Scicluna vs the drug barons

Bishop Scicluna’s assertion that the decriminalisation of drugs benefits barons misses the issue at stake, that it is bad social policy to turn sick addicts and harmless users into criminals.


Bishop Charles Scicluna contends that drug barons will benefit from the decriminalisation of drugs. One may equally contend that since drug barons have benefited from the status quo, Scicluna’s prohibitionist views also benefit this reviled category.

Scicluna’s argument is that drug consumption will increase because the decriminalisation of drugs might send drug users the message that taking a small amount of drugs is OK when they were caught the first time.

Evidence from Portugal, which decriminalised drugs 12 years ago, shows the number of adults in Portugal who have at some point taken illegal drugs is rising. At the same time, though, the number of teenagers who have at some point taken illegal drugs is falling.

It also suggests that addicts are also more likely to seek help and undergo rehabilitation, something which is not exactly beneficial to drug barons who profit from the misery of addicts.

In Portugal anyone possessing less than one gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish is not liable to criminal prosecution but has to report to a body known as a “warning commission on drug addiction” which is meant to assists addicts in seeking help. Recreational users are warned of the dangers associated with drug use and at most risk a fine.

Therefore Portugal is still sending the message that taking drugs is not okay but it does so without turning people in to criminals.

But anyone possessing more than these amounts is still prosecuted by the police.

While the present regime criminalises both drug users and drug pushers, decriminalisation ensures that only pushers face criminal sanctions. 

Surely decriminalisation alone will not solve all problems associated with drugs. For example most addicts will still sell drugs to finance their addictions and these will still be brought to book. 

Neither will it eliminate the illicit drug market which not only devastates the life of addicts but fuels corruption by pumping money in organised crime which is often powerful enough to undermine democracy.

One may well argue that it is the illegality of drugs that actually creates a market for drug pushers and that to eradicate this criminal racket, the best way is to legalise and regularise drug supply. 

Some also advocate the legalisation of soft drugs as an effective way to break the link between the consumption of marijuana and pushers who may lure these consumers to buy more dangerous and profitable drugs.

But this goes beyond the scope of drug decriminalisation, which would decriminalise use but not supply. If consumption of drugs is decriminalised, selling drugs will remain an illegal act. 

Probably pushers will neither gain nor lose from decriminalisation, but addicts will benefit by not being labelled as criminals. In this sense decriminalisation represents a more humane approach towards sick people. 

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that all drug users are sick people who should be helped. One cannot ignore the reality that there are thousands of people who make use of recreational drugs who neither have a criminal intent nor have an addiction problem.

Surely all drug consumers face risks to their health.  Lumping all drug consumers in one category, after decriminalising drugs would create further misconceptions, like that anyone found smoking a joint should undergo rehab.

It would also be a mistake to apply decriminalisation to first time offenders. This applies both to addicts and recreational users alike. For while it is inconceivable that addicts will stop taking drugs after being warned the first time, it does not make sense to criminalise people who are caught smoking pot for a second time. The argument is that we should not criminalise sick or harmless people irrespective of the number of times they consume drugs.

Moreover if only first time offences are decriminalised police will still be busy hounding people to check whether they are first time or second time offenders. Half-baked decriminalisation may actually perpetuate the worse aspects of the current regime; the policing of harmless or sick citizens with the excuse of protecting them.

Still despite my reservations on some of the ideas being floated, it is extremely positive that the current administration has commenced a debate on decriminalisation. It is also positive that those opposed to decriminalisation are giving their contribution to the debate.

But resorting to populist arguments associating politicians who advocate decriminalisation with drug barons is simply a way to shut off the debate.