Greens propose Portuguese model for drug decriminalisation

Alternattiva Demokratika presents its Position Paper on Reform in Drug Policy to Minister Owen Bonnici

Alternattiva Demokratika officials presented justice minister Owen Bonnici with their party position on the reform in drug policy.

AD chairperson Arnold Cassola said Malta had to move towards a more humane policy towards drug use and addiction. “Not only because it’s morally the right thing to do but also because it is more successful,” Cassola said.

AD is proposing the Portuguese model which since the introduction of decriminalisation for personal use, hard drug use, crime and transmitted diseases have significantly decreased in Portugal, if it just decriminalized personal use.

Carmel Cacopardo, AD deputy chairperson said that through decriminalisation Malta should shift its energies from applying punishment to drug users to tracking and punishing traffickers as well as applying more  resources to prevention, harm reduction and treatment. “The Portuguese experience spread over more than 10 years is proof that this is a workable and humane policy. Drug addiction should be treated as a socio-medical issue and not as a criminal matter. This is the way forward."

In its position paper, authored by AD member Robert Callus, the Green Party says Malta has focused too much on punishment at the expense of prevention, treatment and harm-reduction.

“The biggest problem with punishing drug users is not only that it utilises financial and human resources that could have been used for the other three measures, but also that it directly interferes in their success rate,” Callus writes in the report.

AD said the Portuguese model has been successful in decreasing hard drug use, crime and transmitted diseases by decriminalising personal use. “What Portugal did was to take this opportunity to strengthen the other three more successful measures in combating this problem.”

“People use drugs because they believe they need them,” AD said, pointing out that self-esteem, vulnerability, peer pressure or family instability are common variables for drug users that are more at risk than others.

“Addicts feel at that point in time that the pros of overcoming that negative feeling are higher than the cons of using the drugs. But fear of the law, unlike the fear of addiction, is not a common deterrent. In order to prevent as many people as possible from commencing drug use, society needs to focus on our children’s coping mechanisms. If that fails, they are very likely to try to cope with drugs, irrespective of whether they legal or not.”

AD said that drug addiction had to be treated as a disease by policy-makers, again pointing out to the Portuguese model of decriminalisation, where a person caught with drugs for personal use must be interviewed by a Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which consists of a social worker, a psychiatrist and an attorney.

Though the Commission does have limited powers (including imposing a fine of up to €150 if a person refuses treatment, its main aim is to give advice or invite people to seek further help.

“The rationale is that while society has literally ‘lost’ every person arrested for drug possession by placing them on the wrong side of the law, through this system, a substantial amount of these people realise that they do need help and that society is offering it,” AD said. “Instead of burning bridges with drug addicts, it works on building them.”

Malta already practices harm-reduction through free syringe distribution and methadone maintenance programmes.

AD said the possibility of prescribed heroin for long-term addicts as practiced in the UK and Switzerland should also be explored, giving addicts drugs that do not have substances like those added to street heroin, usually more harmful than the heroin itself.

“We shouldn’t fool ourselves that the day will come when we win the war on drugs,” Callus said.

“Drugs are here to stay. We can make a significant step forward in tackling this serious problem by moving towards a policy based on the abundant amount of research on actually reducing drug addiction and the problems it creates. We must move away from a populist policy that provides a feel-good factor by temporarily removing people from the streets to behind bars, but which has so miserably failed.”