Drug law reform long overdue

If government is to legislate properly on the issue, it must do so as part of a comprehensive and, above all, results-driven drug policy

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

A petition currently doing the rounds has drawn attention to a glaring anomaly in Malta's drug-legislation regime.

Ostensibly, the petition calls for clemency with regard to Welsh national Daniel Holmes, who was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment and a fine of 23,000 for cultivation of marijuana in 2010, under circumstances which indicated personal use.

Yet Malta's legislation makes no distinction between trafficking and simple possession in cases such as these, nor is any distinction made between different drugs on the basis of their harmfulness to the user and to society as a whole. Worse still, the law leaves the local judiciary with no discretion whatsoever when it comes to sentencing.

This situation is clearly absurd and can only be seriously compounded by the different weights and measures applied when it comes to judging other, arguably more serious crimes. While straight comparisons between different judgments are not always advisable, the general public is nonetheless perfectly justified in questioning the leniency often applied by judges in cases of domestic violence and rape, which often elicit light or even suspended sentences.

By comparison, the sheer severity of the sentencing in Holmes's case makes the double standards too conspicuous to ignore and can only serve to seriously undermine public confidence in an already widely mistrusted judicial system.

This is not the first time discrepancies in sentencing have been obvious. In the 1990s, the case of Gisela Feuz - a 16-year-old Swiss student imprisoned over less than one gram of cannabis - prompted a similar furore and eventually led the government to sheepishly withdraw the stipulated mandatory prison term for importation.

Coming back to the present, the underlying problem is different. For reasons which have arguably much more to do with petty politics than law enforcement, successive government administrations (regardless of political orientation) have always taken a piecemeal and amateur approach to amending the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance - effecting random and sometimes illogical reforms that were very often prompted by individual cases or political exigencies.

The most obvious example concerns the mysterious decision in 1994 to issue a presidential pardon to convicted drug trafficker Francesco Assis Queiroz - who, unlike either Gisela Feuz or Daniel Holmes, had been convicted of trafficking large quantities of cocaine. The pardon was seized upon by Opposition leader Alfred Sant as implying government collusion with organised crime; and the decision to institute mandatory prison sentences for drug smuggling was in part the Fenech Adami administration's response to this criticism.

Like Gisela Feuz before him, Daniel Holmes is now paying the full price for this absurd state of affairs, and the injustice of it is greatly compounded by the fact that other, much more dangerous criminals like Queiroz are often let off scot-free. This can only draw the country's attention to the most fundamental questions concerning justice: is it just to persist with a clearly erroneous system in order to satisfy a purely political objective?

In a country which values the principles of justice, the answer can only be 'No'.

If government is to legislate properly on the issue, it must do so as part of a comprehensive and, above all, results-driven drug policy. To date, this has proved simply beyond the capabilities of either the Nationalist or Labour Party. And incredibly, this intolerable situation has been allowed to persist even after local experts in the field have urged a complete rethink on our national drug strategy, prompted by its spectacular failure to decrease problem drug use in Malta.

In 2010, Dr George Grech, clinical director of the government's drug and alcohol agency, Sedqa, called for an urgent discussion on drug decriminalisation (as opposed to legalisation, which is another subject entirely).

Arguing that "the war on drugs has failed" and that it is counterproductive to criminalise and imprison drug users, Grech pointed towards the example of Portugal, which experienced a significant decrease in problem drug use after decriminalising drugs in 2003.

Dr Grech's words should not be disregarded lightly, given his extensive experience in the field - and also the fact that his opinion bears the weight of numerous international scientific studies which come to the same conclusions exactly.

Besides, imprisoning small-time drug users simply does nothing to address the real problems concerning drugs at street-level. Despite Malta's draconian policy, recent evidence, including from the latest European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), points towards an explosion in problem cocaine use, among other issues (such as 'new' and as yet unlisted substances).

Moreover, we now know as a result of recent revelations that prison itself is arguably a hotbed for drug trafficking in Malta - with even a judge declaring in open court that a drug trafficking operation discovered in the female prison section last year could not have been possible without collusion by prison warders. What sense does it therefore make to send minor drug offenders to prison at all?

It is time we face up to the facts. Dr Grech is right: our country's war on drugs has been an abject failure and must be rethought from scratch.

Reversing the injustice meted out to Daniel Holmes would constitute only the very beginning of real reform... but it remains the best beginning.

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Well hallelujah! Malta & us Maltese will benefit from such a reform. The fact that patients who suffer in Malta such as myself and have had no assistance with obtaining proper pain management for chronic pain and several other ailments that i will suffer with for the rest of my life has got to stop! Dr's in Malta need to start utilizing cannabis as a holistic form of medicine first & our hippocratic government needs to legalize, tax and regulate cannabis in Malta instead of locking people up for trying to improve their life.