Sentences for convicted drug users are to become considerably more lenient under new legislation to be tabled this year, the government promised yesterday, but fought shy of reducing the offense to the level of a petty violation. During a meeting of the Interministerial Committee Against Narcotics, chaired by Prime Minister Costas Simitis, it was decided to reduce the maximum penalty for drug use to one year’s imprisonment, while convictions will not be entered on offenders’ criminal records. Under current legislation, drug users can be jailed for up to five years, although first-time offenders can avoid prison by undertaking to enroll in rehabilitation programs. «Drug users are patients, not criminals,» Simitis told journalists. «That is why we must reduce the maximum penalty to one year, to allow better opportunities for therapy and rehabilitation. By not entering the conviction on offenders’ criminal records, we will facilitate drug users’ social reintegration.» The PM also promised to create more state drug rehabilitation programs, which currently have long waiting lists. Heroin addicts – the majority of Greece’s hard drug users – have to wait up to two-and-a-half years to join methadone treatment programs. «We intend to put an end to waiting lists, as life cannot be kept on hold,» Simitis said. He added that deaths from drug abuse fell 30 percent last year, when 144 people died, compared to 2001. «This is unprecedented in Greece,» the PM said. Government sources said Health Minister Costas Stefanis had initially proposed making drug use a petty violation – the lowest form of law-breaking – but encountered strong opposition from the ministers of public order, justice, education and economy.