Sociologist from Malta

Friday, May 25, 2012

Debating decriminalization

Michael Briguglio

The Times, 25th May 2012

The recent demonstrations calling for the legalisation of cannabis have helped give prominence to anomalies in drugs policies in Malta.

Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party, which is in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, has long been speaking about the need to reform drug legislation so that people who are really victims of drugs can be helped. So has the President of Malta, a Sedqa director, NGOs and experts in the field, who have basically claimed that sending drug users to jail is counter-productive.

When people are sent to jail because of drugs for personal use, this not only reflects an authoritarian policy that locks up people because of their habits. Even worse, it risks worsening one’s situation if, for example, use of harder drugs results during one’s time in prison.

Unfortunately, the Nationalist government is stagnant on the issue and has only managed to set up a Drugs Court and given more powers to the Attorney General to decide, in an arbitrary fashion, what action to take against persons caught with drugs.

The setting up of a Drugs Court without amending laws is a half measure that does not solve the basic problem, namely the criminalisation of drug users.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, is at best silent on the issue and at worst involved in cheap populist scaremongering. Like the Nationalist Party, it fails to admit that there is a difference between occasional users of soft drugs and addicts of hard drugs. It simply parades a “war on drugs” slogan of the social engineering type. This does not leave much space for rational debate.

When the PL and the PN fail to acknowledge that, for example, some people smoke the occasional marijuana joint for recreational purposes, the two main parties confirm that Malta’s legislation on drugs is out of synch with social trends. Indeed, not every marijuana smoker is necessarily a drug addict. Hence, drug use is not characterised by one single all-encompassing type of behaviour and one single type of drug. Marijuana, for instance, is a soft drug. Heroin, on the other hand, is a hard drug.

AD, as the only party calling for the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, cannot see why users should be criminalised. If anything, victims of personal drug abuse should be helped by health and rehabilitation professionals rather than sentenced by criminal courts.

Rather than wasting resources by putting drug users in prison, it would be better to ease pressure on the courts and the police and on the crowded prison system and free up resources to fight violent and dangerous crime.

AD’s policy for decriminalisation also gives importance to the need to classify drugs according to their physical, psychological and social effects. This should be reflected in legal procedures and in policy-making. Present policy is only giving an incentive to traffickers to invest in hard drugs, where the big money is, knowing that, if caught, they will receive the same punishment anyway.

For example, while some drugs are highly addictive and harmful while others can enhance one’s mood in positive or negative ways, certain drugs can have therapeutic and medical benefits, as is the case with cannabis. In the case of the latter, we believe that such use should be regularised to the benefit of patients and also to avoid possible abuse.

The decriminalisation of drugs also requires stronger emphasis on harm reduction, in a way that encourages persons with drug-related problems to seek help without fear of criminal repercussions.

Such fear can also have tragic consequences, for example when dealing with persons with overdose. In this regard, those accompanying patients to be treated for overdose should only be asked questions related to the treatment when they are in hospital. This would help avoid leaving overdose victims alone out of fear of legal repercussions.

Last but not least, rehabilitated drug addicts should not be imprisoned for past drug-related crimes for personal use. Alternatives such as community work would be a more rational and humane sanction.

Those against decriminalisation argue that drugs harm people’s health. I consider this argument to be very shaky and inconsistent. Indeed, while nobody can deny the damage made by drugs, one should also be honest enough to highlight the damage done to people’s health by cigarettes and by excessive use of alcohol, not to mention various forms of junk food. Should we ban drink, smoke and fast food?

As the cliché goes, education remains a key tool for policies on drugs. People should be conscious of their various effects and, if they seek help, they should receive it. But criminalising people for making use of drugs has been a failure not only in terms of policy but, even more so, with respect to those whose criminalisation has resulted in a spiral of hardships.

Mr Briguglio, a sociologist, is chairperson and spokesman for economic policy and culture, Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.

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