of these flawed policies is to criminalise ordinary people’, and – quite frankly - ruin their lives.

And I use the word ‘criminalise’ quite literally, too: we are, after all, putting drug users in prison, where they: a) cannot possibly be rehabilitated, and; b) will most likely rub shoulders with convicted drug traffickers (the real ones, I mean)… you know, in case they needed any extra lessons, on how to build up their very own organized crime network, from the ground up…

Even if the government were not bound by a diametrically opposed electoral promise – I’d say it still owes us an explanation, for a dug policy that is clearly screwing up so badly.

Only a handful of explanations springs to mind. One (arguably most self-evident) is that the Labour Party is now regretting its ‘decriminalization’ proposal, after encountering resistance from sections of its own grassroots.

For let’s face it: the ’tough-guy’ approach might sit very uneasily with the liberal segment of the PL’s support-base – in other words: a not-insignificant portion of the 40,000 majority that voted Labour in 2017, on the strength of its ‘liberal agenda’ – but it doesn’t go down at all well with a much larger assortment of right-wing zealots, prison-fetishists, and outright capital punishment campaigners who also (bizarrely) tend to vote Labour, come election-time.

A second possibility is that the government does fully intend to implement that proposal, one day: but is being opposed internally by a Malta Police Force that (very evidently) disapproves of the whole idea to begin with.

And there is much to support this hypothesis, too: starting with the fact that police seem to be the only ones at the forefront of this Junta-style crackdown, right now… with all other relevant departments and voices - the judiciary, lawyers, the University’s Faculty of Criminology, the rehab agencies… even the Labour Party’s own deputy leader, who reiterated the call for a discussion on his Facebook page this week…

… everyone, it seems, can see perfectly well that the current system is taking us absolutely nowhere, by the longest and most tortuous route possible. Yet because one single, solitary section of the law administration sector can’t (or won’t) see that… we all just stick to the same policy regardless.

Sorry, but that’s not a very accurate reflection of the present government’s mandate, is it? If I remember correctly, Labour won in 2017 on the strength of its liberal and progressive manifesto: and not on the basis of what the Malta Police Force had to say about its policies.

And it’s just as well… because if it were otherwise, we would de facto be living in the text-book definition of a ‘police state’.

Besides: given that even Home Affairs Minister Camilleri openly disagrees with the crackdown… we are left with few remaining options, to explain why it is so stubbornly happening anyway. One last possibility remains, however: and it goes by a name.

Robert Abela. I might be going out on a limb here, but it was, after all, a different prime minister who came up with that 2017 manifesto to begin with. And to be honest, I haven’t seen very much of the same ‘progressive’ commitment, coming from his replacement over the past 13 months.

Without meaning to second-guess his own views in the matter – which, in any case, he owes it to us to at least explain – I don’t think it would be a stretch to conclude that the 2017 electoral pledge has not been implemented (at least, over the last year)… because Prime Minister Robert Abela either doesn’t actually approve of it, on a personal basis; or because he is being pressured in the opposite direction by other quarters.

And if either is the case. then… well, fine. So be it. It is, after all, Robert Abela’s party… so he is, I suppose, free to swing it as far to the right as he pleases. He would still need an electoral mandate to justify that political shift, though: after all, we choose our governments on the basis of what they promise to do; not on the private, personal opinions of their leaders.

All Robert Abela would have to do, then, to justify his government’s change in policy-direction, is simply call another election – which he is going to have to do in less than a year anyway. Only this time, he would have to campaign on his own electoral manifesto… and ideally, one that actually reflects his government’s true policies and intentions (instead of the ones he hopes to entice the youth vote with… only to later betray their trust at leisure.)

Like, for instance, an electoral promise to bring back the gallows, for possession of a little weed. That way, at least they’d have an honest mandate, to take us 35 years – if not 135 centuries – back in time...