Caritas wants drug laws changed to give the courts more discretion when judging individual cases, without changing legal limits for drug courts.
The NGO made the suggestion in feedback given to the government as part of a public consultation exercise concerning proposals to change drug laws.
It said that it agreed with most of the planned changes but has "serious reservations" about a controversial proposal to increase drug court limits. Instead, it would like the law revised to make those limits indicative, with magistrates given the power to apply them when they see fit.
Its proposals were endorsed by a dozen other NGOs and organisations that work in drug or poverty-related fields.
The government has proposed a series of changes, ranging from increasing the number of people who sit on a drug offenders rehabilitation board to ensuring prisoners caught with drugs are sent to rehab rather than additional jail time.
But one suggestion – that of increasing the maximum amount of various drugs that a person can be caught with while being sent to a drug court – proved highly controversial.
Drug courts are established by a magistrate when an accused person charged with aggravated possession, drug trafficking or another drug-related crime is deemed to be better served if sentenced to rehabilitation rather than prison. Drug courts can only be established, however, if the accused is caught with an amount of drugs below legally established limits.
The government has argued that it wants to increase the limits to give magistrates additional leeway to send drug addicts to rehab. The Opposition has said that raising the limits will encourage more drug trafficking, with sellers incentivised to claim they are addicts if caught.
Opposition leader Bernard Grech has said the White Paper should be withdrawn altogether.
On Tuesday, NGOs and associations that work with drug addicts and drug-related scenarios said that they saw many positive things in the proposed reform, but were seriously concerned about the plans to raise drug court limits.
They said that raising the limits could encourage people to start trafficking drugs by reducing the fear of going to prison if caught.
Genuine addicts, they said, were unlikely to possess the large amounts of drugs proposed in the law.
The NGOs therefore said it would make more sense if the maximum limits currently established in the law remained unchanged, but became indicative rather than prescriptive.
That would allow magistrates to set up a drug court for anyone caught with amounts of drugs just over the established limits, if they believe the accused has an addiction problem.
In cases where people with genuine addiction issues are caught with amounts of drugs far above the drug court limits, the courts should be empowered to freeze those proceedings while the person undergoes rehabilitation, the NGOs suggested.
“The fear of going to prison can be a powerful motivational factor in getting a person to seek treatment,” they noted. “It takes around two years for a person to go through a full Caritas rehab program. After that, instead of being sentenced to prison they can be given a suspended sentence or ordered to do community work.”
The NGOs also suggested amending the law to give magistrates the discretion to hand down suspended sentences or community work orders to people who face their day in court several years after reforming themselves and getting off drugs.
“Caritas believes the White Paper includes very good proposals, and if the serious concerns about increasing drug court limits is addressed, it can be a golden opportunity to ensure a truly effective, balanced and efficient reform that leads to fairer outcomes for drug addicts and the victims addiction create,” it said.
The feedback was endorsed by the following NGOs and organisations:
- Fondazzjoni OASI
- Catholic Schools Association
- CCF Chaplaincy
- Malta Catholic Youth Network (MCYN)
- Millenium Chapel
- Paolo Freire Institute
- Fondazzjoni Suret il-Bniedem
- Soup Kitchen OFM Valletta
- Fondazzjoni St Jeanne Antide
- Fondazzjoni Youth Alive
- St Vincent De Paule Society
- Church Homes for the Elderly
- Mater Dei Hospital and SAMOC Chaplaincy