Laws can be just as dangerous as drugs

Even if a handful of street dealers are arrested, it takes us no nearer to ‘smashing international trafficking rings’

Street dealers are deliberately too low down in the drug trafficking food-chain to ever really matter
Street dealers are deliberately too low down in the drug trafficking food-chain to ever really matter

There is a curious paradox in the way we approach things such as drugs in this country. And, yes, you’ll probably find similar anomalies in other places, too. But only a country like Malta, to the best of my knowledge, could possibly get away with ‘decriminalising’ cannabis (with much fanfare) in 2014... only to continue treating cannabis users as criminals for years afterwards, as if nothing had happened at all. 

And only here would it be considered perfectly ‘normal’ for the police to suddenly arrest more people for possession of cannabis after the substance has been ‘decriminalised’, than before.

It reminds me vaguely of that scene in Pulp Fiction, where John Travolta tries explaining the legal status of cannabis in Amsterdam to Samuel L. Jackson. Only more or less completely the other way round:

“OK, get this. It’s not a criminal offence to be in possession of small amounts of cannabis in Malta; but the cops still have the right to strip-search you if they suspect you have any; they still have the right to arrest, detain and interrogate you if they find any on your person; and you will still face proceedings in a legally constituted tribunal. Just like in the days when it was still a criminal offence...” 

Somehow, under those circumstances I doubt Jackson would have replied: “Oh, man! I’m going, that’s all there is to it!” I think he would have much more likely said: ‘Oh man, what are Malta’s legislators smoking, anyway? Can I have some of that shit, too...?”

Hence the paradox. Malta must be the only country in the world where possession of cannabis is both a criminal offence and not a criminal offence at the same time. And let’s face it: that’s the sort of thing that can only possibly make sense if you’re on drugs.  Seriously mind-altering drugs, too... the most potent variety of LSD, for instance, in the sort of dosage Jim Morrison might have washed down with Bourbon before a gig. 

But in any case: three years after the supposed drug law reform that did away with criminal prosecution for cannabis possession – in part to lessen the load on the law enforcement sector, and free it up to concentrate on serious crimes instead – Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has acknowledged that the primary aim of the reform has since been completely defeated. 

That is not, of course, how he worded it himself. On the contrary, he seemed to be convinced this farcical situation is actually working. He even said – and no doubt believes – that the continued policy of arrest and interrogation was necessary “to help the police break drug trafficking rings”.

Like I said, it must be some pretty potent stuff they’re smoking in Parliament these days. But let’s see how this hallucination actually fares when confronted with reality.

Naturally, the most immediate question to ask would be: how many drug trafficking rings have been successfully smashed, specifically on the basis of people arrested for smoking a joint at a party or concert? 

Last year, for instance, 78 people were arrested for simple cannabis possession over the three days of the Earth Garden festival. That is a significantly higher number of drug busts at a single event than we were used to in preceding years. And the same could be said for last year’s Isle of MTV concert... (in fact, they arrested just about everyone for simple possession of cannabis... except for the internationally acclaimed superstar who was smoking the stuff on stage).

Did the information gleaned from any of those interrogations help identify (still less break) any organised criminal networks?

Hmm. I reckon the answer is roughly the same as it was before ‘decriminalisation’. The police have, to be fair, made some pretty impressive drug busts over the years. I believe they still hold the record for the largest ever single cocaine seizure in the Med: “well over 100 kilos, possibly close to 200 kilos”, found in a container at the Freeport in 2012.  The drugs were in transit through Malta, destined for another country. The operation was conducted by the Police, together with the Customs Department and the AFM’s Bomb Disposal Unit.

Somehow, I find it very hard to believe that a trafficking operation of that magnitude could be uncovered by interrogating a teenager caught with a joint at a party. Those people do not buy their drugs in bulk from the Freeport. And the people they do buy from – the street dealers – wouldn’t even ever hope to get close to that level of operations. 

That, broadly speaking, is why they are called ‘criminal organisations’. There will invariably be a structural hierarchy in place; and as a rule, it would be designed so as to ensure that anyone caught on the lowest rungs of the ladder, will not know enough to ever imperil those at the top.

