Case 2008-187

Nos. 4408 and 4409. C. C., n°2008-187, 18 December 2008
Download Judgment: French Flemish
Country: Belgium
Region: Europe
Year: 2008
Court: Constitutional Court [Court Constitutionelle]
Health Topics: Controlled substances
Tags: Drug abuse, Drug use, Performance-enhancing drugs

The Criminal Court of Dendermonde in the Flemish Region of Belgium posed two interlocutory questions to the Belgian Constitutional Court regarding the constitutionality of Article 44 of a 1991 decree of the Flemish government relating to the practice of sport in compliance with health standards  As per Article 2 of the 1921 law concerning the traffic of poisonous substances, Belgian federal law criminalizes the mere possession of illicit substances. Article 44 only punished possession of performance enhancing drugs if an athlete training for or competing in a sport possessed the drugs. Article 44 therefore contained a mitigating factor. The central question before the Court was whether introducing a mitigating factor for the mere possession of performance enhancing drugs was within the jurisdiction of the Flemish government, and therefore constitutionally valid.

The Court ruled there were two valid interpretations of Article 44, one constitutionally valid and the other not. The different interpretations turned on the classification of substances to which the mitigating factor applies.

As per Article 11 of the Special Law of 1980 regarding institutional reforms, it is within the jurisdiction of the Flemish government to criminalize breaches of their specific rules, and establish penalties for these breaches. It is also within their jurisdiction to determine mitigating grounds for these penalties. Introducing mitigating factors that apply beyond the domain of regional governments would be outside the jurisdiction of the regional government, and therefore constitutionally invalid.

In terms of Article 44, one interpretation found that introducing a mitigating factor on the mere possession of performance enhancing drugs was outside the jurisdiction of the Flemish government. This interpretation held that Article 44 was constitutionally invalid because introducing a mitigating factor relating to the criminalization of drug possession concerned medicinal products and foodstuffs, an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction. The Flemish government could not create impunity for offences that are punishable under the federal law. If the mitigating factor in Article 44 infringed on Article 2 of the federal law on poisonous substances, it would be outside the jurisdiction of the Flemish government.

A competing interpretation found that since the mitigating factor in Article 44 applied only to performance enhancing drugs in the context of sports it was constitutionally valid. Laws targeting doping in sports fit within the realm of preventive health activities and health education, an area within the domain of regional governments. Additionally, Article 44 explicitly referred only to criminal offences targeted by the 1991 Flemish law on the practice of sport in compliance with health standards and not to offences defined in federal law. The Court held that the language of Article 44 did not make clear which is the correct interpretation.

“En ce qu’elle prévoit une réglementation du transport, de l’importation, de l’exportation, de la détention, de la vente, de l’offre en vente, de la délivrance et de l’acquisition de substances vénéneuses, soporifiques, stupéfiantes, désinfectantes ou antiseptiques, la loi fédérale relative aux drogues doit, dans le cadre des règles répartitrices de compétence, être considérée comme une réglementation relative aux médicaments et aux denrées alimentaires, qui relève de la compétence de l’Etat fédéral.
Il en découle également qu’il appartient au seul législateur fédéral de sanctionner le nonrespect de ces dispositions et, s’il l’estime opportun, de prévoir en la matière des causes d’excuse exclusives de peine." - (B. 13.2.)

“In that it regulates the transport, importation, exportation, possession, sale, offer of sale, distribution and acquisition of poisonous, sedative, narcotic, anti-bacterial and disinfectant substances, the federal law on drugs must, in terms of jurisdictional competence rules, be considered as regulation on medications and foodstuffs, and therefore under federal jurisdiction.  It also follows that only the federal legislator can sanction non-compliance with these provisions, and if deemed appropriate, provide mitigating grounds.
Interpreted in the sense that the mitigating factor [Article 44] contains applies not only to offences punishable under Article 43 of the 27 March 1991 law relating to doping, but also to the mere possession of prohibited substances, sanctioned by the federal law on drugs, the provision in question does not conform to the 8 August 1980 special law on institutional reforms”- (B. 13.2.)

“Compte tenu de ce qu’elle se réfère aux « faits punissables visés à l’article 43 [du décret du 27 mars 1991 relatif au dopage] », cette disposition peut également être interprétée en ce sens que la cause d’excuse exclusive de peine qu’elle contient s’applique uniquement aux infractions visées à l’article 43 du décret du 27 mars 1991 relatif au dopage, et non aux infractions qui sont définies dans d’autres normes législatives.”- (B.16.)

“Taking into account that [Article 44] refers to punishable offences targeted in Article 43 [of the 27 March 1991 decree relating to doping] the provision can also be interpreted in the sense that the mitigating factor it contains applies only to offences targeted in Article 43 of the 27 March 1991 relating to doping, and not to offences defined in other legislative norms.”- (B.16.)

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