'Drug law reform can change lives' - Bonnici

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said that through the reformed system, victims of abuse are given the chance to prove themselves

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said that the drug law reform, which came into force a few weeks ago, is in reality an exercise in rationalisation.

Speaking at at the European Cities Against Drugs (ECAD) Conference earlier today, Bonnici said that the policy is a subject that is close to the government's heart.

"This is one of the most radical changes the country has seen and it is a shift from castigation to rehabilitation, which is an important change both for those who hold the law dear and also to those who care and empathize with others," Bonnici argued.

Bonnici said that the law reform effectively changes the lives of those who are somehow effected by drug abuse. 

"We are proud, as a government, to have taken this brave choice in favour of the victims of abuse," Bonnici said, adding that members of the judiciary have expressed their joy at the new laws as before they had no choice but to send those accused to prison. 

"The new law gives the victims the chance to prove themselves and since the law was enacted, we have given victims of abuse the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves."

"If the person given a second chance doesn't take it then there is only so much that can be done," Bonnici said, stressing that drug-related legislation was something many politicians were afraid to get involved with. 

Bonnici added that these victims can prove themselves in front of the newly appointed rehabilitation board and that they now have to try their best - they can no longer merely blame the system. 

Bonnici added that the change would not have been as effective had it not been for the help of local councils. He explained that drug users are sent in front of the board established in one of the five municipalities across the island. 

"This offers more humane approaches as you are appearing in front of a board in a village that is your home. We believe that local councils can provide the comfort that the law courts cannot," Bonnici said, thanking the local councils for their cooperation in this issue. 

Bonnici expressed the hope and confidence that the next meeting would see him presenting positive results of the work of local councils in the lives of many victims of drug abuse.

CEO of the foundation for social welfare services Alfred Grixti explained that Sedqa was built around the desire to give victims of drug abuse the possibility to get back on their feet.

The recently published National Report on Drugs Sedqa has €3 mllion euro budget every year and it aims to help victims of abuse and their families. It focuses on alcohol addiction and drugs including heroin (where there was a total of 1,098 patients treated last year).

Grixti explained that Sedqa hoped that convicts who had beens entenced prior to the reform, and therefore not been given a second chance, should be sent to the nine-month program before being released.

He added that the organisation also worked to support victims and appeal to courts to send them to rehabilitation rather than prison, as well as offering psychological and family therapy services.

He explained that there was no social barrier for the issue in Malta and that addiction is a very real problem that could affect all families regardless of their educational or economic background. 

Grixti explained that last year, there were a total of 2,874 cases treated, with the highest concentrations in the south harbour district with around 800 cases on its own. He also added that there was gross unreporting in Gozo, which was and has been a problem across the board on various issues, not just drugs.

"Although there are some concentrated areas, the problem is spread quite evenly across the island, which highlights the need to address the issue on a localised level," Grixti added.

Grixti said that although there is help from the police, there is a need to decentralise the agency, to use resources more effectively and efficiently. 

"We are looking forward to this change now, and we will be working with local organizations, parishes and councils, as well as participating in the EU-funded LEAP projects, which gives former addicts the opportunity to find a job after they overcome their addictions."

Grixti added that the highest recorded addiction incidence in 2014 had been heroin, with cocaine remaining rather stable as well as cannabis. Alcohol, he said, is a very big issue but it is hugely underreported. 

Grixti added that the agency was proud of its campaigns in schools, but that it would also be beefing these services up. The focus would be shifted to substance abuse in places of employment, where the agency would work with employers both in public and private sectors.

According to Sedqa, data shows that underage drinking is on the decline but that cannabis use among younger age groups increased in the past year. Grixti said that the agency intended to tackle this and to connect it to localities and see how local councils could help in addressing this phenomenon.

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