The Drug Dependence Bill, which will usher in a major reform of Malta's drug laws, goes to parliament today for a first reading.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici explained at a press conference that users found in simple possession of drugs for the first time would appear before a Justice Commissioner who will give them a warning and impose administrative fines ranging between €75 and €125. In the case of cannabis the fine will be between €50 and €100.

The Justice Commissioner will not be a lawyer but someone who has worked in the drug rehabilitation sector.

Repeat offenders will appear before a Drug Offenders Rehabilitation Board, which will set conditions for rehabilitation. Breaking the conditions would be a criminal offence.

The Magistrates Court - in cases not involving the use of weapons or violence - would be able to convert itself into a Drugs Court and refer the accused for treatment to the rehabilitation board. If the user did not follow the treatment, the case would continue.

If after 18 months the board informs the court that treatment was successful, the court could recall all pending drug cases against the user (that fall within its competence) and give a decision that is not necessarily jail.

Cultivation of one cannabis plant will no longer be subject to mandatory jail.

Medical preparations of the plant cannabis can be prescribed by a specialist if there is no alternative. The use of medical cannabis can also be prescribed by a specialist with the approval of the Superintendent of Public Health who may impose conditions.

The law also seeks to set up a Sentencing Policy Advisory Board to ensure consistency in punishments.

Dr Bonnici said the law sought to strengthen the fight against trafficking while offering support to addicts.

As part of this fight another law to be discussed in Parliament today will set up an Asset Recovery Bureau to ensure that drug money was confiscated and used for the benefit of society.

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