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‘High’ times | David Caruana
Legalise Cannabis Malta spokesman David Caruana on why should cannabis be decriminalised.
6 May 2012, 12:00am
Would the government be burying its head in the sand if it legalised it at this point in time? Decriminalising it for a starter, at a time when there's a local broad consensus on the issue, might even be a step in the right direction. Then again so many countries have decriminalised the drug, including our European counterpart, Portugal.
"Although the aim of our lobby group is to have cannabis legalised, dicriminalising would be the first step in helping us reach our aim," David Cauana said.
When asked why in Malta cannabis smokers are associated with hippies or feral youth, while many others linked it to psychosis, whereas in most other countries cannabis is associated with high-profile individuals such as British Professor David Nut, a psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist specialising in the research of drugs that affect the brain, Caruana said: "It's all about misinformation leading to misconceptions.
"It all started way back in the late 1930s with the Reefer Madness in the United States which portrayed that if people smoked a joint white women would want to copulate with African men, and smoking cannabis causes cancer, which was later discredited by experts.
"In Malta's case, it all boils down to misconceptions. I know for a fact that there are high-profile individuals in Malta who agree with our intitiative but who are scared to speak openly on the subject."
Reefer Madness is an 1936 American propaganda exploitation film revolving around the melodramatic events that ensue when high- school students are lured by pushers to try "marijuana". Originally financed by a church group under the title Tell Your Children, the film was intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use.
Prof. Nut, who was also a British government advisor who was asked to draft reports on criminal justice and the harm of drugs, was sacked by the government for stating that it is safer to do ecstasy than horse-riding and that drug-related policies were based on political ideals and not scientific studies.
I asked Caruana what the biggest cannabis-related hurdle was?
"Nowadays, the biggest hurdle being faced and suggested by medical experts is schizophrenia. It's been suggested by experts that there may be a link between cannabis and schizophrenia but which could affect a meagre one per cent of a population.
"I quote one of Prof. Nut's reports which clearly states that the paradox is that schizophrenia seems to be disappearing from the general population even though cannabis use has increased markedly in the last 30 years. On reviewing the general practise based on University research data based in the UK, it consistently and clearly showed that psychosis and schizophrenia are still on the decline'.
"So even 'skunk' - one of the most powerful types of cannabis - which has been around now for 10 years - has not contributed to schizophrenia since there was no upswing related to the disease. So that 'myth' is slowly being ruled out."
But I asked Caruana if there's concrete evidence that cannabis can actually help when it comes to treating terminal illnesses such as cancer and AIDS?
"According to the American College of Physicians there is enough anecdotal evidence which supports the medical and therapeutic use of cannabis in AIDS and cancer cases, and there is proof that cannabis reduces a terminally-ill patient's agony.
What has driven Caruana to start off a pro cannabis lobby group?
Since Malta didn't have a pro cannabis lobby group, I thought I'd create a pro cannabis Facebook page dedicated to the group. In a matter of days, the following grew enormously. This encouraged me to further continue hosting the Facebook group.
"During 2009, I spent a year travelling, and when I came back to Malta the Facebook group had increased in members.
"We set out as a lobby group following Daniel Holmes's (a British national who resided in Gozo) verdict who was imprisoned for 11 years for cultivating cannabis in Gozo for his own personal use, and whose verdict caused an uproar among the members of the group.
"I can recall the group's members posting several comments that this couldn't be happening, i.e. the severe sentence imposed on Holmes, although the courts stated that it was trafficking since he was cultivating both for himself and a friend.
"This made me go that step further than that of just hosting a Facebook page and I organised the first march on December 17. The second march is being held on Saturday (yesterday)."
What is the lobby group basing its arguments on to help change people's perceptions over cannabis?
Caruana said that "our group's three main pillars are first of all the individual rights for a person to choose what he or she does to his or her own body, the second is medicinal use, and the third industrial use of hemp. (Hemp is the same plant as cannabis but we refer to the plant as either marijuana (the slang word for the recreational drug), cannabis as a medical term (deriving from the Latin word Cannabis sativa), and hemp, the male version of the plant which doesn't give a psychotic effect, and is a very good derivative of ethanol and which in turn could be turned into a bio-fuel as it regenerates quickly and grows practically everywhere.
"With energy costs so high, hemp, as a form of green energy, should seriously be considered."
And what is the lobby group's main stand?
"Our stand is for legal regulation of cannabis exactly in line with the Global Drug Commission Report which was released in June 2011. High-profile individuals supporting and taking part in the report include Kofi Annan and Richard Branson," Caruana said, adding that "the report encourages experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.
But do these experiments apply only to cannabis?
"This recommendation applies especially to cannabis but also encourages other experiments in the decriminalisation and legal regulations that can accomplish these objectives."
Does Caruana believe he will see tax-regulated pot in Malta in his lifetime?
"The difference between our current model and decriminalisation is that those caught with cannabis simply won't go to jail. But it would still remain illegal to sell it, illegal to be in possession of it, but it won't carry a criminal offence.
"We are fighting to have it legalised for personal use with an limited amount of grams allowed per individual. We are also pushing for the legal regulation where the government issues licenses to a number of outlets so that they can sell cannabis legally, but taxed of course."
So does Caruana feel that he has enough back-up from locals to legalise the drug?
"People tend to separate the two: decriminalisation and legalisation. "In Malta we had prominent people who were supporting us when it came to fighting for cannabis to be dicriminalised but because we went a step further, i.e. for legal regulation, these individuals 'went into hiding' because they supported decriminalisation more than legalisation.
"The two shouldn't be separated because if you are calling for legal regulation you are calling for it to be dicriminalised as well. "It could be that government is moving towards that direction and obviously we will be happy if we achieved that.
