A dealer, an addict and a criminal | Mariella Dimech

Changing a law with the only argument that an addict is not a criminal does not suffice. Yes, an addict is not a criminal, but several addicts not only harm themselves but the people around them

Justice Minister Jonathan Abela
Justice Minister Jonathan Abela

One person may be all three, a person who is a user, may also sell illegal substances and therefore is also conducting a criminal act. The majority I believe agree that a person with an addiction problem will have a minimum chance of recovery whilst incarcerated. However, if the alternative to jail is not effective, the dealer/addict/criminal will not change and continue to do harm to themselves and to the people around them who are also suffering tremendously.

We are living in an era where definitions are created by persons who are influential but not necessarily well informed. Where the public pick-up pieces of information and will often listen to the political party representatives they choose to follow. This subject is equally relevant to us all and deserves attention from everyone. Let me simply clarify a few facts. A user who is carrying hundreds of grammes of drugs is carrying the large quantity to sell them. Not even a daily user or an addict, needs 200g of coke for personal use. True it is the only way a user may sustain his or her habit, and true his place is not in jail, but we need to consider that every addict starts off as a simple user. Is anyone considering what are the factors that may lead a person who is a user to become dependant and addicted? Will this law motivate users to use less or more; will this change in the law make users safer? Yes, but if the only way they are safer is by not going to jail, this is not enough.

Simply put if there are no back up plans that are effective for such changes in the law everything will backfire, and substance abusers are going to get hurt. Several users are already getting hurt. Latest statistics are already showing a high increase in cannabis and cocaine use. The number of persons who are admitted to emergency are indicating that the prisons may be emptying (they are not) whilst the hospitals are not. And I agree with the argument that the rise in the number of cases in hospital may be because users are not afraid to ask for medical assistance, but this remains a hypothesis – unless proven through objective external research and data collection.

If I were a user, I would also be extremely excited with the new laws being introduced. But would I be excited because this will motivate me to change? To become clean? To stay away from drugs even though there is more freedom and availability in the streets. The experts are saying don’t worry about that – there are the drug courts to ensure that the arrested persons with a drug problem go to treatment. First, what about the ones who are becoming increasingly addicted and are not arrested? Secondly what exactly is the outcome of the Drug court cases? How effective is the system? What research and objective data is being collected? So many questions – so few answers.

Giving a number of how many persons have passed through the system of Drug Courts does not mean the system is working. It means they are remarkably busy; they work hard but unless a longitudinal study is conducted no one in Malta can just say “it’s working”.  Truth is data – scientific objective data is necessary. And it should be conducted not by persons involved but by professionals who are allowed to do their job, and who are allowed to say the truth.

Malta can benefit from laws that have everyone in society in mind. It is not enough to decriminalise or legalise drugs. It is not enough to shout out we believe in harm reduction. Harm reduction is ensuring that the user is safe. However, the approach in Malta has indicated an increase in use whilst ‘legal’ availability of cannabis for example has not. One licence allows only 500 members – all the other thousand of users are either growing cannabis (too much for personal use so they can sell it illegally too) or buying it illegally.

The approach is quick, efficient but messy which will be to the detriment of users, potential addicts, and their families. And let us not forget the victims of crime committed by drug users, let us not forget the mental problems substances, legal or illegal, may be causing.

Therefore, in a climate where depression and anxiety has become a norm, where the population has increased at an alarming rate, where diverse cultures are coming together – there is more of a need of stability, safety, organisation, and clarity. Changing a law with the only argument that an addict is not a criminal does not suffice. Yes, an addict is not a criminal, but several addicts not only harm themselves but the people around them. It is important to keep them out of jail, and it is equally important to support them to stop taking drugs, whilst at the same time ensuring that we create a climate within our society that will lessen the likelihood that people even start taking drugs.