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,
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
"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
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.