Reforming drug laws is not a game

It is now about the recognition that ‘the game’ has in fact been lost by all parties concerned, and the rules need to be redevised from scratch.

The discussion on drug decriminalisation has taken a sudden turn for the very interesting… even though few people outside the immediate sphere of narcotic forensics and social work seem to have actually noticed.

Perhaps predictably, around the last people to have detected a change in the flavour and thrust of this ongoing debate are the ones making the most noise in it. This week we witnessed yet another dramatic high octane confrontation in parliament between rival politicians over the proposed White Paper for Drug Law Reform.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici took the (admittedly unusual) initiative to read out a letter by a reformed drug addict who still faces a prison sentence, despite successfully concluding a rehab programme. For some reason this seems to have gravely upset his opposite number, Jason Azzopardi, who promptly ‘challenged’ Bonnici to issue a Presidential pardon, or forever hold his peace.

Believe it or not, these are actual quotes from Azzopardi’s speech in parliament: “Are you ready to put your money where your mouth is? You have the power to recommend a presidential pardon. Will you use this power?”... “And if you are prepared to use this power, what is the cut-off point? What jail terms would justify a pardon? Will it apply to married persons or to parents? And how many children must one have?”… “Will you walk the talk? Will you bite the bullet?”... “If you do not believe that the case does not merit a pardon why did you raise the case, to confuse people?”

I don’t know. Either he has swallowed an entire dictionary of random movie clichés, or Azzopardi genuinely thinks this is a Chuck Norris flick. But if you ask me, the real issue is not so much the histrionics and the childish cries of “I dare you!”, “I challenge you”, etc. It is that the reform under discussion is of serious concern to thousands of people out here in the real world.

Yet it is evident from their ongoing antics that the people who will ultimately take all the decisions are not even aware of how the debate is evolving on a national level. Even worse, they are still clearly motivated by all the wrong reasons, and seem interested only in… well… themselves.

While the rest of the world debates drug policy reform as an antidote to a ‘war on drugs’ that has clearly been lost – and this is not me talking, by the way: the Global Drugs Commission came to the same conclusion, as did Malta’s own drug agency Sedqa – members of the Maltese parliament play ‘truth or dare’ games instead… with nothing more in their sights than the prospect of embarrassing a rival politician or forcing the other party on the defensive.

My drug policy is bigger than your drug policy, nya-nya-nya-nyah-nyah.

As a result, it is safe to predict even from now that the policy reform being debated is almost certain to end in yet another disaster (of which we have seen altogether too many in recent years). For as Jason Azzopardi so ably illustrated with his guns blazing showdown this week, the people steering the debate don’t actually have a clue what the problem even is, still less how to solve it.

Whether or not Owen Bonnici should issue a presidential pardon – or for that matter, whether he should have made public such sensitive private correspondence - is hardly the bone of contention here. What the minister was clearly talking about is a systemic problem, not an individual one.

It is not enough to resolve the individual injustice (if such it is) suffered by one person. You have to also address the root cause of a problem which also affects others: not just other addicts in the same predicament, but their families, children etc.

Not according to Jason Azzopardi, however. The shadow justice minister seems to think the problem is that Maltese governments do not give enough amnesties or Presidential pardons to convicts.

Perhaps he still yearns nostalgically for the good old days of Francisco Assis de Queiroz: you know, when individual ‘problems’ concerning individual convictions on drug trafficking charges could always be solved by simply issuing a Presidential pardon… and then spending the next 15 years avoiding answering any questions about it.

I hate to say this, but it is for precisely this reason that the drug legislation framework with which we have been saddled is such a shambles in the first place. It fell to former MP Franco Debono to outline this point at a conference this week (more of which in a sec) – and if you look at the precise sequence of events concerning how these laws were formulated and amended, at the heart of every decision you will find the same mindless hysteria that characterises Jason Azzopardi’s outburst in parliament this week.

It was in response to the Queiroz fiasco that the Nationalist government felt pressured into ‘harshening’ drug laws, and mandated prison sentences for all types of importance, under any circumstance.

No international drug traffickers ever bore the brunt of this entirely Third World approach, of course – certainly not anyone of the calibre of Queiroz – but we did succeed in imprisoning at least two harmless Swiss holiday makers (a 30-something year old man named Marcel Wintzch, whose baby daughter died while he was in prison in Malta; and a 17-year-old girl named Gisela Feuz, who attracted considerable bad press).

In both cases they were imprisoned for minuscule amounts of cannabis resin, in circumstances that suggested that even they may have been unaware of its existence.

Former justice minister Tonio Borg eventually had to intervene to prevent a third, almost identical case – this time a German couple whose names escape me – from suffering the same fate. But while mandatory prison for importation (regardless of substance, amount, etc.) was removed from the law, similar draconian and quite frankly nonsensical provisos remain in place to this day.

