“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein

The war on drugs has failed. It isn’t DJ Chaos on Pirate Radio stating it but the Global Commission on Drug Policy. A think tank made up of former presidents of nation states including Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico and Mr Kofi Annan former General Secretary of the UN, amongst others.

http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/Report

The truth, in lay terms is very simple. The profits in the drugs industry are so high that if there is a demand, there will surely be a supply. It is also abundantly clear that fear of getting caught isn’t affecting the demand for drugs.

It is not only academic studies that prove this, but also a little common sense. Why is it that in a country such Malta, where there is no classification between soft and hard drugs, only a very small fraction of cannabis users, use heroin too? Not only are both drugs equally illegal and carry the same penalties but for those whose bodies have not yet developed a tolerance for heroin, (thus needs larger quantities for the same effect) the latter actually cheaper than cannabis. Yet, most choose not to opt for heroin. It’s clear that it’s neither the legal deterrent nor the price that’s keeping these people away from it.

In spite of all this, governments in many European countries (or both government and opposition in countries like Malta) refuse to bulge an inch when they hear the word decriminalization.

Rest assured that the more the argument for decriminalizing drugs surface, the more will the scaremongers get hysterical that Malta will be infested with drugs. I’m sure that before decriminalizing all drugs in Portugal in 2001, there were scaremongers making the same claim. Truth is the exact opposite happened.

That said, it needs to be clear though that there is no quick fix solution for the complex problems caused by drug abuse. Portugal is not drug free. But the drug problem has diminished since decriminalization.

What’s going on in Portugal?

A simple overview shows that since 2001:

Use of cannabis has increased
Use of cocaine didn’t change significantly
Use of heroin has decreased
Total use of drugs has decreased

This is even more positive than it looks at face value. During the past 10 years, drug abuse in most EU countries has increased significantly. The increase in use of cannabis, was in fact in proportion of the increase in use in the EU average. In other words there is no evidence to show that this increase was brought about by decriminalization.

Cocaine is definitely the drug that is most on the increase in Europe, in some countries including Malta, at an alarming rate. Unlike most European countries, cocaine use in Portugal did not significantly increase since 2001 This is even more striking one considers that Portugal is the closest European country to the main cocaine exporter Colombia, and has a lot of historic ties with South American countries.

There are other benefits the Portuguese people have enjoyed since decriminalizing drugs such as a decrease in crime and certain contagious diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C.

Decriminalizing drugs in Portugal, one of the most conservative countries in the EU block didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was part of a whole package of admitting that the war on drugs – the way it was being waged – had failed and honestly try to do something about it.

A Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDT) was introduced in every region in the country. Anyone caught with the possession of drugs (calculated as roughly the amount for 10 days of use or less) was no longer arrested. No arrest, criminal record or lawyer fees. Just a mandatory visit to his regional CDT in 72 hours. The CDT has the power to impose sanctions such as fines and community work, but that’s not its main aim.

The main aim of the CDT is to assess whether the individual is just a casual drug user or an addict, and proceed accordingly. The CDT also has the power to refer a person identified as an addict to either residential or non-residential treatment. However, unlike in a Court of law treating the person as a criminal, the CDT considers the addict as a patient and tries to act in his best interest rather than punish him. In fact, though legal advisors also form part of the CDT, it is mainly formed from health care professionals.

This system’s major successes are the following

1) More people in treatment. Being confronted by health care professionals within 72 hours was seen much more likely to lead a person to decide to start facing his drug problem seriously than being in the hands of law enforcement officers whose main aim is to secure a conviction. Which is exactly what happened.

(This was coupled with pumping more financial resources by the Portuguese government into treatment centres)

2) Less people were convicted with drugs, yet those who did were prosecuted for a total of a larger amount of drugs. Since the burden of arresting and convicting people with the personal use of drugs had eased from the criminal justice system, more resources were allocated for drug trafficking.

Classification of Drugs

Most EU countries have a system where punishment for the trafficking (or possession in countries where the personal use is still a criminal offence) of drugs varies significantly between hard and soft drugs. Malta is one of the few exceptions. Importing a Kg of cocaine will carry the same penalty as importing a Kg of cannabis.

This is not only unfair, but also absurd. Hard drugs are, nearly always, more expensive. Even heroin, which a beginner it is usually cheaper than cannabis, becomes horrendously expensive when develops tolerance for it.

