Cannabis use has been punished indiscriminately: Malta now reverses that

Instead of sowing discord through fear and cheap political tactics, let us work together to promote the well-being of society | Andrew Bonello & Robert Fenech


For the past couple of months, newspapers have been overflowing with articles about the proposed cannabis reform, most of which predict an imminent apocalypse. Some articles have gone as far as suggesting that any proposed reform is an attempt to “corrupt our youths” and sends out the message that cannabis consumption does not carry risks. In addition, these argued, the law will seriously jeopardise decades-old efforts of deterring drug use through campaigns of fear and a policy of coercion.

Let’s put things into perspective.

Cannabis became illegal in the 1930s, however, it is only in the late 1980s that attention shifted towards users, with hundreds ending up in law courts on a yearly, if not monthly basis. Forty years of militarised crackdown later, the number of people who consume cannabis is now estimated to have surpassed 40,000.

In a recent parliamentary question about the amounts of drugs confiscated in Malta, the following figures from the period between January and July 2021 shed a light on cannabis in Malta. While police busts are intrinsically a flawed measure to represent consumption trends, they are a good indication of the potential number of people entering in contact with the criminal justice system.

Cannabis Resin – 20314.173g

Cannabis Grass – 36836.749g

Cannabis joints – 5

Cannabis plant – 39

Cannabis seeds – 209

Cannabis extract – 6 bottles

The figures above span just 7 months. Can you imagine the extent of all this over a span on 40 years? The people who have suffered, and continue to suffer, the negative effects and traumas of being picked up, strip searched, interrogated and potentially locked up in tiny, unsanitary cells would surely tell us more than our imagination ever will.

Unfortunately, these people cannot speak openly about these injustices. The legislator has not yet sought legal remedies for people who consume cannabis – remedies to counter the wrongdoings of the policy, and of society.

In this regard, the newly established cannabis authority might consider the introduction of a grievances board to investigate the injustices suffered by drug users negatively affected by a policy geared to criminalise them.

The proposed law simply recognises that the current policy has essentially failed to reduce consumption levels, succeeding only in criminalised a big segment of the population for a non-violent personal act. In the meantime, the old policy continues to provide criminal organisations with a lucrative pool of clients.

How many people have had their police conduct tainted? How many have lost jobs or other opportunities because of a pending court cases related to cultivation? How many continue to live in fear of “admitting” the consumption of cannabis, because they would be frowned upon by colleagues, family members and friends, and also risk incarceration? Sadly, the proposed law does not address these questions in full, but is an initial attempt at promoting a more just and inclusive society.

People who consume cannabis continue to live in a double closet; one supplemented by draconian drug policy laws, and one fomented by a society which choses to silence, exclude and shame, instead of listening, including and respecting people who use drugs, in this case cannabis.

Certain public figures and organisations have been trying hard to overshadow the core principles of the new reform, often exhibiting arguments borne out of a medieval mindset, without referring to the wealth of research material available nowadays.

Calls for zero-tolerance and witch-hunts in people’s homes are reflective of a society rooted in vindicative moralistic stances, instead of a society geared towards education and sound scientific and empirical research on social and health issues, such as the widespread consumption of cannabis.

Only recently the Dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing tried to bypass decisions taken democratically in the Maltese parliament by calling on the President to refuse or delay to sign the Bill into Law. Only a couple of months ago, Prof. Azzopardi was expressing concern at the harrowing realities recounted by Daniel Holmes, incarcerated for 10 years for cannabis cultivation.

While this article has no wish to attack any stakeholder in this long, unbalanced and tumultuous saga of discussing cannabis for personal use, the double standards employed by most groups in the debate must be called out.

Representatives from leading rehabilitation services such as OASI and Caritas, experts from all walks of life, media personalities, the Chamber of Commerce and the Malta Employers Association, as well as the Church, have on repeated occasions agreed that they do not want to send a person to prison for their cannabis use.

Yet, once discussion focused and shifted to which levels of consumption and possession should turn a user into a criminal, the same organisations expressed vehement opposition to measures which would see less people enter into contact with the criminal justice system.

Some have also tried to question Malta’s adherence to the provisions of the UN Drug Control Conventions, without taking into consideration international human rights law and developments in other democratic countries, such as Germany, Luxembourg and Uruguay. Interestingly, these same experts looked away from the fact that proposals for a decriminalised system, including legal frameworks to safeguard safe access to substances, have now been endorsed by various international organisations, including the UN itself.

More than liberty and legalisation, the reform is merely trying to correct the wrongdoings of the past and in part address the “unintended consequences” caused by policy. Those suffering the negative effects of the “war on drugs” – from incarceration to court fees to psychological trauma – deserve redress.

Let us ensure basic human rights are available for all, while ensuring that the abuses of the past do not multiply into the new injustices of tomorrow. Moreover, let us respect the core democratic principles enshrined in our constitution.

Instead of sowing discord through fear and cheap political tactics, let us, civil society organisations who represent the voice of people who use cannabis, and different stakeholders, work together to promote the well-being of society, including the well-being of people who consume, cultivate and share cannabis.

Andrew Bonello is the President of Releaf Malta, Robert Fenech is a member of Moviment Graffitt