Resistance to drugs decriminalisation ‘dictated by greed’

With the world’s foremost experts unanimously recommending a general policy rethink on drugs – including the possibility of decriminalisation – the government of Malta insists it knows better… and for once the Opposition agrees

“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” This is the stark opening sentence in a recent report of the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, released last month amid a flurry of media controversy.

Among the same report’s main recommendations are to “end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others”; to “challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence”; and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”

Its authors go on to observe that: “This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation that can accomplish these objectives and provide models for others.”

This is hardly the first time calls have been made for a rethink on the subject of drugs, in the face of mounting evidence that existing models simply do not work. In the UK, scientific advisor to government Prof. David Nutt was last year made to resign after opposing a decision to reclassify cannabis from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ drug. 

Nutt argued that the decision had been taken for ‘political, not scientific’ motives: a concern that crops up in various countries,  as evidenced by the Global Commission report.

Even in Malta – where there seems to be broad consensus on the government’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach – voices have recently been heard expressing deep scepticism regarding the results (or lack thereof) of this same policy.

Among those to have recently called for a discussion on decriminalisation was the clinical director the national drug agency Sedqa, Dr George Grech. “Prison is not giving results,” he argued last year. “It’s no secret there are drugs in prison, and we have come to learn that incarceration does not work with people who are purely drug addicts.”

Government has however consistently dismissed all such entreaties, and – barring a few minor amendments to the existing regulations – has chosen to retain the present legal regime in full, warts and all.

Political pandering

Malta’s drug policy is and has always been closely linked to political manoeuvring. In the late 1980s – when the concept of ‘drugs’ was still a relative novelty – then Opposition leader Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici had startled even his own colleagues by floating the idea of ‘legalisation of all drugs’: a position he recently repeated on Xarabank. With hindsight, this can be seen to have galvanised political opposition to such ‘radical’ ideas (as they were perceived at the time). The government of the day responded by toughening up its anti-drugs stance… and went on to win the 1992 elections by a historic landslide.

How much of this was attributable to Mifsud Bonnici’s drug comments is anyone’s guess; but his successor Alfred Sant was clearly determined not to make the same ‘mistake’.

Sant in fact did the opposite: reaping enormous political capital from the government’s perceived mishandling of the Queiroz case (when a convicted Brazilian drug trafficker was given a Presidential pardon).

By that time, the political equation had grown deeply ingrained in the political psyche of both major parties: “hard-line drugs policy = votes”.

But with Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s ‘radical’ arguments now coming from the Global Commission on Drugs Policy – whose members include former President of Columbia Cesar Gaviria; former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; Fernande Henrique Cardoso, ex President of Brazil; Javier Solana, former NATO supremo; ex UN secretary general Kofi Annan; Virgin founder Richard Branson; Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou; former US secretary of State George Schultz; and the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, among others – they are considerably harder to dismiss.

And yet, today’s Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici responded to their report by reaffirming that his “government has no intention of decriminalising or liberalising Malta’s drug laws.”

“The basic fact is that drugs are illegal because they are harmful and we are still to be persuaded that giving a free hand to people to possess and consume dangerous substances without having an effective deterrent in place will solve this problem,” he said.

In a rare moment of consensus, the Opposition came rushing to his support: “Labour believes we should strengthen the methods used for prevention and fighting abuse,” a spokesman recently told The Times.

On the political front, this leaves only Alternattiva Demokratika, whose youth section has endorsed the basic recommendations with a call for decriminalisation of soft drugs. Clearly, drugs remain very much a political hot potato.

Malta’s biggest industry

Other voices point towards less savoury reasons for the government’s resistance.

Prison rights activist Fr Mark Montebello – who recently spent some time in the heart of Mexico’s drug-war region – told this newspaper that decriminalisation “strikes at the root of the problem”… significantly adding that the opposite approach serves to strengthen, not weaken, the international drugs trade.

“Decriminalisation aims at breaking the market for illegal drugs,” he said. “Prison and other remedies deal with the effects of the drug trade, not the cause. And the more you address the effects, the bigger the cause grows.”

Montebello is not surprised that the country’s political forces stolidly refuse to acknowledge the true nature of this problem.

“The drugs trade is Malta’s greatest business,” he says. “It finances a lot of things – from top to bottom, a lot of people are directly or indirectly part of this business. This is why there is so much resistance to the idea of decriminalisation. It is not just ideological, but also motivated by greed. Some of the most powerful players tend to be against it because they stand to lose a lot. They are themselves part of the market… so they whip up popular sentiment against decriminalisation. This has been going on for years.”

