Strict and arbitrary punishments for drug offences in Malta have continued to take place – and may have even intensified – since the introduction of legislation that aimed to reduce the criminalisation of drug use.

In April 2015, the Maltese Government passed introduced the Drug Dependence Act, nicknamed the "Treatment Not Imprisonment Act", into law. The Act removed the possibility of criminal prosecution for someone found in possession of “small quantities of prohibited drugs for personal use”, and mandated that they receive a fine instead. The legislation also states that "a person found guilty of cultivating ... one [cannabis] plant ... shall not be liable to a mandatory term of imprisonment".

While the Act appeared to signify a progressive move in the Mediterranean nation’s drug policy, the consequences of its implementation suggest otherwise.

Prior to the introduction of the Act, people found in possession of a personal quantity of drugs would not necessarily have to pay a fine - rather, they would often face a probation order. While a conviction and a probation order are not conducive to health-oriented drug policy, a fine can lead to a host of new problems for people with problematic drug use, particularly if they are already financially insecure. Financial punishments may exacerbate health and welfare issues of the country's estimated 1,708 "high-risk opioid users”.

In addition, the Act’s change to the Maltese approach to cannabis cultivation poses an inherent problem. Although the legislation removes criminal penalties for the cultivation of one plant, cultivating two or more currently results in a mandatory minimum six-month prison sentence. Franco Debono, the Prime Minister’s consultant on justice reform, warned that this has created an unjust approach based on an arbitrary measurement.

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Thumbnail Flickr CC aNdrzej cH.