Bulgarian society seems to be in a state of apathy when it comes to decriminalisation of drug use. Neither a so-called “reform” of the drugs law (making it harsher than ever), nor an outrageous fine for the pro-legalisation Green party, was a loud enough wake-up call for Bulgaria to distance itself from the current punishment-based approach. Read the guest article from human rights expert journalist Krassen Nikolov.
Recent parliamentary elections in Bulgaria have deepened the country's political crisis. Eight parties received enough votes to take seats in Parliament, and analysts anticipate a weak coalition government, which will not be able to conduct serious reforms in the most important public sectors – education, healthcare, and the judicial system.
The previous government put out a draft new Penal Code for public consultation. The draft was harshly criticised by NGOs and the Supreme Court of Cassation. According to the Supreme Court judges, the new code would do more harm than good. One of the reasons for their criticism was that the draft is very restrictive on the question of the supply and use of drugs.
1-6 years' imprisonment for a joint
If the parliament passes the new code, anyone caught smoking, or even possessing, a single marijuana cigarette is liable to a term of 1 to 6 years' imprisonment. The current punishment for somebody caught with a small amount of drugs for personal use, is a fine. This issue was widely discussed earlier this year; even so, government authorities refused to withdraw and rewrite the draft. The opinion of senior magistrates, such as Evgeni Dikov, director of the National Investigation Service, was unable to sway them. Dikov said that it was "ridiculous for a marijuana cigarette to spin the entire judicial machinery."
Debate on the issue stopped suddenly at the end of February. In July, the controversial draft of the Penal Code was one of the last law projects that the government introduced to Parliament. At the beginning of August, the prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, resigned, and campaigning began for the next elections. The issue of drugs and the Penal Code was overshadowed by problems in the banking sector, a budget deficit, the increasing cost of electricity, and the country's low per-capita income.
Outrageous fine for the pro-legalisation Green Party
Only one of the parties, the Greens, officially came out in favour of the legalisation of marijuana during this summer's election campaign. This led, however, to consequences for them: The Central Election Commission fined The Greens for putting out a video clip calling for the legalisation of marijuana. In the view of the authorities, the Green campaign had a bad influence on morality.
This is a serious setback for the party, because the election administration recommended a fine of between 25,000 and 75,000 euros – leaving it to the Minister of Health to decide the exact level. The Greens, for their part, announced that this was an attempt to shut down their party, and that they would be unable to pay such a huge fine unless they received at least 1% of the votes in the elections (a level at which they would be entitled to a government subsidy). "Every vote for us will be a vote against the taboos," the party declared. Bulgarian society, however, proved not to be sensitive on the issue: the Greens received 0.6 percent of the votes, and took the road to bankruptcy. Fining the party did not cause any social discontent. It is a vicious circle. It turns out that that open debate is liable to incur serious financial penalties.
Shady outlook for decriminalisation
The current situation in the Bulgarian Parliament suggests that possession of soft drugs is unlikely to be legalised soon: GERB leader Boyko Borisov has a mandate to form a government. This is a man who began his career as Secretary of the Ministry of Interior. Back then, Borisov insisted on maintaining a hard-line drugs policy. If there is a coalition, it will include the nationalist “Patriotic Front”. Even before the campaign, the nationalists affirmed their support for a complete ban on drug possession.
Angel Djambazki, a senior official in the Patriotic Front, said that drugs policy needed to be severely restrictive, because possessing even a single dose may lead to dealing. This politician has already successfully lobbied for a ban on drinking beer in the city parks (although in practice, the police refuse to impose fines for such a trivial offence).
In all likelihood, GERB and the Patriotic Front will combine to form the next government – a clear indicator that the drug possession regime will not become more liberal. The fear is, that it may actually become more punitive, and one marijuana cigarette may lead to imprisonment, as laid out in the draft Penal Code.
Legal battle may be the last chance
The only argument capable of preventing the adoption of more severe sanctions, is that the police and the judiciary will be overburdened with minor cases. Such laws will not have a good impact on the fight against police corruption, since anyone caught with a cigarette would clearly rather pay a bribe than go to jail.
Among political parties in Bulgaria, there is no discussion of the issue of legalising medical marijuana. In April, the Lovech District Court overturned the lower Town Court's historic decision whereby Martin Kalchev – suffering from multiple sclerosis – was initially acquitted on a charge of possessing two marijuana plants.
The Town Court decision was a positive precedent, and helped the thesis that the use and possession of cannabis should be decriminalised at least in cases of its use for medical purposes. Soon, however, this positive precedent was closed. The higher court sentenced Kalchev to pay a fine of 1,000 levs (500 euros). He was found guilty of possessing 59.101 grams of marijuana, with a value (according to the judicial system) of 354.62 lev (€ 180).
After the trial, his lawyer said he would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Given the political situation in Bulgaria, and the low level of public interest, the court in Strasbourg remains the only option for the liberalisation of a regime which treats sick people as criminals.
Krassen Nikolov, mediapool.bg/ Bulgaria
Watch also Drugreporters' video on the Bulgarian drug politics: