This is your legal system on drugs...

Amazing, isn’t it? By simply inserting the word ‘medical’ before any drug of one’s choice, one also automatically alters the chemical composition of the drug itself

Remember Gisela Feuz, anyone? Probably not. After all, it happened a long time ago… before the internet existed, if it is even conceivable to imagine that such a time ever existed at all.

This also means that I would have to go all the way to the National Archives in Valletta (can you imagine?), and dig up articles written over 20 years ago, just to give a proper account of what actually happened way back in 1997…

Well, believe it or not, that is how journalists used to conduct their daily chores, back in the age before everything became instantly accessible at the click of a mouse-button. As it happens, I caught the tail-end of that era myself – the first time I saw the internet at work was around 2004: and it was limited to just one computer, which we all had to queue up to use.

But even I find it hard to remember the days when research had to be conducted by poring over the Biblioteca’s (very impressive) microfiche catalogue of every newspaper ever published in the Maltese islands. The internet may have revolutionised the way the media works – indeed, it may even threaten the media’s very existence – but in some ways, it has undeniably made us all… lazier.

Nonetheless, the worldwide web can still prove a treasure-trove, even when researching events that predate its own existence by several years. A simple Google search, with the key-words ‘Gisela Feuz Malta’, threw up the following little nugget from a May 2014 press article:

“One of the cases made the international headlines after a 16-year old Swiss student was imprisoned for six months when she was found in possession of under one gram of cannabis in 1997.

“The student, Gisela Feuz, had admitted to bringing a small sachet of the drug with her from Switzerland in the aim of sharing it with her boyfriend.

“She was imprisoned for a mandatory six-month period after a court found her guilty of importing drugs with the intent to traffic.”

Looking back, the Gisela Feuz case appears all the more shocking for a number of reasons: starting with the amount of marijuana for which the 16-year-old Swiss student was imprisoned for six months.

‘Less than one gram’. I mean… not exactly Pablo Escobar material, now is it? Nor even Cheech and Chong, for that matter…

Another reason concerns the fact that the government of Malta – the same government that draws up our country’s drug laws – itself now peddles infinitely greater quantities of the exact same drug every day, under the guise of ‘Medical Marijuana’.

Amazing, isn’t it? By simply inserting the word ‘medical’ before any drug of one’s choice, one also automatically alters the chemical composition of the drug itself: making it at once ‘beneficial’, where before it was ‘harmful’; and de facto legalising a crime (drug-trafficking) that is otherwise liable to a prison sentence of anywhere up to 25 years, depending on amount and circumstances.

Can you imagine how much money we’ll all be raking in when it comes to… ‘Medical Cocaine’? To be honest I’m surprised we haven’t cashed in on that one already. (‘X’cuc hu Escobar’, and all that…)

But, with a huge effort, I shall resist the temptation to digress. The reason I chose to dig up the Gisela Feuz incident today, is that… by golly, we’ve gone and done it again. This is how the latest case was reported this week:

“[…] a court handed down [a six-month sentence for 6.5 grammes of marijuana to a 39-year old Maltese woman] who was discovered with a plant, which she admitted was for personal use.

“The police thought differently, insisting that she held six separate plants within one [single] pot.

“Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras even noted that the amount was minimal and for personal use during her ruling, but still agreed with the police…”

[Note: in case you’re wondering, I chose to name one but not the other because Gisela Feuz actually served her sentence in full, while the latter case is still at appeal stage.]

Superficial differences aside – including the age and nationality of the accused, as well as the specific amounts involved (6.5 grams may be six times the other amount… but it’s still next to zero, in trafficking terms) – these two cases have one crucial factor in common.

Malta’s drug laws left the magistrates concerned with no alternative but to impose a prison sentence in either case, even though they knew it was excessive. In Gisela Feuz’s day, the government had enacted a law which made importation of any illicit drugs – regardless of type or quantity – punishable by a mandatory prison sentence. It was in part a knee-jerk reaction to what can only be described as an explosion in drug use in Malta during the 1980s… but also, in my view, something of a retrospective ‘auto-correction’: after the same government had issued a Presidential pardon to a notorious Columbian cocaine trafficker a few years earlier, eliciting sharp criticism from all sides.

Either way, Gisela Feuz was the first of several analogous cases – one of which involved then Justice Minister Tonio Borg having to personally intervene to avoid a repeat occurrence: which goes to show just how embarrassing the first case had proved for Malta’s international image – before government finally realised its ham-fisted approach had all along been flawed, and amended the law accordingly.

But evidently, the law has not been amended enough. There is a reason why Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras likewise found herself ‘agreeing with the police’, even while apparently stating the opposite in her ruling.

The operative phrase comes in the next sentence: “Galea Sciberras insisted that she had no other choice than to sentence the 39-year-old woman to six months in prison and a €700 fine….”

‘No other choice’. There it is, in black on white. Under the current legislation, the plaintiff’s admission to simple possession is not enough to overturn the prosecution’s argument that this was a case of trafficking… because what counts in a court of law is not the factuality of the case itself; but what the law says… yes, even when the law is very plainly talking out of its backside.

Simply put, our legal definition of ‘trafficking’ is still insufficient to distinguish between simple possession, and possession with the intent to sell to third parties. And just to illustrate how perfectly absurd this situation really is… imagine we were talking about ‘simple possession’ of something other than illegal drugs for a change.

Like cars, for instance. In the eyes of the law (assuming that drug laws apply to automobiles, which I do now only for the purposes of this argument), it is irrelevant whether the car that you possess is intended solely for your own personal use or not. If the law implies that ‘owning a car also means that you might be sharing it with other drivers’ – as it does with drugs – then the court will have no option but to treat you as a second-hand car dealer, instead of just any other licensed motorist on the road.

Likewise, it mattered not a jot that Gisela Feuz probably didn’t even import enough marijuana to fill a single joint, let alone to sell by the sachet-full on any street corner. Her case ticked certain legal boxes… and that, at the end of the day, was the only thing that really mattered.

(Oh, and it bears mentioning that those boxes are arbitrarily decided by government… and not by the law-courts, still less by the police. Those two unfortunate institutions have to make do with the laws as they are handed down to them… not as they would like them to be. Only fair to point that out.)

There is, however, a crucial difference between the two scenarios. In 1997, the Maltese government had not been elected on a promise to kick-start a discussion on the possible legalisation of marijuana… only to stall the debate for over two years.

Much more damningly: while the administration back then was certainly guilty of sending people to prison over negligible quantities of marijuana – a drug now universally acknowledged to be less harmful than previously supposed… a) it had the (rather crappy) excuse of ignorance on its side.

For let’s be honest: nobody knew anything about the medical properties of marijuana back in 1997; and b) it wasn’t simultaneously growing, packaging and selling the exact same drug itself, under the magical label ‘Medical Marijuana’… making literally millions of euros in the process.

Today’s Labour government is guilty of both those charges. And to compound its guilt: not only did it renege on its promise to discuss legalisation… but it didn’t even bother reforming our existing (woefully inadequate) drug laws to iron out these absurdities and inconsistencies… you know, so that we might end up with drug legislation that actually makes even half a milligram of sense…

And as both these cases so amply illustrate, there is only one possible upshot of this calamitous failure. Innocent people going to prison.

Innocent people. Going to prison. Miscarriages of justice don’t come more blatantly than that, you know. And for drug use, too. I mean honestly… makes you wonder who’s really on drugs here…

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