Political input to the discussion has for this same reason been at best misguided.

“I have no doubt some of our politicians are motivated by good intentions.” Montebello adds. “But whether it is their intention or not, they are indirectly doing more harm than good.”

Decriminalization, legalisation: what’s the difference?

Decriminalisation is not the same thing as legalisation. If a drug like cannabis (to give one example) were to be legalised, the possession, use, trade, etc., of that substance would not be recognised as a crime in itself.

However, like all other legal commodities the trade would still be subject to certain restrictions: a licence would be required for import/export purposes; all the relevant taxes would have to be paid, and the relevant paperwork carried out, etc.

Failure to abide by those conditions would entail punitive consequences just as in the case of alcohol, cigarettes and practically any legal product or service. Once legalised, the drug would remain subject to all the legal regulations.

Decriminalisation, on the other hand, is a different concept altogether. Cannabis (to stick to the same example) would still remain illegal even if decriminalised: and depending on the model of law adopted and the scale of its local application, the restriction may still cover simple possession, buying and selling, use for recreational purposes, etc.

However, law enforcers would not be able to prosecute for the above breaches, as despite the illegality of the substance there would be no criminal penalties stipulated at law (except within certain parameters), depending on the legislation.

The degree of decriminalisation may vary from country to country: for instance, there may be a maximum allowable quantity for possession, and anyone caught with more than the specified quantity would be still be liable for criminal prosecution.

Criminal sanctions would be reserved for the more serious crimes associated with drug use: cultivation, international trafficking, etc.

Depending also on other issues (such as judicial discretion) ‘serial offenders’ – i.e., people caught on multiple occasions – may still be prosecuted.

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In 1994 Switzerland introduced a program of heroin prescription which targeted hard-core drug users. The heroin substitution programme had three effects on the drug market: -It substantially reduced the consumption among the heaviest users, and this affected the viability of the market. -It reduced levels of other criminal activity associated with the market. -By removing local dealers, casual users found it difficult to make contact with sellers. In 2008, 68% of Swiss voters decided to make this program a permanent one but rejected the decriminalization of marijuana.The government, which opposed the marijuana proposal, said it feared that liberalizing cannabis could cause problems with neighboring countries, i.e. drug tourism.
The argument for drug decriminalisation has long been won sociologically, criminologically, pharmacologically and economically (market-wise). Those who still refute the fact that we have a prohibition problem rather than a 'drug problem' are either ignorant of the facts or corrupt hypocrites - like most of our useless career politicians. This prohibition problem originated last century in the US, of course, and one would do well to research not only its origins, but also the abundance of evidence pointing to the huge billions of dollars being made by CIA sub-organisations and their cohorts through heroin and cocaine trafficking. Cannabis is a gateway drug, they say. Sure enough, and that's why it's still prohibited: decriminalising Cannabis means heroin and cocaine would soon follow. That changes the market game altogether. The CIA drug cartel and their controllers are the last to want to see this lucrative illegal trade regularised. 'Conspiracy theory'? You haven't even started. Truth is indeed much stranger than fiction. But don't expect the corporate media to be telling you about it.
@ Quo Vadis Global Commission on Drugs Policy - do you think you're more of an expert? From the little i see on the hospital wards and reading the news if there's any two drugs which are really causing any harm it's alcohol and cigarettes. Decriminalize all or make them all illegal.
Alfred dalli
I can understand that both the PL and PN are afraid to commit themselves by saying that drugs should be decriminalised. One knows the strength PN's strategy to turn such an issue into a political attack. Nowadays even the PL are getting wiser from this point of view, so both parties are aware from the risks such a statement implies. I would like to know what are AD's views on this issue. It would be very interesting to see what Mr Briguglio has to say.
"The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” Maybe the person who made this statement should give us more details about his conclusions. Maybe drug trafficking is the best business around the whole world at the moment, and in foreign countries, there were many cases where alot of politicians were convicted for their involvement directly or in directly in this dirty business. Perhaps that's one of the main reasons that the war against drug trafficking is lost. There are so much money involved in this horrible circle, and the victims always get the worst, either being sent to jail, or they die of a drug overdose, but the masterminds are never caught!! I just wonder why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Seems that Dr KMB is being vindicated internationally
cannabis can be used as a primary material to make lots of things such as clothing rope , bricks, wall insulation, Fiber Glass the properties of this material also known as Hemp are so vast it would give the oil companys a run for ther money. that is the main reason why cannabis is ilegal and the truth about it is hidden.