Ironically, politicians should understand this more than most. Their own political structures employ almost exactly the same kind of mechanisms and safeguards. That is why the only people to ever carry the can (with very few exceptions) are always petty officials who execute policy decisions... and never the people who devise policy from above. 

In any case: street dealers are deliberately too low down in the drug trafficking food-chain to ever really matter. So even if a handful of them are arrested here and there, it takes us no nearer to ‘smashing international trafficking rings’. For that, you need surveillance technology, cooperation with overseas intelligence networks, cohesion between different branches of law enforcement capability, and solid, round-the-clock investigation. 

The police know this perfectly well – because, like I said, when they do investigate the higher levels of organised crime, the results are occasionally quite impressive. But to achieve that sort of success on a regular basis would require investing a lot more resources into the really important investigations... not a lot less.

The drug law reform, in practice, has had the opposite effect. Up to a point, I could understand the zeal with which the police used to arrest cannabis users, back in the days when it actually was a criminal offence. But to continue to do so now – when the police no longer even have the ability to even prosecute such cases in court – is manifestly a waste of time and resources.   

And OK, the Magistrates’ Court might have been relieved of the inordinately large number of pointedly useless drug cases that would be filed each year... but these cases have not fizzled out into nothing, either. They have merely been transferred to a lesser, non-criminal tribunal instead, which in practice guzzles just the same amount of public resources to actually function. 

Even the name attests to the failure of decriminalisation – it’s a ‘Drug Offenders Rehabilitation Board’. I mean, make up your minds, will you? Simple possession is either an offence, or it isn’t an offence. If it isn’t – as the term ‘decriminalisation’ so clearly implies – then how on earth can you have an ‘offender’?

As for the ‘rehab’ part: well, wasn’t the whole point behind ‘decriminalisation’ – limited as it was to cannabis – also an acknowledgement that this particular drug was nowhere near as problematic as other illicit substances, such as cocaine and heroin?

Certainly, it should have been. I’d like to think that a government would not consider ‘decriminalising’ something unless it had consulted the experts and ascertained that it was safe to do so. In this case, the expert view – locally and globally – is increasingly leaning towards a reclassification of cannabis altogether. 

It was, after all, Dr George Grech, the executive director of Caritas – a rehab centre – who had originally called for a discussion on decriminalisation several years ago. In this, he echoed similar arguments made all over the world by social workers, doctors, and even (serving or retired) members of the police force and the judiciary.

Again, I would like to think it was partly on the basis of this overwhelming consensus that Bonnici’s government went ahead with its ‘decriminalisation’ plans in the first place. So if cannabis was deemed safe and unproblematic enough to ‘decriminalise’... what is there to actually ‘rehabilitate’, anyway?

And that’s only insofar as how the reform affects people who are actually arrested for simple possession. What about the organisers of public events, who are still held responsible for drugs found on their premises... even drugs which have been ‘decriminalised’? Why do event organisers still have to provide facilities for the police to conduct strip searches for ‘decriminalised’ substances? Why are DJs with former drug related convictions – some going back decades – still blacklisted?

There is, in brief, not a single area where the reform has actually improved the situation facing any of these categories of people. Either that, or I obviously haven’t taken enough drugs in my life... because I’ll be danged if I can see any improvement myself.

I would argue that ‘decriminalisation’ actually left them all worse off: for while they all still find themselves putting up with exactly the same nonsense as before... today, they also have an insult to add to the injury. They now know that all the hassle they have to go through will be over something that even the government officially acknowledges – on paper, at least – is actually a complete and utter waste of time and effort.

And they say that drugs alter your perception of reality. Drugs. Well, what about laws? How severely stoned do you have to actually be, to look at all that and actually see a successful legal reform instead of the astonishing, mindboggling mess it really is? 

Perhaps the time has come when we stop thinking only in terms of a ‘dangerous drug’... and start seriously thinking about ‘dangerous laws’. So how about a ‘Dangerous Laws Ordinance’ instead... you know, to protect the public from the harmful psychological effects of exposure to legal absurdity?