‘Disagreeing to agree’ on cannabis reform

Legal or not, buyers will still be forced to purchase their cannabis from the (illegal) black market. And this will only play into the hands of drug traffickers: whose crime, by way of contrast, is not being ‘decriminalised’ at all

I imagine you’ve all heard the expression, ‘let’s agree to disagree’.

And I also imagine that ‘hearing’ that expression – or even possibly using it yourselves – is about as close as you’ve ever come to actually seeing it enacted in practice. For let’s face it: we seem to be living at a time when it is simply no longer possible for contrasting opinions to even co-exist peacefully (if, indeed, it ever was in the past).

In any case: ‘agreeing to disagree’ is evidently just another of those trite, meaningless expressions – like ‘live and let live’, ‘each to his own’, etc. – that fly in the face of our collective, everyday experience. The unfortunate reality is that most people now react to a contrasting opinion, much as they would to the discovery of a cockroach in their bedroom: i.e., by squealing in frantic disgust, and trying to stamp it out of existence altogether…

But… ‘disagreeing to agree’? I bet that’s an expression none of you has ever heard before (even for the simple reason that I just made it up now, off the top of my head). As such, it may need some introduction.

The simplest way of illustrating it, I suppose, would be a case where people actually do agree with any given opinion… but then, bizarrely, go on to try and ‘stamp it out of existence’ anyway. And I can think of no better example, right now, than many of the reactions I’ve seen to the government’s White Paper on cannabis decriminalisation.

Take Andrew Azzopardi, for instance (lecturer in the Faculty of Social Wellbeing, a radio talk-show host, and also a part-time Jihadist against the proposed reform).  In a recent Facebook post, he took the trouble of replying to an opinion article by Justice Minister Byron Camilleri, point for point. Here are a few choice excerpts from this exchange:

Camilleri: “To be frank, is there anyone who wants his or her relative to face court proceedings or, in some cases, even jailed for simply smoking a joint? I don’t think so.”

Azzopardi: ‘Nobody is saying it should stay that way. That’s a broken record, minister. This is an issue that everybody agrees upon…”

Camilleri: ‘We cannot have any more situations where persons are arrested, or even arraigned, for possessing a small amount of cannabis intended for personal use.’

Azzopardi: ‘We’re in agreement’…

Got that, folks? Andrew Azzopardi agrees that people should not be ‘arrested’, ‘arraigned’, or ‘imprisoned’ – in a nutshell, ‘treated like criminals’ – over cannabis possession or consumption.

And yet, the same Andrew Azzopardi – in the same Facebook comment, no less – also vehemently disagrees with a White Paper that ultimately aims to turn his own stated opinion into a reality: by decriminalising the possession and cultivation of the same plant, so that people can actually smoke it in their own homes, without fear of legal reprisals. How’s that for consistency?

And of course, he’s not the only one. Interviewed recently by Reno Bugeja, Caritas director Anthony Gatt also put forward much the same argument: contradictions and all.

“We all agree that nobody should be sent to prison; we all agree that people shouldn’t get a sullied criminal record because of cannabis. But there is still a line that should not be crossed,” Gatt said on that occasion.

Judging by the rest of his arguments, it appears that this ‘line’ consists in precisely the same old boundary between what is, and what is not, a criminal offence. For instance, Gatt reminds us that: “the situation today is that anyone who is caught with a joint can still be arrested by the police; and interrogated to find out where they bought the drug from”.

While admitting that this is now considered ‘heavy-handed’, he still defends the practice on the grounds that “to some adolescents – and even adults – it may also serve as a ‘wake-up call’.”

Other existing measures – which Gatt argues should be retained – include that “first-time offenders still face the possibility of being fined”… while “second-time offenders […] may be ordered to seek professional help.” (Ah, but from whom, specifically? More of this in a sec).

At this point, we find ourselves staring right at the same old contradiction, whereby ‘agreement’ and ‘disagreement’ appear to briefly co-exist in one and the same sentence. Like Anthony Azzopardi, Malta’s main drug rehab agencies – Caritas, the Oasi Foundation, Sedqa, etc. - all claim to ‘agree with decriminalisation’, in principle… yet at the same time, they all argue in favour of retaining a status quo that still clearly treats cannabis users as criminals: complete with punitive measures, including arrest and interrogation; fines and penalties; and also forced rehab… at their own premises, naturally.

