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  1. Alfa
    Legal Distinction Between Users and Traffickers 'May Save Lives'

    Richard Muscat: "Without a job it is very easy to fall back into the drugs
    trap, making it a vicious circle".

    The lack of a clear legal distinction between drug users and traffickers is
    leading to a situation in which people suffering from an adverse reaction
    to drugs are not getting the immediate care they need.

    Because of this aspect of the law, fellow users are hesitant to seek
    medical help for users in distress out of fear that they will be arrested
    and charged, explained Richard Muscat, the chairman of the National
    Commission on the Abuse of Drugs, Alcohol and other Dependencies.

    "Sometimes drug users are left on hospital or health centre door-steps
    instead of being taken directly to the hospital emergency department for
    treatment. Sometimes they are found in some obscure place when it is too
    late," Prof. Muscat said in an interview with The Times.

    He said something needed to be done about the situation and making a clear
    distinction between users and traffickers would end the hesitation. "Maybe
    more lives could be saved," he said.

    The need for a clear distinction to be made between drug users and
    traffickers was last week stressed by Justice and Home Affairs Minister
    Tonio Borg and supported by the opposition's spokesman on home affairs,
    Gavin Gulia.

    Prof. Muscat was pleased to hear that both political parties appear to
    agree on the issue and that Parliament's Social Affairs Committee will now
    meet to make recommendations.

    The committee has also been asked to consider the report drawn up by a Drug
    Forum initiated under then President Guido de Marco.

    Prof. Muscat said another positive change in the law would take place if
    more of the main recommendations made in the Drug Forum report were to be
    accepted. He preferred, however, not to reveal what these recommendations
    were before the report is made public.

    Once a young person is arraigned he has a difficult time finding a job
    later on in life. "Without a job it is very easy to fall back into the
    drugs trap, making it a vicious circle," Prof. Muscat said.

    He said a pilot project dealing with first-time young offenders under 18
    may be launched and if successful could be extended to those aged under 21.

    Prof. Muscat said another local problem was that because Malta was so small
    and everyone knew one another, it was very difficult for an individual to
    start afresh.

    "In the United Kingdom, if one has a drug problem and completes a treatment
    programme in Edinburgh, for example, one could move to London and start a
    new life, meet new people, make new friends, get a job and keep away from
    drug problem areas," he said.

    He added that although there were a number of programmes organised in
    schools to provide information to children about drugs, more was perhaps
    needed. The number of young drug users had not changed much over the last
    couple of years, so there might be a need for more to be done.

    He explained that it was not easy to change behaviour and one way of
    increasing the impact of prevention programmes would be to identify the
    people who are at risk of falling into the drug trap and initiate secondary
    prevention programmes.

    Asked how it would be determined which children are at risk, Prof. Muscat
    said results of the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other
    Drugs (ESPAD) indicated that children who live in single parent families
    seem to be more prone to drug use.

    "The risk factor is family dysfunction," he said, adding that emotional
    problems were sometimes manifesting themselves in drug use.

    He said the commission was in favour of carrying on with the
    across-the-board prevention programmes but secondary programmes for high
    risk groups currently organised by the government's agency Sedqa should be
    given more prominence.

    At the moment Malta is conducting a twinning project with the Trimbos
    Institute in Holland. The European Union has assigned €130,000 to the
    project, which aims to put in place a drug-information system that will
    enable Malta to better monitor the drug situation.

    This week Dolores Cristina, Minister for the Family and Social Solidarity,
    launched the National Focal Point for Drugs and Drug Addiction through
    which drug information will be collected and collated to provide the
    background material through which a national report will be compiled on an
    annual basis following discussions with all parties involved.

    Prof. Muscat said the point of the drug information system was to provide
    an overall picture of the situation in general. It was important to know,
    for example, how many people were seeking treatment, how many get infected
    with HIV because of the sharing of needles and how many suffer from
    overdoses. It was also vital to have information on the amount of drugs
    seized by the police and Customs.

    "When all this is combined, we would be able to get a picture of the drug
    situation in Malta," he said.

    Asked whether he agreed that the country should be more tolerant towards
    soft drugs, Prof. Muscat said: "I don't think we should be tolerant at all
    in the context of our own local situation."

    He said every country implemented policies that suited its context and
    stressed that he did not think it would be in Malta's interest to make
    local laws more tolerant. "In Holland, the idea behind this policy was to
    separate the people who use heroin from those who use cannabis and one way
    to do this was to open 1,600 cafes."

    He explained that the tolerance policy was not in place throughout Holland
    but only in Amsterdam. "If you smoke cannabis in Rotterdam, the police will
    arrest you and even in Amsterdam there are tight controls to ensure that
    only cannabis is used in cafes," he said.

    The situations in Malta and Amsterdam were not the same and there was no
    point in emulating that policy.

    The national commission is making recommendations to the government
    regarding the formulation of a national drugs policy. Prof. Muscat said a
    drugs strategy was also needed in order to put the policy into practice.

    One of the first activities of the commission after it was reconstituted in
    1999 was to organise a national conference at which all the players in the
    field discussed improving coordination and meeting future challenges.

    In 2001 the commission published the report Licit And Illicit Drug Use in
    Malta. A survey, carried out among 1,755 people between the ages of 18 -
    65, showed that the use of cannabis is quite rare in Malta with only 0.5
    per cent making use of the drug, while 3.5 per cent have tried it. Cannabis
    is usually first used in late adolescence.

    Also, 1.2 per cent - also rare, the report says - have tried ecstasy,
    amphetamines, cocaine, heroin and LSD, with 0.3 per cent being current users.

    Asked what the commission thinks of the services offered to drug users,
    Prof. Muscat said both Caritas and Sedqa offer a number of services but the
    former is mainly recognised for it programmes related to long-term
    rehabilitation while the latter is better known for its operation of the
    Substance Misuse Outpatients Unit in the grounds of St Luke's Hospital.
    OASI organises a four-month programme in Gozo.

    Prof. Muscat explained that some people do not need a two-year programme,
    especially if they are still young and have already missed out on important
    education because of their drug abuse. They could not afford to miss more
    of their formative years.

    Asked whether he believes Sedqa and Caritas should merge, Prof. Muscat said
    evaluation suggested that Caritas should be the expert in long-term
    rehabilitation since it has been doing this for a long time while Sedqa
    should focus on other things, such as day programmes.

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