Updated 3.30pm with Sentencing Policy Advisory Board statement

A proposal to reform drug laws further spiralled into a tit-for-tat between Malta’s two main political parties on Saturday.

Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech claimed the proposal would allow people to “carry 500 ecstasy pills” and called on people to join him in demanding that the proposal be withdrawn altogether.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, said Grech was lying about the law and trying to mislead people by resorting to populist rhetoric.  

Presented by the Justice Ministry as a white paper last week, the proposal seeks to amend laws concerning drug courts, to give magistrates more freedom to decide when a person caught with large volumes of drugs needs rehabilitation rather than jail time.

The intention, the government says, is to give addicts who sold drugs to finance their habit the opportunity to get the help they need to clean themselves up.

Among the proposals being made is one to revise the maximum amount of drugs that a person facing drug-related charges can possess to be sent to a drug court.

Drug courts are set up by magistrates and can sentence people found guilty to rehab rather than jail.  They do not hear cases related to personal use of drugs.

Currently, magistrates can choose to set up a drug court if the accused person is caught with a maximum of 300 grams for cannabis, 300 ecstasy pills or 100 grams of cocaine or heroin. The government’s proposal – which is one of ideas floated in the publicly available white paper - seeks to raise those limits to 500g, 500 pills and 200g respectively.

The decision as to whether an accused should be tried by a drug court or criminal court will remain at the magistrate’s discretion.  

The white paper explicitly states that the proposed amendment has nothing to do with personal use of drugs. The current maximum limits for drug courts established in law “do not mean that a person can carry 100 grams of heroin or cocaine, 300 grams of ecstasy or 300 grams of cannabis and have that considered as personal use,” it notes.  

Despite that, the proposal has triggered claims that the aim is to relax drug laws to allow people to carry dramatically higher amounts of drugs for personal use. The fear was reflected in a video featuring an outraged former drug addict that went viral this week.

On Saturday, PN leader Bernard Grech fanned those flames further.

In a video posted to his Facebook page, the Opposition leader said the law would allow a person to “carry 500 ecstasy pills”.

“Everyone knows that 500 ecstasy pills are certainly not for personal use. A person who carries 500 ecstasy pills does so to sell them to others,” Grech said. “I can’t understand, as a politician and as a father, how the government is pushing this white paper.”

Grech called on citizens to pressure the government to withdraw the proposal altogether, lending his voice to criticism of the law made by party MPs earlier this week.

His call – which the PN also issued as a statement to the press – drew a swift response from the Labour Party, which accused him of lying.

“Drug traffickers will continue to be treated as traffickers,” the PL said. “It is not true that the proposal will allow 500 ecstasy pills for personal use.”

The PL said Grech was trying to score political points by using a public consultation period to spread fear among people by misleading them.

Caritas, the church-run organisation that runs various drug rehabilitation programmes, has said that it will be airing its views during the public consultation period.

Speaking on RTK on Saturday morning, Caritas boss Anthony Gatt said that in their experience, drug users never possess the sort of amounts being proposed in the law.

“The amounts appear to be excessive,” he said, saying a concern was that dealers could be tempted to dabble with their own drugs to then classify as addicts if they are caught. 

However, Gatt noted that drug addicts could be used as mules to deliver large quantities of drugs. In such cases, he said, the law should treat them as victims rather than traffickers with large prison sentences.

Sentencing advisory board wades into controversy

In an unusual move, the government body that drafted the proposed legal reform issued its own statement on Saturday afternoon, saying it wanted to clear up any "misinterpretation" of the proposals.

The new maximum limits proposed were set by legal experts analysing 10 years of relevant case law in the local courts, the sentencing policy advisory board said, and the decision to revise the limits was taken after consultation with stakeholders "involved in the administrative, judicial as well as the rehabilitative processes related to drug-related criminal offences."

Claims that the figures cited would constitute personal use and would be treated accordingly by the courts were "completely untrue, unfounded and baseless," the board said. 

Police and prosecutors would continue to be responsible for deciding whether a suspect is charged with possession or possession with intent, and the courts would continue to be solely responsible for deciding when to prosecute an accused within a drug court or criminal court. 

Established in 2015, the sentencing policy advisory board is responsible for advising the government on how to sentence people convicted of drug-related crimes. It is chaired by lawyer Alex Scerri Herrera.    

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