When harsh sentences, for soft drugs (such as that of David Holmes who got 10.5 years imprisonment and a 23,000 fine for cultivating cannabis) are compared with equally harsh sentences for trafficking soft drugs, the courts are actually giving a clear message to would be traffickers: Don’t traffic soft drugs. They are much less profitable and if caught you’ll get the same punishment.

This is not speculation but a reality. Though authorities are not admitting it, we have a serious cocaine problem in Malta. Most violent robberies we hear about are committed by people under the influence of cocaine and/or from people needing money to buy more cocaine. This dangerous drug is being presented as a party drug and is abused regularly in places such as weddings and village feasts. Many young people are under the illusion that “it’s not that harmful”. Unlike cannabis users, most of whom use the drug only occasionally and during leisure time, most cocaine users don’t stop there. Many realize that cocaine isn’t just a “recreational party drug” when it’s too late.

The influx of cocaine could not be attributed solely to the lack of classification in our drug laws. The biggest cause is the fact that the cocaine industry (mostly in South America) is booming. Supply has exceeded demand and new marketing strategies are being used. Aside from branding it as a party drug, today’s cocaine is also cheaper.

The lack of classification is just adding insult to injury. It is making the drug more available something which, amongst other things continues to reinforce the idea that it’s just a party drug.

Lets Talk Sense About Drugs

The drugs aren’t coming. They are here and on the increase. Drug addicts are not one-offs, nearly every extended family has one.

Relatives of drug addicts know that they are ill. They’ve seen them vow a million times they won’t use anymore. They saw them flourish in a clean period only to lose all they have gained in a weak moment. They’ve seen them sick, suffering from withdrawals. Above all, they’ve seen them change from energetic youths to withering flowers. Some were lucky. They also watched their loved ones kick off their habit. Enjoying life once again, building again what they had lost.

Others had the misfortune of watching them die, in a vegetative state, or in jail.

Re-thinking the war on drugs will not provide a miracle cure – there isn’t. But as the success story in Portugal has shown, more people will start seeing their loved ones in rehab, and clean. And less people will have to visit their loved ones in prison, where rehabilitation is only a buzzword.

Re-thinking the war on drugs means that we stop calculating our success on just the number of convictions but the impact on people’s lives, because amid increasing convictions drug use and the problems it causes are not getting better but worse, substantially worse.

All it takes is political will. The fact that Malta’s politicians aren’t even addressing the failed war on drugs is either the result of laziness to make some research or cowardice to work towards the much needed change.

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I’ve been harping against Malta’s rainbow parties (hence PNPL) that promise everything to everyone, attempting to please all, for a long while by now.

Obviously pleasing everyone is logically impossible when it comes to enacting laws. That is, unless you manage to dupe all sides that you are actually giving them something.

I’ve also been harping many times against Malta’s irrational, unsustainable and utterly cruel laws on drugs. At this very moment, people who harmed no one are rotting in our prisons, at the expense of the taxpayer.

Thus, with national elections in sight, Justice Minister Chris Said, threw a bone at those outraged by our oppressive laws on drugs.

First-time drug users arrested for simple possession will be able to avoid court!

Huh? The bone has no juice at all. Well OK, it will save them the lawyer fees. Otherwise this law changes nothing.

Why?

In practically all cases, people arrested for the first time for simple possession get, at worst, conditional discharge. No prison. No fine. And the police conduct will become clean after the term of the conditional discharge is over. In most cases, for such a minor offence this means in less than a year.

What makes this legal amendment nothing more than a gimmick, is the word “simple” before the word possession.

Contrary to popular belief, simple possession and personal use are not the same thing by Maltese law. Yes, people who never sold a single gram of any illegal drug can – and are being – accused and convicted of crimes the equivalent of trafficking. Crimes that carry a minimum effective prison sentence – in other words a sentence that cannot be suspended, or even changed for work in the community!

How? The following cases of possession of drugs fall in this category. They may be cases of possession but it is not “simple”.

1) Cultivation: Any kind of cultivation of illegal drugs (the most common being cannabis) is punished with an effective prison sentence. Even if the amount is so small that when consumed doesn’t even get your cat high. If it’s in a pot and grows from a seed, that’s cultivation. You’re going to jail.

2) Import/Export: If, while getting high in Amsterdam you forgot to throw all the stuff away before boarding the plane. If you left some weed by mistake, or intended to smoke it at home. Even if, once again, the amount is miniscule, that’s still not simple possession. That’s import. You’re going to jail.

