'NO COMPROMISE' BY THE ARMY ON DRUG ABUSE Over 20 Armed Forces of Malta personnel have been discharged from the army over the past nine years after testing positive to drug use. The last instance of drug-related discharges from the army occurred just three weeks ago when two soldiers were sacked after drugs tests proved positive. "This is a serious matter over which there can be no compromise. The army is entrusted with fighting drug trafficking and cannot afford to allow such elements within it," Lt Col Mario Schembri, who is in charge of the army's public relations, told The Times when contacted yesterday. After a general order had been introduced on June 2, 1995, a small number of personnel who had already started a rehabilitation programme had been given a concession and were retained in the army. According to the order, "AFM members who either by their own admission or through any other means or sources of information are found to be abusing drugs shall, in addition to any punishment in accordance with Section 56/2 of Malta Armed Forces Act, be discharged from the AFM in the interests of the service". The same order had stated that AFM members who in the past have abused drugs and undergone treatment and have been rehabilitated will be retained in the service. But such members will be subject to random drug checks, which if proved positive will lead to their immediate discharge. Lt Col Schembri said that this order was issued periodically so that everyone would know about the consequences of drug abuse. He said random checks affected all members and ranks in the AFM and could be carried out at any time. Random drug tests are first held by the medical staff at headquarters and then confirmed in another test at the hospital laboratory. Dismissal would be immediate if the test proves positive and the individual concerned has no right of appeal. However, Lt Col Schembri said, AFM action is put on hold if an AFM member is charged by the police in connection with drugs and this in order not to prejudice his case in court. The AFM would then act in accordance with the court ruling, he said. Lt Col Schembri said that 20 discharges or so since 1995 was not alarming considering that the AFM had about 2,000 members. In fact, he added, the situation was well under control. "Soldiers are human beings also and therefore one could expect a couple of members to be guilty of abuse," he said. Lt Col Schembri also discussed the philosophy behind the strict manner in which abusers were dealt with. Th e army was a security force which among its duties had the task of carrying out surveillance to prevent such kind of abuse. In fact, the AFM was often engaged in such operations by air and sea and also on land through road checks. "Therefore it cannot tolerate any inside elements involved in abuse," he explained. In one of the cases where the discharged member - a woman - had taken the AFM to court, the presiding magistrate had recommended clemency after ruling in favour of the army. The court of appeal confirmed the decision and the plea for clemency did not help the abuser, who was discharged. "Drug abuse is a matter which ranks responsible for army personnel are constantly on the look out for. The first indications that someone is abusing appear through changes in behaviour and a certain pattern in reporting sick, especially when this occurs in the days after parties and on certain weekends. "Those caught abusing were mainly gunners aged between 18 - 20. However, random checks do not spare anyone since the age of abusers was also higher. One case concerned an AFM member aged close to 30. "As in the case of civilians on drugs, types of drug used ranged from the common marijuana to heroin and cocaine," Lt Col Schembri said. He said that when someone is tested positive the police were informed about the case. If the individual concerned requested assistance the AFM would place them in contact with agencies that offer help to abusers.