Drug decriminalization law guided by 'common sense' - Bonnici

White paper proposes reformed laws dealing with first-time and repeat drug users, focuses on support rather than jail time.

Cannabis users will appear before a justice commissioner rather than a court of law.
Cannabis users will appear before a justice commissioner rather than a court of law.

Under the proposed law on drug decriminalization published today, drug users will no longer face a court sentence but instead appear in front of a justice commissioner and, if deemed necessary, a social board made up of experts.

An exception for cannabis users is being proposed, with the white paper recommending that cannabis users, including repeat offenders, only appear in front of the commissioner.

Addressing a press conference this afternoon, Justice minister Owen Bonnici explained that first time users will no longer face criminal charges, but a dedicated justice commissioner and a social board will be deciding what actions are needed on a case by case basis.

"We could have done nothing at all on drugs, but we have decided to take a decision and publish a white paper which is practical and clear," Bonnici said.

Insisting that the law proposal was "guided by common sense," Bonnici said that the white paper is intended to give the country "a clear direction, strengthen help offered to drug users and clamp down on drug trafficking."

While stressing that drug users "need help and not a court sentence," the minister added that Illegal drugs are unacceptable and wrong, emphasizing that government "is in no way encouraging drug use."

"We are not softening our stance on drugs but we are being more sensitive when it comes to drug users who do not need to be sentenced by court but need help and care."

Insisting that the focus should be on rehabilitation and care, Bonnici said that the white paper proposed an overhaul in the law to make a clear distinction between social users, street traffickers and drug barons.

He explained that users caught in simple possession for the first time would no longer be referred to the criminal court but to a justice commissioner who can either issue a warning and/or fine or refer the case to a board made up of social experts, police officers and retired representatives of the judiciary.

Persons caught for the second time would be automatically referred to the social board, which decides what action is necessary, including sending persons to rehabilitation programmes.

The minister explained that the white paper also proposes a reform in the way court deals with persons accused of trafficking, including the proposal to create a drug court.

Cannabis users will however be exempted from appearing in front of the social board, irrespective of how many times they are caught in possession of drugs for personal use. However the justice commissioner will be given complete discretion to make exceptions and refer repeat offenders to the social board.

Moreover, cultivation of cannabis for personal use will no longer be punishable by imprisonment and the white paper also proposes that cannabis can be used for medical reasons if recommended by a medical consultant.

Asked whether government had taken into consideration possible repercussions, including an increase in drug use, the minister said that experts had been widely consulted "and we have concluded that this is the right balance to help out users. This law is not proposing the legalization of drugs."

The changes proposed by the white paper do not apply for persons using drugs in prison and in the presence of minors.

Government will be launching a two-month consultation process that will come to an end on 15 September.

The white paper follows the recommendation by the justice reform commission, headed by retired Judge Giovanni Bonell,o which had proposed that simple possession should no longer be considered as a crime but rather a social problem.

The proposal has received a mixed reaction and some experts have expressed concern at the possible repercussions, including increased drug use.

So far, the Nationalist Party has not committed itself fully on the law, although last week deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami indicated that the opposition would support a legislative effort not to criminalise drug users or those caught in possession of drugs for their personal use.

Fenech Adami was quoted as saying that while criminal sanctions against drug traffickers should not be changed, “we should look at the situation differently for drug users and those caught in possession of drugs intended for their personal use.”

PN leader Simon Busuttil tweeted that the party believes that "drug users should be given help, not court."

The Green Party on the other hand have consistently called for decriminalisation and last month it presented the party position on the reform in drug policy to Bonnici.

AD Chairperson Arnold Cassola said "We need 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."

AD champions the Portuguese model, which it says has led to a significant decrease in hard drug use, crime and transmitted diseases.

Current situation

At present, Maltese laws recognise two kinds of possession; simple possession or possession for personal use, and aggravated possession or possession under circumstances where it appears that the possession was not for the offender`s exclusive use.

Simple possession, if tried in the Court of Magistrates, may be liable to between three and 12 months imprisonment and/or a fine of between €470 and €2,350.  If it is tried in the Criminal Court, the sentence range is one to 10 years in prison and a fine in the range of €470 - €23,500.

Possession not for the offender`s exclusive use is punished in the same way as trafficking, and carries a punishment of discretionary life imprisonment if convicted in the Criminal Court. 

If the court considers, taking various factors into consideration, that life is inappropriate, or if the jury verdict was not unanimous, the sentence may be between four and 30 years in prison and a fine of between €2,350 and €118,000. If the conviction is in the Court of Magistrates, the offence is liable to between six months and 10 years in prison with a fine of between €470 and €11,800.