INTERVIEW | Sunday, 22 July 2007

Coming clean on the drugs war

A new drugs policy is the latest attempt at centralising the government’s structures aimed at controlling the abuse of drugs. But with growing numbers of heroin users, is the so called war on drugs being lost? DOLORES CRISTINA interviewed by MATTHEW VELLA

In the UK, the short-lived declassification of cannabis is up for review, with the first ‘casualties’ of the process being home secretary Jacqui Smith coming clean on her brief flirtation with cannabis 25 years ago.
It’s becoming common and rather unavoidable for politicians who grew up in the 1960s onwards to have to admit that at one point in time, they came in contact with drugs, although when politicians talk about their experiences, it’s usually premised that they “never inhaled” or that “they didn’t like it”. Although such news stirs few people these days, it’s a testament to the omnipresence of recreational drugs in today’s society, and the growing tolerance, at times, towards drugs in societies where considerable tax money is poured in the fight against drugs.
While other countries mull over whether they would prefer pharmacists and doctors dispensing drugs, rather than criminal networks selling them, the Maltese government is opening a draft drugs policy for consultation in a bid to consolidate the various structures with an ‘interest’ in the drugs scenario. Social services, police, intelligence, customs, and NGOs will all be part of a centralisation of forces aimed at harnessing the anti-drugs war.
But it’s this ‘war’, a label which Family and Social Solidarity Minister Dolores Cristina uses in her opening words to the policy, which has for some time teetered on a stalemate on the home front. It’s commonly accepted that many countries’ self-declared wars on drugs have been abject failures; heavy state investment in this fight, often realising just a fracture of seizures from the overall drugs trade, increases the risk of the trade, and directly, increases the prices and the profit for traffickers.
If the signs of Malta’s own battle are anything to go by, the National Focal Point Report published earlier this week (the third year so far), has given us a bleak picture – at 1,714 individual heroin users receiving drug treatment in 2005, the figure is 12% higher than in 2004 and 19% higher than in 2003. Worryingly, 38% of first treatment clients in 2005 were aged 15-19. Is the war on drugs being lost?
“The report gives you a bleak picture of the drugs situation but then the picture of any drugs situation is always a bleak one. It gives you numbers, but behind those numbers there are people.
“We are looking at a situation which is not getting easier to fight against. Users are usually young because they are the most vulnerable. The first instinct is to think that teenagers are giving in to peer pressure, and without a doubt peer pressure does play a part. But there is a sector of young people with social problems, and which no matter how many programmes are set up, these young people will always remain vulnerable to these problems – it’s a rejection syndrome.”
Cristina says this is the ‘dark side’ of her ministry’s attempt at distancing young people away from the perils of drug use. It’s the inescapable feeling of rejection which plagues young people, irrespectively of the care they receive from foster and institutional carers.
“A substantial number of these young people would have gone through the process of being rejected by their family, their classmates, friends, even the community which looks down on ‘problem families’. There’s an anger that grows with it, and which makes them easy prey. Social workers will say it will always be difficult for these young people to contain their sense of rejection, despite how well taken care of they are. Somehow, once they reach puberty, it all comes out again.”
While it would seem government can only provide constant educational programmes aimed at promoting the anti-drugs message, Cristina admits to being shocked at the lack of attention given to the problem by parents. “I am shocked at how laid-back parents are. Schools and councils organise parental skills courses, and still they have an amazingly low attendance. Parents often feel they will never face this problem, they see their children from a different perspective… until the problem surfaces and then it’s damage control. Drug use knows no barriers, and you find it in the best of families. I see families who are shattered at the fact that drug use happened in their own family despite all their good efforts.”
To this end, government’s efforts have even stretched to five-year-old kids in schools, and Cristina says she wants to see more education programmes getting under way in schools. But is the message being lost at the crucial stage in puberty when experimentation and the bitter reality of growing up, starts to hit home very hard?
Cristina delves little into whether the message being sent across is street-wise enough to capture young people’s attention, which I imagine could hardly ever be 100% successful given the increased proliferation of drugs. Instead she says treatment programmes are geared towards providing after-care and support for users to remain clean after they undergo treatment.
“The question to be asked is how many more drug users would we have if we didn’t have these programmes. So we can’t just be negative about the numbers of problem users which we know are in care,” Cristina says.
But despite knowledge of how many heroin users are currently undergoing treatment, it’s a grey area as to how many people ‘out there’ are smoking cannabis, taking cocaine and Es and the occasional acid trip – in a nutshell, it’s impossible for the government to keep a tab on the accepted fact that recreational drugs are an everyday occurrence, even in Malta.
Even the national focal point report dedicates a section on cocaine, where despite the zero-levels of tolerance from the authorities, prices have fallen to Lm30 per gram, and its place as a drug of choice for recreational and binge users has long been acknowledged. It seems there can be no guarantee that drug prevention programmes have indeed paid.
“Education is key, and we have to tell people they are rendering themselves even more vulnerable by moving into this ‘recreational’ zone. The younger ages are the more crucial, and education here counts in schools and parents.”
Of course, the answer partly lies in the effectiveness of anti-drug campaigns and education, but can the government escape the patronising, and distancing effect of previous anti-drug messages?
Cristina talks about the need for parents to get up to speed with today’s realities. “I speak to parents who have no idea what life is for a 14-year-old today. They can’t be stuck in a time warp. Parents have to ask their children if they have seen drugs in school, if they have ever been offered drugs, or seen other people doing drugs, and what they do when they go out. Lifestyles have certainly changed, since children come home later but parents must monitor their children and get to know more about them.
