A drug law passed in 2014 has obliged a magistrate to jail a 39-year-old woman – in a case going back to July 2014 – for six months for cultivating six small cannabis plants for her own personal use. Handing down judgment, Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras made her views explicitly clear when she described the sentence as “draconian” for “failing to distinguish between who deserves an effective jail term”.
In her view, the Drug Dependency Act was originally intended to ensure that those found guilty of simple possession of small quantities of drugs were not jailed but fined. However, the law as worded today was failing to achieve this objective and forced the courts to jail people even if magistrates were convinced they did not deserve imprisonment.
This is not the first time that Magistrate Galea Sciberras has expressed concern about the flawed nature of the law passed five years ago. Two years ago, at a public debate reviewing the new Act, she had pointed out that, although she welcomed the enlightened reforms which had been introduced by the Drug Dependency Act, she considered there were certain aspects of the law which were “draconian”. There was a need for revision of these laws.
She cited as examples the imprisonment of first-time offenders who were not addicts, for instance somebody “who shared ecstasy tablets with friends just once in their life” and are then treated “as drug dealers” under the law and imprisoned. She highlighted specifically the cultivation of a single cannabis plant “which under the [current law] no longer carried a mandatory prison sentence”, but which if it were “two plants” would amount to “aggravated possession” and attract a prison sentence. Magistrate Galea Sciberras pleaded for greater sentencing discretion in such cases. Any discussion of illicit drug use is a sensitive issue for Maltese lawmakers since it mostly affects young people. Although some think that tough punishments deter drug addicts, few people who have worked with victims of drug abuse believe that prison deters.
Following the public debate two years ago, the Prime Minister and the-then Leader of the Opposition appeared to agree that there was a need for a “national discussion” about the legalisation of cannabis. Indeed, the government has since gone on to decriminalise the personal use of cannabis and is now developing a new niche industry infrastructure for medical cannabis business.
Given this dichotomy between medical use of cannabis and a law which forces a court to impose imprisonment when, clearly, leniency and common sense are called for, it is clear that the law as it stands is self-defeating and anomalous in some cases. Although the matter has been brought to the attention of our lawmakers before, they do not appear to have thought it sufficiently important to make the necessary legal changes.
This flies in the face of common sense, fair justice and the policies of liberalisation and decriminalisation which the government has sensibly adopted in this field. The law should discriminate clearly between “trafficking” and “cultivation for exclusive use”.
The woman has now been forced to file an appeal against her sentence. While pointing out that hundreds had benefited from the Drug Dependency Act, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici yesterday said the sentence was being studied “with an objective mind”.
The law needs to allow magistrates hearing such cases the discretion to apply an appropriate sentence.
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