LEGALISE CANNABIS? – A war on people, not drugs

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Imagine row upon row of lush, budding marijuana plants, harvested by white-coated technicians in an innocuous building around Main Street without fear of a police raid. Tonnes of cannabis are distributed to pharmacy-like shops that also double up as rehabilitation centres to treat addiction. An elderly woman, a cancer patient, arrives on schedule for her weekly supply of ‘White Widow’, while another facility user is called from his seat and welcomed through the side doors for therapy on an addiction to a harder substance. The next step would be to install a coffee shop in Casemates serving regulated cannabis for recreational use and subsequently pumping unfathomable funds into the local economy. In the UK, it is estimated that a regulated market could raise up to £1bn a year in tax. It would be interesting to see how much the Rock could raise?

Although Gibraltar has not yet reached this stage, there is a growing sense that drug-taking needs to be treated as a health and education, not criminal justice, issue. Earlier this year, Damian Broton’s group ‘Stay Clean’ and the Equality Rights Group presented a Joint Solidarity Project by the name of ‘Connected Health’. Together with ERG Chairman Felix Alvarez, Damian has been working behind the scenes for a number of years to set the taboo subject of ‘regulation’ up for debate, “The war on drugs has failed. It has become a war on people by the way we criminalise them instead of providing a system of rehabilitation and showing compassion,” said Felix who, with Damian, assisted the government to structure its manifesto commitments that looked to tackle a number of issues in these areas. “We are not recommending that people use psychoactive drugs of any kind. We are actually advocating health and asking the question if we can continue to allow the criminals to control every aspect of the manufacture and consumption of drugs? We have tried this since the 1960s and consumption has increased. Why don’t we instead take control away from the criminals and put it in the hands of government?”

Felix Alvarez and Damian Broton

Obsolete system

Felix dismissed the ‘Class’ categorisation of drugs as ‘prohibitionist views’ that are outdated and ineffective in the control of illegal substances. He also associates a ‘blanketed approach’ to all drugs within the same line and believes that with regulation, not decriminalisation, society can protect itself from the tampering of the produce, “It means controlling the substance in the same way we do for alcohol and tobacco and anything else. We should treat every substance differently. You cannot have the same attitude and legal approach to cannabis as you do with heroin. We need to base this on hard medical evidence and not on someone’s ideological idea on what should be done. This is the first step. For decades we have had this blanketed approach and it doesn’t work. How do we deal with drugs in a way where treatment is possible? We are taking a completely different view on this.”

In the past 24 years, Damian has provided rehabilitation support for people from all sorts of backgrounds and believes that an honest survey on cannabis consumption would lead to interesting results. He has noticed through his experience that there are many consumers who, after taking a cocktail of drugs throughout their lives, decide to stick with cannabis after giving everything else up. During the prohibition of alcohol in the United States of the early 20th century, criminals controlling illegal trafficking would push people towards ‘moonshine’ (an illegally distilled homemade whisky that took many forms and was often incredibly powerful). When the law was lifted, people tended to lean towards milder alcohol, “The reason that people choose cannabis is because it is less problematic. But as it stands, it is still illegal. The consumption of the hard stuff decreases with regulation. It is in the interest of the drug traffickers for it to remain illegal. That way, they can push you to the more synthetic stuff to get you hooked,” he said.

In Portugal, individuals found in possession of small quantities of drugs have them confiscated and are then made to appear in front of a ‘Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction’. This policy has seen nearly a 50% decrease in convictions and imprisonments of drug traffickers from 2001 to 2015, since the law was introduced, “I think the Portuguese system would work here. We will never be able to eradicate the black market completely but we have had our heads in the hole about the subject for the last 50 years. Without regulation, the dealers sell to anyone from children to pregnant women. There is no control and these are the real dangers, but they remain hidden.”

Connected Health wants to see an open health system that works against stigma and discrimination and is easily accessible. Both project leaders agreed that a ‘wellness clinic’ focussing on sexual health and addiction would be a good start, but they do not want it in some nook or cranny in the hospital. It must be a welcoming atmosphere that encourages people to seek help. The basis of the campaign is that addiction is wide ranging and not limited to drugs, however, they believe that the regulation of cannabis is the first step that needs to be taken in revamping healthcare of these illnesses. Damian, as a former consumer, used his own case as an example where he described regularly receiving prescriptions from two different doctors at the Primary Care Centre for 180 diazepam tablets. He says that the introduction of cannabis into healthcare could help ease cases of addiction to anti-depressants, acting as a much less addictive alternative, “People go to the Primary Care Centre stating that they have depression and are then offered a list of readily available anti-depressants. If people only knew the chemicals and their effects on you that exist inside one of these tables, they might think again about taking it. We then come to the dual diagnosis of depression and addiction to these tablets. This is regulated and it is much worse, so we want to work with the centre as well as with Minister Neil Costa – who has shown interest – on these issues.”

