End the war on drug users

Way back in 2010 Alternattiva Demokratika activists had called out the widely accepted practice of jailing drug users. Using drugs and getting caught was basically a guarantee of a prison sentence, such were the draconian laws PN and PL had fallen over themselves to enact. Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’ propaganda was still a thing in Malta. Six months minimum sentences tied the judiciary’s hands. Countless lives were ruined. No difference was made, and to some extent no difference is really being made today, between different types of drugs. While some people ruined their lives because of heroin, that ruin was compounded by prison sentences. The victims became the victimised. Others, who out of their own will and for their own particular reasons used or shared cannabis had their lives ruined, not by the substance itself but by the criminal justice system.

Fast forward to 2015. Labour had promised in vague terms a form of decriminalization of drug use. In fact they just promised ‘a discussion’ – nothing, neither here nor there. Then Minister for Justice Bonnici, played around with words. People were and still are arrested for growing a few plants of cannabis, others for sharing a joint. Possession remains criminal. Joseph Muscat’s promise that the decriminalization of drugs was ‘the next reform his government would bring about’ was nothing else than playing about with words. The Nationalist Party was, as always, still crossing itself, and playing the ‘war on drugs’ and so-called ‘Maltese-values’ defenders of the faith card. At the time AD was, and still is as ADPD crystal clear: we reiterate that the Maltese government follows serious models that have been used with success for years on end, such as the Portuguese model. Through the introduction of decriminalisation for personal use, hard drug use, crime and transmitted diseases had significantly decreased in Portugal. The shift we want to see is that from a drugs’ policy based on a criminal justice model, to one based on a social and health model.

Fast forward again to May 2018, when I had taken part in a debate about drugs, specifically about cannabis, organised by Circolo Gozitano in Victoria Gozo. Gozitan PN MP Chris Said reiterated the damaging and failed ‘war on drugs’ party mantra. Chris Said in fact confirmed the Nationalist party’s position against the legalisation of cannabis for personal use. No discussion about drug classification, no discussion about the waste of police resources, no reference to United Nations recommendations about drug policy. Then Parliamentary Secretary for Reform Julia Farrugia Portelli, at least had agreed with AD and ReLeaf spokesperson Eric Castillo that a harm reduction strategy for drugs, and the regulation of the use of cannabis was the best way forward. The problem is that we are still waiting. After all these years government has barely move an inch. From reports in the news government seems to be finally moving. 

Will the so-called ‘war’, finally end, given that the facts show that a war only makes matters worse for hard drug users and makes criminals of the occasional users of cannabis. Will hard drugs and cannabis remain in one broad category? We want a humane drug policy, a policy which avoids moral panic and focuses on the social and the health aspects of drug use. First and foremost we sorely need a drug classification system. Not all drugs have the same effects. Victims of hard drugs need medical and social help, not being dragged to court and paraded in the media. Any social and medical problems should be treated as such: as medical and social problems! Years of criminalisation of users has just perpetuated a cycle of pain and suffering. Malta’s drug policies do not reflect today’s realities. One cannot classify the vast majority of cannabis users as ‘drug addicts’. The effects of other drugs from heroin to cocaine, to newer drugs of abuse, are much more damaging and addictive. Still no drug user should be criminalised. We need strong social and community services which work to reduce the need for some people to turn to substance abuse. That’s were money should be spent.

It is high time to stop wasting everyone’s time panicking about cannabis. Cannabis for personal use should be decriminalised. Let us see who will get cold feet this time, despite their rhetoric and expressions of fake solidarity when some well-connected soul gets caught up in the criminal justice system.

Ralph Cassar
ADPD Secreatry General