3) Sharing: Most drug users share drugs. Cannabis users pass a spliff around. Heroin addicts sometimes share the same spoon and needle (which is very dangerous, but goes beyond the purpose of this article). Friends may buy LSD or Ecstasy together and share it. No intent for profit, nothing more than the equivalent of “ghamillu drink” at the bar. If the police want to seek the pound of flesh and are able to prove it is not simple possession. It’s sharing. You’re going to jail.

People are, at this very moment in prison because their possession was “aggravated” due to of one of the reasons above. And after this legal amendment, this gimmick, passes, people guilty of these offences, will keep on going to jail. It changes nothing.

There are, obviously other serious anomalies in our laws on drugs which are not being addressed. Repeated offenders of even simple possession can and do get imprisoned. There is also no classification between soft and hard drugs which gives an incentive for dealers to import hard drugs, where the big money is. Not to mention the fact that punishment for anything related to drugs is disproportionately harsh especially when compared to violent crime.

But even on the issue that this law is supposed to address – not sending first time drug users to jail – this law changes nothing. The ones affected by this law are the ones who wouldn’t have been going to jail anyway.

“End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others” Primary recommendation of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

I met David Caruana at a café a few months ago primarily for the reason that we share similar political beliefs, one of them being the war on drugs. There are many instances where we disagreed including on this issue. While for example, he prefers the Dutch model of legalizing cannabis, I find the Portuguese model of decriminalizing the personal use of drugs much more attractive.

One of the things struck me about David is the honesty and passion with which he discusses the issue – the kind that many politicians try to imitate but never seem to get right.

While I had assumed he probably had smoked some weed, when he told me he had a pending case on the cultivation of two cannabis plants I was shocked. Shocked, not because the person in front of me was arduous enough to go beyond cultivating tomatoes and basil, but because I knew that in Malta’s criminal code, cultivating cannabis is the equivalent of trafficking. Even if the intent of that cultivation is nothing more than personal consumption, which I know is the case here.

This came at a time when I was researching about the issue which included reading the document quoted above

http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/Report

 

Together with other literature, this document doesn’t consider drugs of whatever kind as ideal and healthy. Far from that. However it highlights how much the war on drugs has not only failed but become an added problem. When President Nixon declared the “war on drugs” it was assumed that within a few years the supply of drugs would be eradicated, globally. Unfortunately, thanks to the lack of a parallel “war on corruption” the supply of drugs not only wasn’t curbed but multiplied, reaching alarming levels Nixon could have never even predicted.

Thus the war changed. The Pablo Escobars around the world had no intention of quitting their trade, thus they bribed themselves our of it (At one point in time Escobar managed to bribe 2/3 of the Colombian parliament to change the country’s constitution so as not to permit his extradition to the US).

Helpless in front of these kingpins, a new enemy had to be found. The enemy was drug users, couriers and cultivators.* David Caruana is one of them.

I wasn’t just shocked when David told me about his pending case but also angry. Seriously angry because I knew that the main reason he will be prosecuted as a criminal with an effective prison sentence very likely is nothing more than a charade to cover up for people with Swiss accounts and villas in the Cayman islands. The ones who are pumping up the white or brown powder that’s driving an increasing number of Maltese people insane, have them commit crimes they would have never thought they’ll commit and die a premature death.

David Caruana is neither the first, nor will be the last victim of this senseless war on drug users. He is the first to go public and use his situation to highlight the faults in our system though. And for that he’s definitely got my full admiration.

*I still agree that those who carry or cultivate drugs for the consumption of others should be considered as committing a criminal offense. However, as the Global Commission report suggests the extremely harsh sentences these people are punished with is nothing more than a need to find a scapegoat.

Both alcohol and tobacco tend to precede cannabis use, and it is rare for those who use hard drugs to not have used alcohol and tobacco first” Golub A. Johnson, American Journal of Public Health, 2001

The main argument against the decriminalization of cannabis is that it is a gateway drug and introduces people to other, more lethal drugs, the most notably heroin and cocaine.

That argument is seriously flawed.

A recreational drug is any substance that when inserted in the body alters the mood and behavior of the user in a way he considers desirable. Thus, while cannabis is a drug, so are alcohol, tobacco and coffee.

The issue here is the way we use language in everyday life. We call alcohol, tobacco and coffee by their own name, rather than “drugs”. That doesn’t mean they are not mind altering substances. In other words – drugs.