Name and shame

Damian says legalisation, decriminalisation and regulation can all be summarised under one word, ‘equality’. He says this because he is concerned about the labelling of consumers within society in the media and, as a drugs rehabilitation officer, he feels that it is detrimental towards their recovery, “We have labels everywhere like alcoholics, addicts and chemically dependent. Firstly, we are people and, if adults wish to do something to their body that does not harm anyone else, it is really a privacy and consent issue. If somebody wishes to smoke cannabis knowing full well that there may be good and also bad consequences, that is a decision that should solely rest with them.”

Arresting a young person and taking them up to the police station for hours can be a traumatic experience for a teenager and their parents. Connected Health suggested that the government employed arrest referral workers specially trained in dealing with these cases, which was subsequently included in the manifesto. The referral workers then approach the individual to see if they would be willing to take part in a drugs awareness workshop and be educated on the illness of addiction, “As it stands, these people get arrested, wait for the court case to conclude, pay their fine and are back on the street into the same system with no assistance,” said Damian before Felix interjected.

“One of the problems that I find is the way the law allows the naming of people in the press. I understand that the wider issue is that justice should be open and the community deserves to know. However, the problem arises when you find a small-time individual who has been picked up by the law and gone to jail for possession of cannabis for personal consumption. They end up in court and have their names, sometimes even their address, in the Chronicle and on GBC. That may be perfectly reasonable in a population composed of 50 million people, but in a small society of 32,000, they are stigmatised and condemned forever. The individual is labelled as ‘un porista’ – a derogatory term used to describe a marijuana user- and it will affect every aspect of their lives in terms of relationships, employment opportunities and their own confidence as a person.”

Mafia control

Cannabis accounts for nearly half the $300 billion illegal narcotics market, and is the drug of choice for most of the world’s 250m illicit-drug users. Just across the Strait, Morocco supplies around 65% of Europe’s hashish (according to a World Customs Authority report in 2013) and can be mixed with anything from powdered milk to goats’ droppings as a way to increase its weight and subsequent profit. This is the ‘local supply’ that Gibraltar, and the whole of Europe, receives through the dangerous cameo ‘cat and mouse’ expeditions exhibited by numerous cartels of drug traffickers who operate around the Campo de Gibraltar. La Linea is a major storage and distribution point with regular power boat runs landing on the East side’s Playa de Atunara. Scores of minions rush down the beach to lug numerous kilos of hash back up to a waiting jeep that soon escapes into the labyrinth of narrow street corners nearby. With landings taking place all along the coast, little can be done to eradicate the relentless trafficking, “Every nation that begins to regulate marijuana helps towards breaking the mafia chain. Regulation will not be the answer to everything, but I think it will be a substantial improvement on what we have now,” said Felix. “At the moment, we have a criminal underworld that is sanctioned by law because the criminals are the ones who regulate it. For those who say that, if we regulate it, we will have a free-for-all, they are quite wrong. We have this in place already. The manufacturing, sale and consumption of drugs are in the hands of organised crime.”

Watershed studies

Felix believes that the study of the effect of cannabis on the human mind was obscured for many years through false information and agenda-ridden studies. He said that those conducting the research were seeing it on the evidence of a group of people who already suffered from real mental illness, “They extrapolated that to all of humanity and they had only studied a group of people who suffered from particular problems. We now understand that as an earlier mistake. People who are not addicted to cannabis but consume are not included in these studies and may not necessarily use it as a ‘gateway drug’. It’s the same situation with alcohol. I might go and have a whiskey, but it doesn’t mean that I will become an alcoholic. The evidence is just not there to prove that.”

The staunch battler for human rights in Gibraltar said that any societal change requires plenty of dialogue and debate to occur before anything actually happens. Felix first experienced this process when pushing for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights locally, which took over 16 years to come to fruition. However, he is happy to see a willingness to engage on the discussion by the government, especially Minister Costa, with whom the group will have a series of meetings with. Further to that, they also welcomed the composition of an inter-ministerial committee to tackle the issue. This was one of their recommendations to the government because of the complexity and subtlety surrounding these technical areas, “We are not just going to talk about the medical evaluation or the licensing and distribution. We are aiming to bring in real experts to help us plan this. First, we must provoke and promote discussion, which we have done. We knew that there was a need there. That is why it has happened so quickly.”

Indeed, the debate has spread like wildfire and local social media groups have seen opinions on both sides come to the fore. Parliament has taken hold of the issue and it will be debated openly with the government’s inter-ministerial committee and the Connected Health project in liaison to provide the relevant local research. There are likely to be teething problems if this proposal goes through and that is why both Felix and Damian believe that this needs to be a fluid and evolving system that is consistently monitored and updated to suit the needs of Gibraltar.