A lenient sentence given to a man charged with heroin trafficking this week is just one sign that the Maltese judiciary might be catching up to the current administration’s new and compassionate stance on drugs.
For the first time since the Drug Laws were amended in 2015 with the Drug Dependence (Treatment not Imprisonment) Act, a man who was caught selling drugs was not given imprisonment.
Giving the offender, Malcolm Tanti, a suspended sentence instead of imprisonment might seem small in the grand scheme of things, but anyone who knows the traditional harshness of the Maltese judiciary when it comes to cases revolving around drugs knows that this is quite a step forward, as Prime Minister Joseph Muscat himself noted.
For the first time since the introduction of the new Drug laws in 2015, the courts of justice have decided not to sentence to imprisonment a trafficker who has since exited drug dependency. This is an important step towards a common sense approach that rewards rehabilitation -JM
— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) November 29, 2017
Traditionally, any case where someone was caught with even a small amount of drugs, drug paraphernalia or anything too suspicious would be tried on drug trafficking charges, with very little leniency expected and indeed, given.
The prerogative of the courts had always been to impinge the highest sentence on a drug offender within the parameter of the law, rarely taking any personal details into consideration.
This is why there are Maltese teens who were caught with just 6 grams in 2011 and are still attending courts till this day, with possible imprisonment always hanging over their heads as they enter adulthood affecting their quality of life.
This is also why you have at least one Maltese MCAST student who was caught with a handful of joints in Paceville just months ago already imprisoned.
He sleeps in Corradino prison at night, wakes up, is escorted to his lessons on campus in Paola, and then returns to prison at night to sleep and do his homework.
Does anyone in the judiciary truly still believe that this is the best thing to do to a 19-year-old MCAST student who was caught with some joints? Send him to a prison that is overflowing with hard drugs and even harder people?
Cases like William Agius‘ lay bare the problems with the traditional inflexibility in the courts when it came to drug cases. A man who has been clean for a decade, and runs his own business and has employees, may have to face imprisonment for something stupid done 14 years ago.
But with the public crying out for leniency in his case as well – with everything from a presidential pardon to community work being suggested instead – and the 2015 amendment in place, William Agius’ verdict on the 11th of December will give us an even clearer idea of how the judiciary might be seeing drugs now.
And it’s not just in this case. Christopher Bartolo, the man who was imprisoned and lost a donated kidney while in prison over the summer, could be looking into new bail conditions soon after having his appeal upheld by the courts. His detention may not have been in line with EU laws, and the Maltese courts may release him as a result.
Daniel Holmes, who was sentenced to 10 and a half years in jail for trafficking cannabis, has had about two years cut off his sentence by the courts for good behaviour.
However, the courts will always be among the most conservative institutions in any land, and they will only change their behaviour and practices if the law they are working with is changed as well.
The 2015 amendment to the Drug Acts was criticised for being too little, too late. But, as Malcolm Tanti’s case shows, the amendment might have been the first small step in the right direction.
If the next few drug trafficking cases start reaching similar conclusions, it would be the first time in Malta’s history that drug users and drug abusers would be seen as having a social problem, as opposed to a criminal problem – and that’s something we, as a nation, should be proud of.