Drug policies need to target criminal networks

Surely, any serious discussion on legalisation should also discuss the need to counter a thriving, illegal, black market drug trade.

Our latest survey about the legalisation of recreational cannabis, reveals apparent contradictions in our approach to this issue.

The survey asked people whether they agreed with the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use by adults. 66.6% disagreed, and almost 10% were unsure where they stood on the issue.

The strongest support for legalisation at (38.1%) was among young adults aged between 18 and 35. Support progressively dropped among the older generations, with only 8.1% of those aged 65 and over in favour.

But the survey also gauged the level of cannabis use among adults, with 9.3% – estimated at 32,000, and 17,000+ of whom aged between 18 and 35 – admitting having used marijuana. The number more than tripled when people were asked whether they knew someone who used cannabis: which equates to some 100,000 people who are aware of an individual who uses marijuana.

This suggests considerably widespread use of the drug: especially considering that these figures may even be understated – a phenomenon researchers describe as social desirability bias. This is the tendency of respondents to answer questions in a way they believe will be viewed favourably by others. Given that cannabis is illegal, it is very plausible that people tend to associate it with bad or undesirable behaviour.

Nonetheless, the picture that emerges suggests an apparent paradox. The results point towards widespread social acceptance of marijuana use across a wide range of social spheres and denominations… yet a majority resolutely opposed to legalisation. Furthermore, a similar MaltaToday survey in 2014, had yielded a slender majority in favour of decriminalisation. Admittedly, the two issues are not interchangeable (one can agree with decriminalisation, but disagree with legalisation); but given that the arguments are broadly comparable in both cases, the discrepancy is indeed somewhat surprising.

In the case of decriminalisation, government had argued (and a majority agreed) that prosecuting cases involving only small quantities of marijuana would be counter-productive; and that a distinction should be made between marijuana users and ‘criminals’. On paper, the arguments in favour of legalisation extend the same premise: if marijuana users are not criminals, it follows that marijuana use should not be a crime.

Yet when applied to legalisation, the reasoning seems to change. Some people may justifiably fear that legalisation would be interpreted as ‘encouraging’ drug use… Others might see it as a precursor to other, unrelated ‘liberal’ changes that may be a cause for concern to them.

These views are, of course, entirely valid, insofar as they reflect genuine public concern. The problem, however, is that – unlike the case with decriminalisation in 2014 – none of these concerns are being properly addressed at policy level.

So far, the reform piloted by Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli has stopped at discussion level between government and the different stakeholders, with very few details emerging as to what model will be adopted. And the few indications so far do not even look very much like a legalisation model (among the more controversial proposals, for instance, is a ‘register’ for cannabis users).

Yet if government intends to introduce further reforms to Malta’s drug laws – as it indicated in its 2017 manifesto – it must also explain why these reforms are needed in the first place. It must admit that the reason so many countries are revising their drug policies, is because the previous policies (in the words of the United Nations report on drugs) have failed.

Surely, any serious discussion on legalisation should also discuss the need to counter a thriving, illegal, black market drug trade. At present, we have an ambiguous situation where approximately 32,000 people – most of whom, one would assume, are in most other aspects law-abiding citizens – have used marijuana themselves, and an additional 100,000 who know others who do.

And because there is, at present, no alternative but to buy marijuana illegally from a drug dealer… all these people would have had to inject money into the criminal underworld.

Decriminalisation, then, has not eliminated the link between organised crime and cannabis use. The status quo only strengthens and enriches criminal networks; as such, it does very little to mitigate the harm associated with this drug.

Much like the ongoing European political offensive against money laundering, any reform of the drug laws should target the criminal organisations profiting off the situation. Moreover, the benefits to society of creating a legal market, which effectively breaks the link between soft and hard drugs, need to be properly explained.

Legislators tend to stick to the line that ‘marijuana is a gateway drug’, without ever pausing to understand why that is so in practice. If marijuana can only be bought from illegal dealers who also sell harder illegal drugs, it is to be expected that buyers will one day be lured into harder drug habits. If, on the other hand, it can be bought legally from a licensed dispenser, the entire dynamic might change.

Ultimately, if government is serious with its ‘harm reduction’ approach, it has to propose an actual model which at least aims to reduce harm. This has not happened so far, and may explain why so many people remain sceptical about these reforms.