The Malta Independent 22 June 2024, Saturday
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Legalise it, or should we?

Clyde Puli Sunday, 29 June 2014, 09:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

The government has already declared its intention to decriminalise substance abuse but up to now one cannot understand exactly to where the new drugs’ policy is pointing: will it lead to a liberal progressive quasi legalisation of drugs for recreational purposes on the basis of a created civil right or will it lead to the humane system of de-penalisation and rehabilitation, albeit still recognising that illicit drug consumption is not necessarily a desirable thing? The Prime Minister’s declarations seem to lead to the former, while his Social Policy Minister seems to be at least emphasising the latter.

The controversy of what should be regarded as the legitimate or illegitimate use of drugs was rekindled following a speech by ex-Minister of Health Godfrey Farrugia. It was also the subject of a conference organised by the OASI Foundation that brought together policy-makers, experts, opinion-makers, professional practitioners and addicts to discuss the issue on the International Day against Drug Abuse & Illicit Trafficking and on the eve of the government’s publication of its White Paper on Drugs Policy Reform.


The medical use of drugs

In a parliamentary speech, Dr Farrugia – who is taking the opportunity to speak more frankly now that he no longer forms part of Cabinet – put forth his thoughts on the medical use of cannabis extracts which may have beneficial effects in the treatment of certain diseases such as cancer. Dr Farrugia’s speech sparked controversy between those who seemingly wanted to nip the idea in the bud and others who were preparing for another holy crusade. I still have to understand why the controversy arose in the first place.

As is the case with morphine and any similar substance, it is the principal aim of usage and the end result that determines whether the use of that substance is right or wrong. Additionally, as happens on such matters, we have a National Medicines Authority which, prior to issuing any approvals, evaluates scientific research and the benefits and risks associated with the use of any substance. However, even if the medical use of cannabis should not have stirred any controversy, the use of the same drug for recreational purposes certainly opens up the debate.


The apparent failure of prohibition

Quite a few people today argue that the outright concept of “war against drugs” through a complete prohibition and criminalisation of trafficking and possession, as well as the personal use of drugs, has not managed to force down the demand for further drug consumption. The same advocates also state that this war on drugs has not only led many governments to spend a large fortune but has also packed most of the prisons around the world and consequently has swelled further the criminal career of those who found themselves in prison due to drugs.

Local studies carried out by psychologist Marilyn Clark and sociologist Albert Bell have revealed that such practices may encourage relapsing amongst those who abuse drugs which, as a consequence, hinders their rehabilitation and integration within society. On the other hand, according to both international and even local studies – such as the one by psychiatrist Anton Grech – it is clear that the use of certain drugs, including cannabis, can cause mental and physical harm.

Nonetheless, not everybody is so keen on anti-prohibitionist methods. Locally, Caritas has appealed for caution on the subject and, incidentally, a few days ago the British Medical Association voted to ban anyone born after the year 2000 from smoking and buying cigarettes in the hope of creating the first tobacco-free generation by 2035.


Legalisation, decriminalisation, de-penalisation: more than a question of semantics

Should we decide to move away from prohibitionist policies, the routes available to take are mainly three: legalisation, decriminalisation or de-penalisation. The difference is more than mere semantics.

Legalisation, generally proposed by libertarians on the basis of civil rights, would legalise the use, possession, sale and – in some instances – even the production and trafficking of psychotropic drugs. Proponents of legalisation advance the notion that the sale of hitherto illegal drugs would be controlled in the same way as alcohol and nicotine, with age restrictions, warnings on packaging, and so forth.

Decriminalisation is also seen as an alternative to prohibition. This entails re-defining the possession of drugs for personal use as a non-criminal form of behaviour that is not punishable by sanctions contemplated by criminal law. As such, although different (non-criminal) sanctions may be imposed on drug users, decriminalisation pushes drug-related crimes away from the radar of criminal justice and enforcement policy.

The third option, de-penalisation, would mean that the possession and personal use of illegal psychotropic drugs would remain criminal offences (and hence still under the radar of the criminal justice system), but such offences (with the emphasis being on possession for personal use and not the trade, cultivation or trafficking of illegal drugs) would not be punishable by custodial sanctions, i.e. imprisonment), given the detrimental effect imprisonment has on drug users. Depenalisation normally entails a diversion/cautioning system for first-time users or users of small amounts, with the penalties escalated for repeat use or the possession of larger amounts of illegal drugs. Such practices would ensure that while the dangers of imprisoning and coming down too hard on first-time or recreational users would be avoided, we would also be maintaining the possibility of preventing the most vulnerable from falling through the network of drug related social services.


How progressive do we go?

Earlier this year, the government announced that it had plans to decriminalise the use of drugs whose use is illegal today. Justice Minister Owen Bonnici had already indicated that the intended drugs legislation reform is intended to be wider in scope than previously imagined but perhaps the Prime Minister’s slant was the more significant one. Back in April, Joseph Muscat hailed the proposed decriminalisation of drugs as the next struggle in the acquisition of more civil liberties for Maltese citizens, following the campaigns for divorce and civil unions.

The government’s consultant on civil liberties, Cyrus Engerer, had also argued that he deemed the decriminalisation of cannabis as only the first step. The experience gained from such decriminalisation would then be applied in decriminalising the use of more dangerous substances at a later stage. So the intention, as expressed here, is clearly set for an outright decriminalisation of all type of substance abuse and at least from the reporting of the political discourse it is being wrapped in a liberal progressive package, the logic of which will finally lead to legalisation. Social Policy Minister Michael Farrugia was quite evasive during the mentioned OASI Foundation conference and would not quench my thirst for more clarity about the subject but the slant of his argument was more pro rehabilitation, if anything.


The fundamental question: civil rights or societal problems?

In my humble opinion, prior to taking hasty decisions about which road to take we need to know which destination we wish to reach. Do we soften prohibitionist policies because we have discovered better ways to combat illicit drug consumption or do we soften prohibitionist laws and eventually do away with them because we consider the consumption of drugs as a legitimate form of recreation as good as any other?  

The government thus has to decide, without fudging the issue, if it finally wants our country to take the course of decriminalising recreational drug use – which is effectively the first step towards legalisation – on the basis of civil rights, which would unavoidably send the message that today’s illegal substance abuse has become a legitimate means of recreation as any other. If it does not, then the alternative is to favour a de-penalisation policy which, while regarding the recreational use of drugs as a serious act, adopts a more humanitarian and compassionate stance and consequently favours professional assessment, therapy, rehabilitation and social integration to the system of imprisoning victims.

The Nationalist Party eagerly awaits the publication of the white paper on drug legislation reform to contribute to a hopefully mature discussion with all the stakeholders.

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