Magistrates presiding over drug cases sometimes end up hoping the punishment they hand down will help the addict as intended because they do not have the tools to help them in their decision, according to a judge.

Madam Justice Edwina Grima, who presided over drug cases when she was a magistrate, spoke from experience and said the judiciary needed better links with probation officers and social workers.

They could offer guidance by informing the court about the background of the drug user.

“Magistrates often see the accused for the very first time in court and don’t know much about them,” the judge told a seminar on the drug reform White Paper released for consultation in July.

The event, titled Raise the Bar, brought stakeholders together to discuss the White Paper and come up with recommendations during workshops [see box on page 4].

The draft law proposes that users found in simple possession for the first time would appear before a Justice Commissioner who will give warnings and administrative fines.

Repeat offenders will then go before a board, which will set conditions for rehabilitation. Breaking the conditions would be a criminal offence.

Those caught smoking cannabis will be fined or given a warning, irrespective of how many times they are caught.

Madam Justice Grima said the White Paper failed to tackle certain realities. The law currently imposed imprisonment for addicts who sold drugs or committed other crimes to sustain their habit. But this was not always the best option.

Jail not always best option

The law should also broaden the concept of drug sharing.

At the moment, only those taking drugs at the same time and place were deemed to be cases of sharing.

However, there were cases of young people caught while buying the drugs they intended to share with friends.

Such cases were legally deemed to be trafficking and imprisonment was imposed.

Similarly, jail was a must when people smuggled drugs into prison.

But there were cases of people who did so out of fear, she said.

On one occasion, she had no choice other than to jail a mother who had small children.

Services for minors

Madam Justice Grima said there were no structures in place for minors found guilty of drug possession.

She gave the example of a teenager in Gozo who could not be sent home, due to family problems, but could neither be kept at a rehabilitation centre since he was not an addict. He ended up being sent to Gozo hospital’s short-stay ward for mental health until he was taken in by his grandparents.

Children’s Commissioner Helen D’Amato agreed on the need for programmes to stop minors from moving on to harder drugs.

Caritas Malta Mgr Victor Grech said that if the drug reform was to work there had to be a parallel programme for next-of-kin to help them support and understand abusers.

He stressed the importance of aftercare programmes for rehabilitated addicts, saying that something had to be done to make them compulsory, at least for some time.

Aftercare needed

Social Solidarity Minister Michael Farrugia said his ministry, through the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, would soon be publishing a policy paper on handling drug users.

While attention would be given to prevention and education, the policy would be more “aggressive” in tackling aftercare. So, for example, families of drug users would be taught how to handle and accept a rehabilitated abuser back home and employers would be prepared to take them back.

The policy would complement the ongoing drug reform, he said.

Dr Farrugia also said there were plans to make the substance abuse agency Sedqa more focused on the problem of alcohol abuse.

National plan on alcohol abuse

Sedqa clinical director George Grech stressed the need for a national plan on alcohol abuse.

It was “embarrassing” that the national alcohol policy remained in the pipeline.

“I know there is resistance to this but we have enormous problems,” he said, referring to the lucrative alcohol industry.

He cautioned that “today’s cannabis is different from that of some years ago” because it was stronger.

Dr Grech also spoke about the importance of assessments to understand how long a person had been abusing drugs and whether there were underlying problems that needed to be tackled.

Martin Galea, a reformed user, questioned the harm caused by prescription drugs and alcohol.

He said that when he was battling depression he went to a psychiatrist who prescribed pills before he even sat down in the clinic.

“They spaced me out even more. Something must be done and we need to have a good look at these authorities,” he said.

Asset management

Criminologist Saviour Formosa said it was time to consider whether the money confiscated by the courts from drug traffickers should be spent on drug rehabilitation.

Philip Galea Farrugia, from the Attorney General’s office, said that, as things stood, when a person was found guilty of trafficking, their assets were confiscated by the government. While any money went into the government’s coffers, assets such as property were confiscated but not liquidated and this had to be addressed.


• The term “victim of drugs” needs to be clearly defined.

• A distinction must be made between traditional cannabis and synthetic cannabis.

• A pre-arraignment profile should be drawn up outlining the background of the person accused.

• The Industrial Relations Act should be amended to make it illegal for an employer to sack a person with a drug problem.

• Anyone caught giving false information about the assets of a convicted trafficker should face severe punishment.

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