Choose your battles. It’s a useful piece of strategic advice. Instead of fighting on every front, you should focus your energy on the wars that really matter.
Malta faces an important choice in this regard. It can either keep spending its resources on the war against drugs, which shows little to no signs of success worldwide. Or it can fight a different war, the one against criminal organisations: the mafiosi who get away with car bombs, murder, corruption and money laundering on a huge scale, drowning our nation’s reputation and economy in the process.
And in a way, this isn’t a choice at all, because the two battles are related.
Selling drugs is a major way of funding criminal organisations. Very few other business ventures provide the markup and profitability that the drug trade does.
In fact, a large part of organised crime is built around this trade: it’s the reason behind most of the money laundering, bribery, corruption and violent turf wars we see.
And the big irony is that the more we criminalise drugs, the better things get for organised crime.
More policing means higher markups, which means more money to convince drug mules and pushers to do the risky jobs, and to bribe customs officials, police officers, judges and politicians into protecting the big fish.
What would really hurt these criminal organisations is if we were to break up their monopolies.
This is why the legalisation of cannabis is a big step forward.
By taking this plant out of the hands of criminal organisations, we are depriving them of one key source of funding.
It may not be the most valuable or profitable substance they sell, but it’s a very easy one for us to take from them with minimal impact on society, so it’s a good place to start.
Besides giving criminal organisations one less product to sell, legalisation will also help free up some of the country’s valuable time and resources which can be redirected to fighting organised crime instead. This will enable more focused police work, fewer court delays and more space in prison for the real offenders.
However, this will only happen if Malta adopts the right form of regulation. Decriminalisation is not enough because supply remains in the hands of criminal organisations.
Restricting cannabis to pharmacies, or cafes even, can also be risky because the black market might be able to be more price competitive.
To totally eliminate cannabis supply from criminal organisations Malta must allow users the right to grow their own cannabis, as well as to grow it communally, as a smokers club or community. This is what happens in parts of Spain where individuals who do not want to grow their own weed can give their club the right to grow on their behalf.
These smokers clubs also ensure that there is some supervision in terms of the quality of cannabis and rate of consumption. If a vulnerable person is smoking too much, the club can intervene.
This is an important aspect because cannabis can have dangerous implications on people who are predisposed to certain mental illnesses and behaviours.
Our legislators have a duty to ensure that legalising cannabis is done in a way that protects the vulnerable. This is why it must be combined with investment in better mental health awareness and treatment, better cannabis education and proper safeguards in place to ensure that people who need help find it in time.
If we are able to do this effectively as a country, then we can take the next important steps in depriving the criminal organisations of other products they currently monopolise. Obviously these will be more difficult to achieve because dangerous drugs have more implications on society.
However, our legislators should be keeping a close eye on what has happened in places like Portugal and Oregon, USA, where all drugs have been decriminalised.
Again, decriminalisation does not necessarily remove supply from the criminal organisations. However, it can reduce markups and make the business marginally less attractive.
This is a sensitive and difficult debate which ranges from issues of personal freedom to issues of public health. But in a country like Malta that is struggling so much to be effective at fighting financial and organised crime, we must also approach this topic from the point of view of our capacity to successfully fight organised crime.
And to fight crime effectively, to get close to the big fish who need to be caught but very rarely ever are, our policing needs to start happening at the top echelons of the drug trade.
We don’t get any closer to the big fish by arresting two teenagers smoking weed in a hotel room on Valentine’s Day.
It’s great that the Prime Minister seems to have understood that. Let’s hope our legislators have the foresight to see this through properly.
Share this article if you agree