Cannabis decriminalisation law was passed without preparing for its impact on society: former ARUC chairperson

“When they passed the law, there was nothing prepared. So people got confused….things aren’t clear. And when things aren’t clear people get hurt.”

Psychotherapist Mariella Dimech speaking on RTK this morning
Psychotherapist Mariella Dimech speaking on RTK this morning

The former chairperson of the Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) has questioned the government's failure to pre-empt the social impact of its decision to legalise cannabis, in a radio interview on Saturday morning.

Psychotherapist Mariella Dimech, who has extensive experience in the treatment of drug addiction, having spent 21 years working at Caritas, was interviewed by radio host Andrew Azzopardi.

Drug law reform was passed without making preparations

Azzopardi asked Dimech for her opinion about the recently proposed amendments to Malta’s drug laws.

“If an addict goes to prison an addict, he leaves it an addict…” Dimech said, stressing the point that behind every addict there is a family in pain, as well as other victims.

“When thinking about a law, we cannot only think about the interests of the addict, but also society at large….So if we make a plan to help an addict we must ensure that we don’t only help him through the law. We must change our approach to cannabis.”

“When they passed the law, there was nothing already prepared. So people got confused….things aren’t clear. And when things aren’t clear people get hurt.”

Dimech questioned the implications of the raising of the upper threshold for drug possession amounts that can be heard by a specialised drugs court. “When we are saying that we aren’t going to pay attention to the amount of drugs in order to decide [on punishment]…what is the problem [that is being addressed]? Criminality or addiction?” 

“But on the other hand we cannot just say ‘now we have drug courts’…it is not enough for me to come and tell you we had 500 people go through drug courts and receive a treatment plan.  A treatment order doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will be in a residential rehabilitation facility. It can also mean that you simply attend meetings with your probation officer and go for therapy. But how many people out there know that if you take cocaine today, in three days time it will not show up on a drug test? You might not, but people who use it do,” Dimech explained.

Less people being jailed for drug offences also meant a greater workload on probation officers and drug courts, she said, asking what preparation had been done to prepare for it.

“Everyone knows the truth. Statistics show a great increase in use of cannabis and cocaine. We cannot just look at the legality of the situation. We must also talk about more information on drug courts, treatment orders, how effective they are, and who are the professionals who will evaluate these new things.”

Dimech argued that the recommendations made by organisations that operate in the sector of treatment for drug addiction, such as Caritas and Oasi, must be given the same weight as the government. “We must pool all our resources and we mustn't rush things. There is a huge problem with drugs in this country, with mental health, depression, suicides. We can’t keep up.”

“So when we open the doors, let us stop and evaluate the possible mental health consequences, if a real addict hears that there is a change in drugs legal status…let us see whether these are the things that will motivate him to stop.”

Statistics seemed to indicate that they don’t. Dimech told Azzopardi that in 2022 there was a massive spike in drug-related emergency hospital admissions.

“In truth, what people who work in social work want to do is give back to the community and ensure that problems are reduced, not increased.”

Dimech on being dismissed from ARUC, iced bun accusations

Azzopardi asked what had led to her dismissal from the top post at the newly-formed Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC).

Dimech told the radio show host that she hadn’t been given a reason for her dismissal, and that she had not been prepared for the negative press that followed, which she described as very personal. “I never imagined it would be such a difficult experience, on different levels. I didn’t expect articles and emphasis on me as a person, because I wasn’t the important factor.

“It hurt me a lot but I stayed focused, because I felt this law could help us do something in the interests of cannabis users.”

The law was greeted with enthusiasm but in reality nothing had been done to prepare for its introduction. “The legal aspect was done but there was no groundwork or preparation. And the results are clear : the fact that the use of illegal cannabis hasn’t decreased is worrying.”

Most hurtful was the direct implication that she had spent a year doing nothing, Dimech said, explaining that in spite of the lack of resources, she had laid the foundation for the authority’s work, which was only now beginning to show. “I worked a lot. I worked from home, as well as from the small office they gave me. I know that my successor cannot say that he found nothing to have been done.”

The biggest problem with cannabis, Dimech said, is the lack of information that is available to the public,  whose views on the subject were mostly formed at a political level, from the stance taken by the party they follow.

“That is not the only way to obtain information. We need to build a society where professionals and people with relevant experience feel free to give their opinions.” 

The psychotherapist said her lack of political nous meant that she was not prepared for the political backlash that followed her appointment. “I can’t believe that I could be so naive, honestly. I am not a person who is into politics. Although I am a focused, confident and assertive person, I was also shattered by the attacks,” she said.

Her voice momentarily quavering as she fought back tears, Dimech rejected the insinuation that she had accepted the post for the money. “I cannot understand how a person who spent over three decades working with people [can be accused of that]… you cannot help people for 30 years if your only interest is money. You cannot spend hours, as I did, extra, unpaid with troubled individuals…that is also a vocation. That people say that I give my professional opinion for political aims, or for money, unfortunately doesn’t give people a chance to hear, in an objective manner, an opinion and think about it.”

“My opinion has nothing to do with politics. My opinion is based on my experience working with drug addicts and their victims.”

Azzopardi confronted his guest with reports about Dimech’s government consultancy,  published by the Shift News, after the same government had terminated her employment at ARUC. “Was this an iced bun?” he asked.

“Allow me to say this first: If the Shift wanted to hurt me, they succeeded and they can continue to hurt me, because I know that much of the Shift’s discussion about me is not made in the interests of the country, or any political party in truth. And it is not in the interests of society. It is intended to settle scores, to hurt. Not only me but also my brother… But yes I’m hurting, so you’re doing great. Well done.”

Dimech denied the consultancy allegation. “I am not a consultant. I am conducting research, -which I had started in 2009, under the Nationalists, by the way -….and which I want to continue. It is research on a national-scale that has to be done through the government. My dream is to close my chapter on addictions with there being tools to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs.”