Reintegrating drug users into society is a must - minister

Social solidarity minister Michael Farrugia proposes revision of drug laws to give rehabilitating drug abusers second chance

OASI held a conference on harm reduction and drug decriminalisation policies
OASI held a conference on harm reduction and drug decriminalisation policies

Drug users seeking rehabilitation should be allowed a second chance and given the opportunity to reintegrate into society, minister for social solidarity Michael Farrugia told a conference organised by Oasi Foundation in Gozo, on the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illegal Trafficking.

Farrugia also said that a White Paper on decriminalising drug use will soon be published by government.

“The message being sent by the law as it stands is that drug users should not be given a second chance. Is it fair that these persons – often victims – are marked for life? Shouldn’t we be finding ways to give them the opportunity to get their life back on track and reintegrate into society?”

Suggesting that further measures should be adopted to prevent individuals from taking up the addictive habit, Farrugia said it was time to revise the services being offered.

“The one-size-fits-all approach does not seem to be working. Maybe offenders could be given the opportunity to speak to addicts themselves and listen to their stories. It might be time to re-evaluate the services which we are offering in society,” he said.

“But no form of rehabilitation will work without aftercare. It is time for us to treat users as victims if they are to fully recover from their addiction. Society also must play its part by accepting them back.”

Nationalist MP Clyde Puli, welcomed the proposed White Paper as a step in the right direction. “Government would need to make its proposals clearer. It might be worth looking into de-penalisation, for instance, whereby drug use is still considered as a serious offence but enough compassion would be shown in offering offenders forms of rehabilitation and means of re-integration into society,” he said.

The four-hour conference included interventions by Law Commissioner and criminal lawyer Franco Debono, lawyer Kathleen Grima, psychiatrist Anton Grech, drug expert Mario Mifsud, MaltaToday journalist Raphael Vassallo, Legalise Cannabis Malta spokesperson David Caruana, Xarabank presenter Peppi Azzopardi and current affairs commentator Pamela Hansen.

Debono insisted that courts should have the discretion to hand out rulings on a case-to-case basis, with the particular circumstances taken into consideration.

“Every case is different. Trafficking, possession, and aggravated possession are all different and should carry different consequences,” he said

According to Debono, part of the blame for Malta’s drug laws must be attributed to the fact that, historically, the country tended to borrow some aspects of a foreign law while dismissing others. “This habit of legislating by taking some parts of a foreign law and leaving out the rest was inevitably going to give rise to imbalance,” he said, adding that legal discrepancies often become politicised.

He agreed some form of deterrent had to remain in place but it needed to be counterbalanced by reform: “Most people would agree that trafficking is a serious offence but when it comes to simple possession, we would need to see whether this person needs help, or if handed some sort of punishment, whether community service is more appropriate. But clearly, certain laws would need to be re-addressed.”

Kathleen Grima seconded the notion that the deterrent factor must remain. “It should not be taken away, even if the deterrent is not a long-term prison sentence, because this actually does put people off,” she said.

“Individual judges should maybe allowed leeway to hand down their own judgements according to the circumstances of a particular case. Many times, cases take long because sending drug offenders to prison is usually avoided at all costs.”

On his part, psychiatrist Anton Grech said that there was no great difference between the psychological harm done by soft drugs like cannabis and other harder drugs.

“Although some drugs may be considered more dangerous than others, this is not necessarily the case. Ecstasy, for instance, can have lingering effects on one’s memory but alcohol abusers may also suffer from many mental and physical effect long after they may have quit.”

Forensic scientist Mario Mifsud said that threshold limits should be taken in context of the particular circumstances.

“It may not necessarily be the case that drug users are addicts but if, for some people, this is a health problem then we cannot be sending them to prison,” he said, adding that there has been a big increase in synthetic substance over the years, with many available online.

Raphael Vassallo was adamant in his belief that the present system was a failed one. “As things stand, there is no distinction between cultivation for personal use and trafficking, neither is there a distinction between sharing and trafficking,” he said. “It is a system which has failed us thus far.”

Citing the fact that Judge Edwina Vassallo herself had in the past agreed that drug possession should not be considered as a criminal offence, Vassallo said that the skewed judicial system was helping in unjustly sending persons to prison.

“Just because something may lead to a dangerous habit should not automatically make it illegal,” he said. “In fact, there are more fatalities in road accidents than drug-related ones.”

Whilst he expressed his satisfaction that experts and non-experts alike seemed to agree that drug users should be helped, as opposed to being chastised, Vassallo said some form of official statement from the parties could influence legislation change.

Legalise Cannabis Malta spokesperson David Caruana on his part, said that a distinction should be made between soft drugs and harder ones, as well as between problem users and those whose lives were not disrupted due to cannabis.

“Classification is certainly necessary,” he said. “I believe that cannabis should be regularised – not dissimilarly to how gambling is – with an emphasis placed on responsible usage.”

Xarabank presenter Peppi Azzopardi argued that persons suffering from drug addiction should not be sent to prison, and that the focus should be on helping these people and not punishing them. “I would prefer it if policemen searched youngsters for drugs with the ultimate scope of helping them cut the habit, rather than to lock them up,” he said.

“And I would rather have a drug user as the teacher of my child, than for instance a racist – as long as my child is not influenced into doing drugs…”