Most Maltese know one fact on drug traffickers in prison. The fact that these are, in nearly all cases the small fish in the drug business. Mostly couriers who take huge risk and long prison sentences for little financial profit or drug addicts peddling some drugs to finance their own habit. Most of us know that a kingpin, those getting rich from drug trafficking, rarely ever get caught, let alone convicted.

What most Maltese don’t know is the other fact which is, to put it mildly, much scarier. What many don’t know is that there are people in our prisons who never made a single Euro out of drugs serving a sentence for drug trafficking.

How could this be possible?

Simple. In Malta (contrary to practically all other EU countries and, above all, common sense), sharing is dealing. When two or more people share say, a joint or a stash of heroin they’re not only committing the offence of drug use but also of trafficking – with each other.

This is why, for instance, Daniel Holmes who was never convicted of selling a single milligram of cannabis or that he had the intention to do so, has drug trafficking among his convictions. A charge on which the prosecution had originally asked for life imprisonment.

Daniel Holmes did not cultivate cannabis plants on his own but with a friend. The other guy, called Barry Lee, committed suicide in custody as soon as he came to know what a long term prison sentence he was facing. The plants belonged to both.

When both Daniel Holmes and Barry Lee admitted that they were using the same plants, little did they know that they were admitting to drug trafficking. Daniel Holmes was charged with trafficking with Barry Lee while Barry Lee was charged with trafficking with Daniel Holmes.

The case of Daniel Holmes is one I’m very familiar with. But I’m completely sure there are other people in Maltese prisons serving a sentence on drug trafficking without having ever even considered making money out of drug dealing.

Our laws are so absurd that the following scenario is possible:

A is a drug dealer while B is simply a consumer. A buys the drugs, sells them to B and asks the latter to roll a joint, which he does. They share that joint and get caught red handed smoking it.

A, being a drug dealer thus more street-wise denies everything except for smoking a joint. B, who is greener on these things and gets terrified by the police barking in his face says the truth and admits he actually did roll a joint and give it to A.

With a confession being the most powerful evidence against you and A being street-savvy hiring a good, expensive lawyer, there is the possibility that B goes to jail for drug trafficking while A gets a conditional discharge or a suspended sentence for simple possession.

Advertisements

“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.

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.

To assess whether a punishment delivered by the law courts is just or not by reading a newspaper report isn’t very rational. The reason is that the judge would (or at least, should) have judged the case considering a number of variables that do not appear in a short report from a journalist.

 

What can be assessed quite accurately though is the trends in punishment delivery. And what these trends are showing is that Maltese laws are a complete mess.

 

For the sake of simplicity I will focus on two kinds of crime: Drug related (not including theft for drug money) and violence related (including sexual violence and rape).

 

On drugs, Malta’s laws are ridiculously harsh. While I don’t agree with the legalization of hard drugs since this might increase availability, one fact cannot be denied:  No one is forced to buy drugs.

 

I’m not putting into doubt the devastating effect of drugs. I’ve lost close friends myself to them. I’ve seen families being ruined, and otherwise good, law abiding people committing serious crimes.

 

The point is, the war on drugs – the way we’re waging it – has failed, miserably.  Law enforcement, while it should be there, shouldn’t be the main weapon against drugs. Drug addiction is a disease and should be treated as such – with prevention and treatment. On a positive note, we have excellent services in Malta, though I would like more resources pumped into them, rather than into keeping people behind bars.

 

Then, there is the main issue on the failure of drug laws enforcement. The problem is not that sentences are too soft, the problem is corruption. We are jailing, for unreasonably long periods of time people who are nothing more than couriers. That the kingpins are brought to justice is extremely rare, and when they do they are the ones who enjoy the best lawyers and exploit every legal loopholes that can save them from long periods of imprisonment, if any.

 

It’s an open secret that someone is protecting them. Corruption has invaded every institution of power in this country, yet no one wants to do anything about it. Like many other Maltese people, I know – sometimes beyond reasonable doubt – some things that are going on. But what can I do, without the hard evidence?

 

So, to hide all this dirt and appear to be doing something, we become too harsh with the couriers.

 

What about violence?

 

That, we treat with a velvet glove. Beat the shit out of your wife and you’ll get a suspended sentence. Worse still, in the case of domestic violence, some people are granted bail and are sent to live (believe it or not) in the same house with the victim, since it’s the matrimonial home. All this when the main reasons for not granting bail include the risk of tampering with evidence and intimidating the witness!

 

Non-domestic violence is also treated lightly. The message given from the law court seems to be “hurt whoever you want unless you kill him”. Otherwise it will be treated as a murder and that (at least) has to be taken seriously.

 

Sexual abuse and rape are also treated with caution, lest we punish the abusers too much. The sentences given to the priests convicted of abusing a number of children are shameful to say the least.

 

It this same week a foreigner was granted 14 years imprisonment for importing heroin. Another foreigner was jailed for 9 years for beating a man unconscious, raping him and leaving him tied up. (9 years prison isn’t a joke, but relatively speaking it is definitely too lenient).

If this is what we call justice, I’m curious to know what injustice looks like.