At the very end of December, the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice (MJ) published a new Penal Code project. In general, this bill makes no progress towards a more liberal policy for drug users.
Possession of any quantity of illegal drugs will be liable (as now) to a term of 1 to 6 years' imprisonment, while distribution attracts a term of 2 to 8 years. There is no mention of diversion to treatment as an alternative to imprisonment, even though this possibility had been discussed, and even though the National Council on Drugs provided a written recommendation for this option to the Ministry of Justice.
What is even worse – in the current Penal Code, there is an article, stating that for minor (insignificant) offences, related to drug possession only, the punishment could be just a fine of up to 500 EUR, instead of imprisonment. In the new bill, this provision has been dropped, which means that all drug offences, including possession of minor amounts, become punishable by imprisonment.
Several NGOs had made submissions to the MJ, in the form of letters with objections and proposals. The Council of Ministers, however, approved the bill even before the (in any case extremely short) final deadline for civil objections and proposals. From now on, any reaction will have to be on a parliamentary level, while the bill is discussed in different parliamentary commissions, before being voted in the plenary.
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Today, Wednesday 22 January, five NGOs gave a press conference to announce their concerns surrounding the Penal Code project. The organisations emphasised that the bill would increase repression against people who use drugs, and that it runs counter to key European Union documents, such as the EU Drug Strategy and Action Plan 2013-2020.
“What is being proposed now, was already being done 10 years ago, when the notion of 'zero tolerance' for drugs was put forward,” said Dr. Georgi Vassilev, a psychiatrist with extensive experience in drug addiction treatment. “During that period, we saw the court system become congested with large numbers of small-scale trials, young people were going to jail for minimal amounts of drugs, hidden drug use increased, and so too did the prevalence of HIV,” he added.
Rada Naslednikova, a director of the “Proekt Peperuda Sofia” Centre, stressed that the repressive measures are populist, offering a false sense of a more secure society. “Sending people to prison is the most expensive approach – both in the short term and the long term. Furthermore, the prison system doesn't cure addicts, it creates them.”
Watch Drugreporter's videos on the Bulgarian drug policies and the state of harm reduction (long version)
“What frightens me as a lawyer, is the fact that the preamble to the bill doesn’t explain in any way why the 'insignificant cases' provision was removed. Under this new Penal Code, the lightest possible sanction would be a suspended sentence, with the courts involved on the basis of even the smallest quantity of a drug, and this means costs, costs, costs,” said the lawyer Kalin Angelov, a member of the “Promena” Movement.
“People who use marijuana for medical purposes – according to the new Penal Code bill, all such people would be liable to imprisonment. We should be moving towards the legalisation of marijuana for medical purposes,” added Vassil Haralampiev, of the “Restart” Association.
The NGOs will seek to stimulate dialogue on a parliamentary level, in order to prevent the adoption of the bill, and discuss the introduction of modern, evidence-based practices, such as decriminalisation of drug possession and alternative approaches towards drug-using offenders, such as treatment and rehabilitation.
Anna Lyubenova, Initiative for Health Foundation