“But what needs to be done is to get ex-users and users today to pass on the message, which is something that happens in a lot of programmes. It’s not mummy who’s preaching. It’s the person who has been rock bottom who can help as a role model, and former users and alcoholics who have remained in touch with service providers are the ones who are the best at sending the message out. They give the hard-hitting facts.”
I put it that it would seem nothing will stop a particular section of young people, from both affluent or problematic backgrounds, from dabbling with drugs like cannabis.
“That may as well be true, but my major concern is a young generation that is unprepared to come into contact with drugs. Parents must give children the defence they require – self-confidence and the ability to say ‘no’, and the support they require when something goes wrong, that children can come back home and seek help and advice. I fear that some parents may also be in denial at first, refusing to accept there is a problem at the beginning. The focal point report reveals more first-time treatment users between the age 15-19, which is a positive thing since we are catching them young,” Cristina says.
A crucial aspect of the wide-ranging draft drugs policy, which will be open for consultation, is the setting-up of a drugs court that can streamline drug offence cases.
But I notice within the focal point report that the rate of arrest referrals – which involves police recommending that the prosecution of first-time drug offenders be replaced by a referral to an agency – is incredibly low. Since being launched in July 2005, only 15 arrestees out of 212 apprehended for possession were referred by the police. While the report claims the reasons for this lack of interest in referrals still need to be established, Cristina appears none the wiser.
“I don’t know why they don’t refer them… I don’t think they are obliged.”
I put it that if police are not obliged, whether they take an active interest in referring arrestees seems to be another matter.
“It’s not because they don’t care, but possibly because of workings behind the scenes we are not aware of.”
But the number seems to be so low, certainly not a successful rate for the start of the scheme.
“You cannot make people go into a programme, stop drinking or stop taking drugs. The only obligatory programme I demand is for a pregnant user, since the life of a child is involved. I definitely want to see it statutory that she enters a programme. In the other cases, those who are arrested must make it clear they want to enter a treatment programme.”
I turn to the evident presence of drugs in prison, where in 2005 routine inspections resulted in 43 seizures on prison grounds and health institutions related to prisons, with prosecutions including both prisoners and visitors, but in one case a prison guard. The majority, except one case, concerned heroin. Additionally, from a total of 244 random tests, 30% resulted positive for heroin – a sign that doesn’t need a critical eye to realise that Corradino Facility seems to have lost its ‘correctional’ tag a long time ago.
Cristina says the policy will be looking into better liaising between home affairs and this social solidarity ministry. “More social workers are really needed in Corradino – we definitely need it, the sooner the better. We can’t have a lack of social services with people and their families, after inmates leave prison and start facing the prospect of being unemployed and shunned by society. As an aside, I can’t say the opposition to a home for ex-inmates from Bormla within the community itself doesn’t say much for our society,” she says with reference to Labour MP Chris Agius’s inexplicable opposition to a home which will take in four ex-inmates from Bormla every year. “We need to give these people support, and if we don’t invest in them, we’ll just have more problems,” Cristina says.
This is why the new policy will be carving out a road map for people who are sent to prison through which they can be guided right up at the point they leave prison and after they leave. “Drug offenders need to be rehabilitated once they are there and when they come out. Changes in laws will be required if we want to see that 17-year-olds don’t end up in prison fours years after an offence is committed when they would have built their lives again.
“The first point is that I don’t think people arraigned on possession who manage to build a new life over the years should be thrown in prison once they are sentenced. This is what happens with people who come out of the problem and suddenly they are thrown into an environment which shatters their achievement. We have to abolish these delays, and look at community work and other sentences as alternatives for these people.”
The drugs court will therefore streamline these offences, particularly when it comes to looking at the needs of first offenders. “Certainly, it’s not a prison they need,” Cristina says.
But I remark how just giving magistrates the simple discretion of not having to imprison teenage first-offenders took over three years to implement after first a round of discussions in the President’s Forum which grouped NGOs, drug agencies and the police, and later on in the parliamentary social affairs committee. Are politicians being too slow to address these crucial issues?
“Laws take a very long time to come into effect, often requiring society itself to lobby the ideas into effect before entering the various stages. I agree these stages are too long. Passing the under-16 drinking laws took us three years. That’s the system. But it’s also a problem with time and human resources, and different amendments and vetting lengthen the process.
“The drugs policy will encourage our commissions and structures to propose legal amendments to their ministers as required. If something needs to be changed, it will have to. It has taken a number of years, and now that we have the structures, we need to get together all the ministries to work together on the policy. The policy looks at how we can make the best use of all the government’s structures by getting them together through a central unit at the Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity.
“We are keeping our feet on the ground by seeing what is do-able. And everything in this policy, with political good will and money, is do-able. We shall be getting funds through the seizure of drug assets by force of the Money Laundering Act. There is nothing that cannot be done once we get the finances and the people working on the policy.”
Cristina’s parting words seem to inspire a bleak scenario: “To me the drugs scenario is rather depressing. Out there, there are families which have been completely shattered, and young lives wasted.
“But let’s be clear about where we are going: that’s why we are working towards inter-ministerial involvement, and rejoin those fragmented pieces of the system.”

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