"After that, we would still stick to our original intentions and continue to fight for legal regulation of cannabis because all you are solving with decriminalisation is people not going to jail, so one will still see unregulated sales happen through dealers.
"Meanwhile, legalisation entails the regulation of the buying and selling of cannabis, taking this very profitable industry away from the drug lords."
Minister Chris Said's recent words showed a broader
consensus on the issue. What feedback have you been getting on your lobby group's proposals as a whole?
"One political party that really backs our cause is Alternattiva Demokratika. AD strongly agrees with most of our proposals. We hope we are nearing decriminalisation of cannabis and from the looks of things it's highly likely we will, especially after hearing Minister Said's recent comments."
But doesn't Caruana feel cannabis may be a stepping stone to harder drugs?
"The biggest myth is that cannabis is a gateway drug. The argument does't make sense. Sedqa Director George Grech's argument is that if he is curing hundreds of heroin addicts, 90% of them smoked cannabis prior to taking heroin.
"What Dr Grech is missing is that his sample is not correct because he is studying problematic individuals who became heroin users. I mean he's missing the millions out there who have smoked cannabis and haven't ended up using heroin," Caruana said.
But George Grech had called for a debate on decriminalisation and not send drug users to prison - definitely a person who is supporting one of your causes - I remind Caruana.
Caruana said that "we agree with his call for a debate on the issue".
So if the government doesn't decriminalise the drug, will you be seeking tolerance or reclassification of cannabis?
"Our aim is quite clear. We are after legal regulation but if we get it decriminalised it's a step in the right direction."
I told Caruana that Amsterdam, known for its lax cannabis laws, is closing its doors to foreigners when it comes to consuming cannabis. So will Malta become another Amsterdam if cannabis is legalised, and even worse that Amsterdam is closing its doors to foreigners now?
"Amsterdam is closing its doors to tourists as bordering countries were having trouble with certain foreigners, not the regular tourists who go there just to smoke, but criminals purchasing huge amounts of cannabis from Amsterdam and going back to their countries, like Germany, and selling it there.
"However, it hasn't closed its doors to its citizens because Dutch people who are paying their National Insurance contributions can obtain a "weed card" to allow them entry in any of the "coffee shops.
"As things stand, foreigners are not being allowed to enter these shops but the law still needs to be accepted regionally.
"I'm almost certain that Amsterdam will not accept it and the mayor of Amsterdam is ready to take the Dutch government to the European Court of Justice over the issue because this could disseminate tourism."
On cannabis-based medicines, Caruana said that "some local doctors seemed to have started accepting that cannabis can help terminally-ill patients, where it was common practice that they would not discuss the issue whenever it was brought up".
The use of Sativex, among other cannabis-based medicines, is being used in foreign countries, but despite constant calls by Maltese patients for the medicine to be sold in Malta, nothing has been done as yet.
Sativex is a cannabis-based mouth spray medicine "offering relief to patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and neurophatic pains".
Maltese patients suffering from intense muscle pain related to ailments like multiple sclerosis (MS) or neurophatic diseases have been calling on the Maltese government to approve the importation of the medicine in Malta. The news report was published in this newspaper.
"Until now we have heard nothing on Sativex following the report published in MaltaToday, however we have forwarded our questions to Labour MP Silvio Parnis, presented in the form of a Parliamentary Question to the Minister of Health, who replied that to get a new medicine here there has to be an application by a drug manufacturer first. Sativex cannot be requested by the patient. It has to be requested from an authority or from a businessman who is willing to import it."
"Same with Bedrocan - a medical strain created and sold by Dutch-based manufacturer BV that was developed in the late 1990s.
"If a European national is travelling with Bedrocan accompanied by a doctor's prescription, he or she is allowed to bring it into Malta.
"So we are once again facing the same situation like we faced with the divorce isse before its implementation where our European counterparts had better access to certain situations. Now it's about access to cannabis-based medicines."
And at what age are you suggesting one be allowed access to the use of cannabis?
"Our proposal is to legalise cannabis from 18 upwards, and the same should apply for both alcohol and cigarettes. The legal age to purchase cigarettes is currently 17 while purchasing of lottery tickets is 16. It's fine to gamble at 16 but not to smoke a joint even if he or she is 30 years old! Quite an inconsistency, I believe.
"So our lobby group thinks that all the above should be legal for individuals strictly over 18."
Do you think that cannabis can be used as an exit drug?
"There will always be problematic individuals and I am more than sure that people who end up doing heroin, even if cannabis was removed off the face of the earth, would still end up doing so. There is evidence that cannabis can be used as an exit drug from other drugs. In the US, cannabis is used to treat alcoholism, and even heroin addiction.
"Dr Moses Camilleri from Sedqa was on the same programme as I was on TVAM recently and admitted publicly that some patients of his told him that they could only get off heroin by using cannabis. So this is ample proof that it could be an exit drug.
"Apart from that, if it's legally regulated and people have access to cannabis it could lead to a percentage of "problematic individuals" who instead of ending up down heroin lane, can resort to cannabis, a far more softer landing.
"I recently spoke with a local cancer specialist who works in the Oncology Department who told me that Maltese cancer patients receiving treatment in the UK are given cannabis derivatives to enhance their appetite.
"It is a known fact among cannabis users that it gives an individual what we call 'munchies' (a common term used when getting extremely hungry after having smoked weed).
"Besides, another advantage of legalising cannabis is that it can also cut on enforcement costs, the money of which can be wisely spent on other sectors such as education and health."
Which brings me to the question that lately the Police Force have made a number of cannabis-related arrests. I asked Caruana if the police's recent drive was in response to the pro lobby group's intitiative.
"I cannot prove it, so I cannot really tell."