Dr Bonello acknowledged the challenges of his new role. Photo: Matthew MirabelliDr Bonello acknowledged the challenges of his new role. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Former judge at the European Court of Human Rights Giovanni Bonello’s appointment as the head of a new drug court showed how serious the legal reform was about helping users while punishing those who lived off the profits of vice, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said yesterday.

“Dr Bonello’s appointment shows that the drug reform is not only extensive but very respectable. Anyone who stands before this new entity will see that it is an institution of great integrity,” he said, quelling concerns that reform would see drug users get off scot-free or send out the message that it was OK to use drugs.

The new court, called the Offenders Rehabilitation Board, is expected to hold its first sitting on April 15 and will offer “a more balanced approach to dealing with victims of drug abuse”.

The reform, being implemented through the Drug Dependence (Treatment not Imprisonment) Bill, will see users found in simple possession of drugs for the first time appear before Justice Commissioner Victoria Scicluna, who will issue a warning and impose administrative fines ranging from €75 to €125. In the case of cannabis, the fine will be from €50 to €100. Simple possession will be capped at 3.5 grams for cannabis and two grams for all other substances.

Ms Scicluna will refer repeat offenders to Dr Bonello’s board, which will set conditions for rehabilitation. Breaking the conditions will be a criminal offence. The board includes Romina Baldwin, nominated by the Family Ministry, Mariella Camilleri, who was nominated by the Home Affairs Ministry, and Leonard Manicolo, appointed by the Health Ministry. Court official Dolores Sultana will be board secretary.

I have a tempered optimism because we are dealing with addiction and a very profitable trade

Psychotherapist Mariella Dimech is tasked with following up the cases of those who appear before the board to ensure rehabilitation measures are adhered to.

Dr Bonello said he was optimistic about the general direction of the reform but acknowledged the “significant challenges ahead”.

“Ultimately, this is an experiment and we are trying something new. I have a tempered optimism because, while I think this is the right direction, we are dealing with addiction and a very profitable trade,” he said.

Once the amendments are approved by Parliament, individuals caught with two grams or more of any drug apart from cannabis to a maximum of about 300 grams will appear before a magistrate rather than automatically undergo a trial by jury.

Dr Bonnici said magistrates would be able to refer the accused to the rehabilitation board instead, to avoid unnecessary rigidity.

Magistrates, he added, would also be free to order community service as opposed to a mandatory prison sentence. A number of national entities, including Heritage Malta, have already showed an interest in working with such persons.

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