Malta’s drug laws have returned to the spotlight after a youth was imprisoned for giving his friend six ecstasy pills outside a party eight years ago, and criminal lawyer Franco Debono has now flagged a particularly problematic clause.
“This clause must change because it’s tying the hands of many judiciary members who might not want to condemn people to jail, but have no other choice by law,” Debono said on Facebook.
So what’s this clause?
Back in 2015, the government passed the Drug Dependence (Treatment Not Imprisonment) law aimed at rehabilitating, rather than imprisoning, people found in small quantities of drugs.
The law empowers the court to convert itself into a Drugs Court if it so pleases after hearing submissions from both the prosecution and defence. This means the accused will be sent to a Drug Offenders Rehabilitation Board, which will have a year and a half to decide whether the accused has managed to “substantially” free himself of drug dependance.
If the board is satisfied that this is the case, it will report its findings to the court, which will then be able to give the accused a lighter punishment than imprisonment.
There’s a drug quantity threshold which cannot be exceeded for a magistrate to apply the Drugs Court law – for cannabis its 300g, for heroin and cocaine its 100g, and for ecstasy it’s 300 pills.
However, there’s a snag in this law, because it doesn’t apply to people caught with drugs within 100m from the perimeter of a school, a youth club or any place “where young people habitually meet”.
Basically if police find you with drugs at home, it’s one thing, but if they find you with the same drugs at a party where youths are hanging out, it’s a different story.
This is proving counter-productive to the scope of the law, which, as its very name (Treatment not Imprisonment) suggests is meant to emphasise the reform of drug users, rather than retribution.
Without entering into the merits of today’s case, this is the clause Debono believes must be updated.
“It’s a spanner in the works of our drugs laws,” he told Lovin Malta. “There have been ridiculous cases whereby police stop someone driving with drugs in his possession right in front of a każin and then charged under this section.”
He’s therefore proposing the tweaking of this clause, so that it no longer applies automatically but at the magistrate’s discretion depending on the circumstances of the case in front of them.
As a lawyer, Debono is a leading criminal lawyer, and as an MP, proposed a raft of judicial and constitutional changes, including a review of the Attorney General’s discretionary power in drug cases, and the removal of a mandatory jail term for cannabis cultivation for personal use.
What do you make of Franco Debono’s point?