[Before I carry on I’d like to make a distinction between alcohol and tobacco or coffee. The level of mind altering in tobacco and coffee is very mild. Alcohol on the other hand had a very significant effect, as everyone who’ve seen someone drunk, or got drunk at least once in his life, knows. Thus while for the purpose of this article I will be comparing cannabis with alcohol, this doesn’t mean the others are not drugs as well.]

Most surveys given to drug addicts in trying to identify patterns on how they started abusing drugs till they became full blown addicts were conducted in the way most surveys are – through a questionnaire.

And here is the mistake. Since in everyday language we don’t refer to alcohol as a drug, when asked “What is the first drug you ever used?” most respondents replied with “cannabis” even if, in the absolute majority of cases, drinking alcohol preceded it.

So, what makes something a gateway drug?

When people use a substance that significantly alters their mood they learn a lesson. The lesson is simply that a short cut exists to arrive to the desired state of mind, if only for a while. As an example, while working on your self esteem and assertiveness is likely to take a long time and hard work, one can temporarily overcome shyness by drinking a few units of alcohol.

Most people just stop there. Others start using alcohol in most areas in their life and in turn become alcoholics. Others will try harder drugs, many of whom end up full blown drug addicts.

So, is cannabis a gateway drug?

There is no such think that makes any particular chemical a gateway drug. The “gateway drug” is nothing more than the first mind altering substance the addict had used. It can be anything, but most of the time it’s alcohol.

 I believe that Marihuana is still illegal mainly due to one particular reason – misconception. There are many arguments against legalising Marihuana, I find them nearly all flawed. Here I will discuss one of the most common – that Marihuana though not very harmful in itself, leads to harder drugs. That it’s a stepping stone towards heroin or cocaine. I disagree.

First of all, let’s start by defining a drug. A drug is a substance that when inserted in a person’s body causes a change in how a person thinks and feels. Whether it is smoked, drank, swallowed, sniffed or injected doesn’t make a difference in what qualifies as a drug. Thus, not considering alcohol and prescribed pills that affect the Central Nervous System, such as tranquilisers, as non drugs because they are legal is a big mistake. After a particular dose of them, a person starts feeling changes such as relaxation, increased self-confidence, euphoria and many others. They are drugs, and how.

The stepping stone theory states that many people who end up hooked on hard drugs usually start with softer ones and then proceed to harder ones. There are many exceptions, however in general I agree with this theory.

Many scientific studies suggest that the first ‘drug’ a person who had proceeded to hard drugs had started with is Marihuana. However usually such research has one big flaw. The people filling in questionnaires or whatever method of data collection say their first drug was Marihuana because they don’t consider alcohol as a drug. Very few people have intoxicated themselves with Marihuana without having done so previously with alcohol at least once in their life.

 When a person takes his first drug, which is usually alcohol he learns a lesson. He learns that with a chemical outside of himself he can control his mood. That he can change a feeling he doesn’t like such as shyness to one he prefers such as self confidence. Due to our culture, where alcohol is socially accepted most people do thread on this stone.

Marihuana does exactly the same thing. The state of mind arrived to after its use is different, however the level of change is approximately the same, if not less drastic (in fact much more people do irresponsible things such as violence or unprotected sex if they are intoxicated by alcohol than Marihuana) than the effect of alcohol.

If Marihuana was legal, the second lesson the individual learns is that if he breaks the law, he can find new drugs with a much more severe alterations in his state of mind. This is a big step. One has to be willing to take a drug he knows is dangerous as well as break the law. With Marihuana criminalised, this step is broken in two. The man who ‘arrives’ to heroin or cocaine would have already got used to breaking the law in order to acquire Marihuana.

 Thus, it is its illegality that makes Marihuana a stepping stone.

This has many implications. That alcohol is sold from a legitimate pub, disco or supermarket means that the consumer doesn’t have to mingle with some criminal network to acquire it. On the other hand, the same networks that supply Marihuana, are more likely then not to be related to networks providing harder drugs.

Another problem is that if the individual considers Marihuana a drug, and alcohol a non-drug, after he smokes his first joint, he has already accepted the fact that he has already taken drugs. It is then a less big deal to take something that falls in the same category – illicit drug. It is tempting to think that after all drugs are not that much of a big deal. By legalising Marihuana, it is easier to spread the idea that alcohol is a drug, with a potential for harm, especially getting addicted to it. Not as devastating as heroin or cocaine, however neither Marihuana is.

This is one of the reasons I strongly believe it should be legalised. I’m not saying it’s harmless. However, even biting your own fingernails can cause appendicitis and thankfully no one is considering making such practice illegal.