There are reasons for this, too. As Franco Debono reminded us last Thursday, Malta’s idea of formulating drug laws was to simply cherry-pick from the legislation of other countries; so while to all outward appearances we built our laws on the British model, we somehow omitted to include some vital articles of legislation… without which the entire system simply doesn’t make any sense.

Among the omissions was a classification system to distinguish between different substances on the basis of their harmfulness to the individual and society as a whole. Again, it was only after a plethora of equally nonsensical court decisions that the law was eventually amended, and now gives magistrates at least a modicum of discretion when it came to making that judgment for themselves.

At every point the pattern was the same. Politicians draw up laws based on their own exigencies – in this case, the need to appear tough on drug trafficking, for purely political reasons – and in the absence of any coherent strategy. As a result, innocent people are imprisoned while internationally wanted drug traffickers are let off the hook. (Later, thanks to the Josette Bickle case, we also got to discover that drugs were arguably more available inside prison than outside. So much for prison as a ‘deterrent’…)

Jason Azzopardi seems to be entirely unaware that these and other disasters have resulted in a shift in the focus of the entire debate. It is no longer about which crop of politicians makes the most noise to drum up popular sentiments one way or another. It is no longer the case that whoever shouts ‘Barunijiet tad-droga’ the loudest automatically wins the game.

It is now about the recognition that ‘the game’ has in fact been lost by all parties concerned, and the rules need to be redevised from scratch. And this is where all parliamentarians contributing to this debate have consistently missed the point about drug policy reform.

This same realisation also forces us to confront the actual underlying principle of the matter, which has been ignored for decades. People are now asking questions such as: what constitutes criminal behaviour, anyway? Why does the law exist? Why should it perceive recreational drugs so harshly, while other equally harmful substances are not only tolerated but promoted? To what precise extent can or should the State intervene in the private health decisions of individuals?

And above all: given the evident failure of past policies to even contain the problems that we all know exist … what new policies should we be thinking up to address the same problems?

A far cry, I think you’ll agree, from the questions currently being raised in parliament. Will you walk the walk? Will you talk the talk? (Note: I am tempted to add: “and will you just shut the **** up?”… but I guess that would be rude.)

Meanwhile, in other news, the OASI Foundation – which provides rehabilitation programmes for drug dependency problems – organised a national conference on this very subject in Gozo last Thursday.

I’ve already mentioned Franco Debono among the speakers – and obviously he was there to give a purely legal perspective. To be honest (no offence or anything) I was more interested in other dimensions on this occasion.

So I listened more to the drug addicts who spoke from the floor, and the people who work with them in rehab… not to mention individual experts such as Dr Mario Mifsud, the head of forensics and court-appointed expert on drugs; Dr Anthony Grech, who has conducted research into the neurological effects of cannabis, etc. All had a chance to get a word in, and I need hardly add that the tone and flavour of the debate were literally light years from the schoolyard antics displayed by others on the same issue.

What struck me about the whole discussion (oh, I forgot to mention that I was on one of the panels myself – yes, strangely they seemed to think I could contribute… but as I’ve already written all I had to say in the debate, I won’t waste time repeating it here) was the unexpected level of consensus that has suddenly emerged on the subject of drug use as a criminal offence.

There may have been divergences on the detail, but there was clear unanimity among all interventions on at least one point: that drug users should not be imprisoned… at least, not specifically for the act of taking drugs.

Considering that some of the people who spoke evidently had strong reservations about decriminalisation as a policy (one social worker, for instance, argued against even a classification system on the basis that ‘there is no such thing as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ drugs), there was not a single, solitary voice defending a criminal justice system that responds to drug use in the same way as it would to a serious crime against the person: theft, bodily harm, attempted murder, and so on.

In brief, it was as though the multiple layers of hysterical nonsense that had accumulated around this issue were peeled away once and for all, so that we could all concentrate on the aspects of this reform that actually matter.

If drugs are to be regulated at law, it follows that (for starters) one must first distinguish between problematic drug use and non-problematic use; and if problem drug users are regarded by society (and also by all world health authorities, including the United Nations) as sick people in need of medical assistance, then it follows that they should not also face criminal sanctions for their condition.

By the same token, if the consumption of drugs in some cases is not associated with any problem at all, then it is manifestly illogical and unjust to treat it as a criminal offence. Admittedly, not everyone necessarily agreed on that second point: but on the first, at least, there was overwhelming consensus. And that, to me, is a darn good foundation on which to build a functional and just drug policy.

But of course, the ones who will actually devise this policy are still banging their shoes on their parliamentary desks, and accusing each other of ‘posturing on the political stage’. Call me a pessimist, but this does not exactly fill me with optimism for a more reasonable drug policy this time round…