Drugs and Justice

We cannot have a system which, on paper, urges drug offenders to rehabilitate... while, in practice, refusing to give the rehabilitation process the recognition it deserves

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

In all this talk of ‘justice’, it seems we sometimes tend to overlook the basic fundamentals. The case of William Agius, who was yesterday sentenced to three years for aggravated drug trafficking – seems to be a classic example.

Agius was caught with 2,043 ecstasy pills in 2004, in what was then the biggest-ever ecstasy drug haul. He was18 at the time. The crime itself had taken place close to San Bastjan parish church in Qormi: that technically makes it an ‘aggravated offence’... even if its proximity to a church was almost certainly coincidental.

He was, on Monday, accused before judge Antonio Mizzi of aggravated possession, association and drug trafficking, and admitted to all three charges. Agius faced a minimum punishment of four years’ imprisonment and a maximum of 20 years. However, the judge chose to give a lesser jail term, in line with the minimum the magistrate’s court could give, which was possible due to an amendment to the law.

Mizzi handed Agius a three-year prison term and fined him €3,000. Agius was ordered to pay 50% of the fees of a court-appointed architect. The court also ordered the confiscation of his assets.

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Looking merely at the clinical details of the case, as they would appear to the court, there is no real question concerning the sentence. If anything, one could argue that Agius got off lightly, compared to other (lesser) drug trafficking offences. But that would also be to overlook the powerful human story underpinning this case.

Various witnesses (including drug agency personnel) had testified that Agius – who had drug problems of his own –had completely changed his ways, turned his life around, and was no longer involved with drugs. And while this may not excuse his past actions in the eye of the law... there is also the drug rehabilitation issue to be taken into consideration.

Professionals in this field have long argued that their efforts, in helping people overcome drug dependency, are all too often undermined by the law’s failure to acknowledge any progress. Former Caritas director Mgr Victor Grech had openly pleaded with government to address the glaring lacunae, whereby people who successfully undergo State rehabilitation programmes  - often as not because they were ordered to by the courts – can only be expected to relapse if sentenced to prison for past offences.

In principle, it is a demand Maltese governments of both persuasions have been sympathetic towards. But from a legal standpoint, that is not enough to address the issue. The law courts are powerless to base judgments on anything but the law itself. And the law can only be amended through an Act of Parliament... which requires the otherwise good intentions of both sides to be translated from words into action.

This creates an unnecessary dualism in the debate on justice. On one hand, it is hard not to sympathise with those who point out the clear injustice inherent in this sentence (and other comparable ones). Their demands are reasonable; indeed, the success of something as important as our national drug rehabilitation programmes depends on those demands.

But at the same time, the law courts cannot be blamed for handing down the minimum sentence permitted at law. It is all well and good for Justice Minister Owen Bonnici to hail this judgment as a ‘strong and loud message in favour of people who manage to rehabilitate and get rid of drug addiction.’ In practice, however – while broadly agreeing with both the leniency shown, and also the government’s general line in favour of a drug reform – by no means does it satisfactorily resolve the underlying issue.

What emerges from this case is a clear mismatch behind Malta’s state policy direction in this area... and the policy as it unfolds on the ground. To be fair, it is not a new phenomenon, and the current government has at least acknowledged that the problem exists. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat himself has weighed in on the debate, describing the circumstances Agius found himself today as “an anomaly” and something the government was committed to address.

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The simple truth is that we cannot have a system which, on paper, urges drug offenders to rehabilitate... while, in practice, refusing to give the rehabilitation process the recognition it deserves. Our present drug laws – representing, as they do, a mismatch of old laws and new policies – do not offer any genuine light at the end of the tunnel for people who undertake genuine social reform.  In this particular case, it is to be noted also that – contrary to the advice given by rehab professionals – the prosecution had insisted on a prison sentence. This is particularly worrying, as the office of the Attorney general, which administers the prosecution, is also the government’s legal advisor. Yet government talks about legal reform, while its legal counsel urges the opposite in the law courts.

Until government enacts this legal reform, our legal institutions will continue to apply the letter of the existing law, regardless of the spirit which is supposed to be guiding it. One can criticise the institutions for this, but only up to a point. The ball is in the government’s court to usher this reform through Parliament.