Hmm. Yes, well I suppose it does make a certain amount of sense, that agencies which earn their living directly from rehabilitating drug-users – whether they actually need rehabilitation, or not (which, in the case of cannabis, is unlikely) – would be less than enthusiastic over a legal change that would effectively strip them off some of their own power and influence.

In fact, it almost reminds me of the basic plot of Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’… where the indomitable Nurse Ratched – who presides over the titular mental hospital – is clearly more keen on maintaining her own direct control over the lives of her patients… than in the patients’ mental health itself.

And yes, it might even be a slightly unfair comparison: I have no doubt that these agencies do indeed provide an invaluable service, to the people who really need it.

But when you also consider that the same ‘status quo’, that these entities are all so hell-bent on preserving, has been nothing less than a complete, unmitigated DISASTER in terms of actual results - with statistics proving that the number of cannabis-users in this country has more than doubled in the past decade alone – then you have to at least question where their own interest may truly lie.

In any case: the fundamental underlying conundrum still remains unresolved. Should cannabis possession, and/or cultivation, remain a criminal offence in the eyes of the law? And if so… why, exactly?

Going on all the above arguments, it seems that the only conceivable reason to maintain Malta’s current cannabis legislation is… um… to doggedly persist with a policy that has only failed utterly in its own stated objectives.

Reasons to go ahead with the decriminalisation process, on the other hand, cannot be so easily and neatly summed up. At this point, perhaps we should take a step back, and revisit some of the present-day realities which contributed to this controversial White Paper in the first place.

That ‘decriminalisation law’ that both government and Opposition voted in favour of in 2015? It was a fraud, at the end of the day. According to research carried out by Lovin Malta’s Julian Bonnici last year, the number of people arrested for simple cannabis possession actually doubled in the four years since the drug was ostensibly ‘decriminalised’ in 2015.

And despite the fiasco that was the Daniel Holmes case: more people were sentenced to prison for the same ‘decriminalised’ offence, too (note: whether they ended up actually going to jail or not, however, is another question).

In one much-publicised case, Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras even complained that the law – as it stood at the time (November 2019), and still stands today – leaves the law-courts with no option but to impose a prison sentence for cannabis cultivation… even in circumstances that indicated ‘personal use’.

It is for this reason, presumably, that the new White Paper focuses so much on cultivation, rather than mere possession alone. Not only is it an acknowledgement that the status quo itself urgently needs to change – if nothing else, to avoid endless repetitions of the same miscarriage of justice - but indirectly, it also addresses (or tries to address) a legal loophole that still causes trouble today.

Assuming that this proposal is sooner or later enacted into law: where, exactly, can users of that drug safely acquire their own stash… other than buying from a drug-dealer at street-level (thus engaging with the criminal underworld… and increasing the chance of exposure to other, more dangerous drugs?)

On this level, there is plenty of room to argue (as some have already done: legitimately, and without any contradictions) that the White Paper doesn’t actually provide a permanent solution to this problem, once and for all.

It is all well and good to decriminalise the act of cultivation, in and of itself. But until such time as it becomes legal to also acquire cannabis seeds… or ready-grown plants, for that matter… and until such time as it is possible to buy cannabis from legal, above-board sources – be they ‘coffee-shops’, or cannabis social clubs’ – a certain level of contradiction will remain.

Legal or not, buyers will still be forced to purchase their cannabis from the (illegal) black market. And this will only play into the hands of drug traffickers: whose crime, by way of contrast, is not being ‘decriminalised’ at all.

But this only takes us back to all those contradictory responses. As long as it remains impossible for all the players to find common ground on at least one thing – i.e., that cannabis users should NOT be treated as criminals; and that there is no justification whatsoever for imposing such draconian measures, on what is ultimately a personal choice – we will be left with an absurd situation, whereby cannabis is both ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ at the same time.

And I, for one, cannot see how any good at all can possibly come out of such a hopelessly contradictory position.