Thought You Couldn't Be Brought to Court for Smoking a Joint in Hungary?

If you thought the simple consumption of a joint couldn't land you in front of a judge, you were wrong. Domonkos's story is a case in point.

Young people standing in front of a bar on the street, talking and passing around a joint. Some of them take a draw, but some don't. This kind of scene is certainly familiar to anyone, either from life or television. Cannabis is a drug characteristically consumed in a group; in this situation the sharing of weed does not constitute trafficking. Still, if caught by the police, careless young people sharing a joint can easily find themselves as defendants in a criminal case for drug trafficking, which is what happened to Domonkos, a college student living in Budapest. He was guilty of nothing less than smoking a joint with a friend. They had bad luck: vigilant policemen arriving on bikes caught them in the act and took them to the police station in handcuffs. They spent long hours there, giving confessions and urine samples. Domonkos was under the assumption that, as a consumer, he will get away without any serious punishments. He was wrong, unfortunately. Since he took responsibility for passing the joint to his friend, proceedings were brought against him for trafficking in drugs. This is when he asked for help from the Legal Aid Department of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

There is a significant difference in terms of legal consequences between consumers and traffickers. Consumers may opt for a six-month diversion program as an alternative to criminal proceedings. This usually involves participating in individual or collective consultancy at some drug center, and does not appear in any criminal records. Punishments for traffickers, however, are indiscriminately imposed by the courts and trafficking offenses will appear in criminal records (which would, among other things, prevent a person from being able to enter the US). The trafficking of small amounts of drugs is punishable by up to two years in prison; in the case of young people with clean records, like Domonkos, it is most common to pay fines or have a suspended sentence imposed. However, when the person sharing the drugs is a minor (under 18) and consumes the drugs with other minors when on the premises of an educational institution (e.g. at a school party), he or she can be punished by imprisonment from one to five years!

Dr. Szabolcs Sánta, a lawyer for HCLU, asked the court at last Thursday's session to suspend the criminal proceedings against Domonkos, who did not traffic but consumed drugs together with other people. Our motion was unfortunately rejected by the courts; no sentence has been passed, the case will be discussed by an appeal court.

The category of passing on drugs with the purpose of joint consumption was introduced in the Criminal Code in 2002; thus people having a joint together could also opt for the diversion program. However, the possibility of choosing diversion by people consuming drugs jointly was annulled by the Constitutional Court in 2004, when it claimed that this measure could represent a legal loophole for traffickers wanting to avoid punishments as consumers. We and many other professionals have kept criticizing this decision, saying it will be precisely because of the Constitutional Court's ruling that consumers will be brought to court as traffickers, and Domonkos's case proves the validity of this point.

The real solution would be to stop punishing the consumption of cannabis as we do now, whether it is consumed individually or in a group. Thousands of young people are hassled by the state only for smoking a kind of plant that, even if not entirely safe, certainly does not account for any deaths, like alcohol or tobacco. The great majority of weed smokers are casual consumers and useful members of society, yet billions of forints are being spent prosecuting them! This money and energy should go, instead, to the prosecution of corrupt politicians.

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