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Sentencing for drug offences

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

DRUG users who possess a small amount of illegal drugs for their own use and who do not pose a threat by dealing in drugs might no longer face jail time, once a draft amendment to the Criminal Code prepared by the Ministry of Justice and approved by the cabinet on February 20 is approved by parliament. While activists and professionals working with drug addicts have welcomed the change, critics of the draft say that it may allow drug dealers to avoid heavy punishment.

The relaxed rules stipulate that drug users caught with an amount of drugs exceeding 10 single doses but still considered to be for their own consumption, can face three years in prison with the possibility of a suspended sentence, the Justice Ministry said, as reported by the Sme daily. The current law stipulates that only amounts up to 10 doses can be considered to be for one’s own personal use; conviction for possession of any amount over this normally results in a mandatory custodial sentence of four or more years.

The legislation comes in response to several dozen of people getting prison sentences for possessing more than 10 doses of illegal drugs, according to Sme.

“In some borderline cases it is better for society if a convicted [person] gets a suspended sentence with probation oversight and therefore gets another chance to live a decent life,” Justice Ministry spokesperson Jana Zlatohlávková told The Slovak Spectator.

Ľubomír Okruhlica, the Health Ministry’s chief expert on medicine and drug addiction, who is also head of the Bratislava-based Centre for Treatment of Drug Dependencies, says current Slovak laws are too strict for those whose activities do not threaten other people. For drug addicts it is important not to lose contact with real life, something that can happen in prison; their treatment there is also more complicated, the SITA newswire reported. He also questioned the applicability of the term “a usual single dose” in the law, since doses are by definition individual and cannot be generally defined.

However, Daniel Lipšic, a former interior minister who is now an independent MP, argues that the proposed changes will not just affect drug users.

“Using this approach, for example, a dealer of a kilogram of heroin could claim a suspended sentence,” Lipšic told The Slovak Spectator, arguing that it would be enough for the dealer to claim that he or she intended to use it for their own consumption over the next five years. “Easing penalties for drug dealers is a bit hard to swallow,” he said.

In order for the court to impose a lower penalty serious reasons must be given, according to Zlatohlávková, who added that “this is why this revision can in no instance be applied to proven cases of drug dealing or drug manufacturing”.

“If someone grows a marihuana plant at home, it is appropriate if the court can consider instead of imposing a four-year prison sentence also a suspended sentence with probation oversight,”

Zlatohlávková told The Slovak Spectator, adding that in the case of drug dealers the law will continue to make it possible to impose very strict penalties of up to 12 years in prison.

The possibility of an alternative punishment like a suspended sentence may support integration into ordinary life more positively than prison, since small dealers are often addicts living on the edge of poverty, said Iveta Chovancová of Odyseus, an NGO which provides services to people addicted to drugs, Sme reported.

However, Lipšic argues that the Penal Code provides tools for lighter sentencing in cases where a person is found in possession of slightly more than the 10-dose limit.

Statistics suggest that courts are using this option, as well as plea bargains: in more than half of cases involving possession of more than 10 doses in 2012 – 284 out of 532 – those convicted received a suspended sentence, Sme reported.

Lucia Žitňanská, a former justice minister who is now an MP for the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), disagrees with the claims made by the Justice Ministry in its report accompanying the amendment. Contesting the assertion that the change is related only to those “who are not drug dealers but purely consumers”, Žitňanská said the law would benefit drug dealers too, Sme reported, adding that she supports the current rules.

Doses

Another reason for changing the current legislation is that after an illegal drug is seized the amount of active substance in it must be checked, Justice Minister Tomáš Borec explained. A drug user found with five packs of drugs that contain a very strong substance may therefore be judged to possess, in effect, 12 or 13 doses, SITA reported.

Related article: Other Criminal Code changes

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