Don’t ask for public consultation if you’re going to ignore them

Labour might feel it has the upper hand because it is ahead in the polls, but riding roughshod over the electorate on such sensitive matters smacks of sheer arrogance and a complete disregard towards what people think

The legalisation of cannabis for recreational use has divided the country into two camps, and with good reason.  

In one corner you have parents who are understandably concerned about the future of their children in a country where it will now be legal to smoke pot in your own home and grow up to four plants per household, while also allowing the setting-up of cannabis associations or clubs. The implications of what this will mean in real terms are still unclear, and as always, where there is uncertainty and lack of proper communication, it plants the seed for fear and panic. 

In the other corner you have those who think that since many smoke weed already anyway, making it legal takes away the exciting, dangerous edge of doing something illicit, bringing it on par with having an alcoholic drink. They also argue that, by removing all criminal repercussions, it will free up our justice system to deal with more serious crimes, rather than wasting time and resources on someone caught with marijuana for personal use. 

But first, a bit of background for those (like me) who were confused about the terms decriminalisation/legalisation. In 2015, the Maltese government removed the penalties for cannabis use as long as it was in small amounts, effectively decriminalising it. Since then, those caught with small amounts in their possession have had to appear in front of a tribunal and are liable to a fine. 

The new reform, however, has gone further, allowing those over 18 to carry up to 7 grams without risk of arrest or a fine. Those carrying between 7g and 28g will appear before a tribunal rather than a criminal court. The cannabis clubs have to be non-profit and run by individuals not companies and cannot be near schools or youth centres and cannot have more than 500 members. Not surprisingly, it is the introduction of these clubs which is a red flag for many who see it as yet another money-making exercise by those ready to swoop into this new market. 

Even though the law stipulates that no one can smoke in public or in front of minors, and that no plants can be visible from balconies or terraces, the justified fears of many parents have not been allayed. They are worried and anxious about what this newfound legalisation will mean when it comes to dealing with their teenager , the trepidation that making pot legal will lead to harder drug use, and the possible effects which long-term use of cannabis may have. 

Most of all, they are upset and angry that their voices do not seem to count. It is not just their individual voices which were ignored but also that of 16 social welfare organisations which joined Caritas, Oasi Foundation and the Secretariat for Catholic Education in submitting their concerns about why they feel that this law will cause more harm than good. 

Their recommendations included introducing a cap of the percentage of THC, reducing the limit of legal possession below 7 grams and increasing the maximum amount a person is allowed to carry before appearing in front of a tribunal. Prior to this, 300 submissions had been made during the public consultation. On 7 December, 53 organisations presented a petition in Parliament to urge the government to introduce stronger regulatory frameworks in the law… again they were ignored and on 14 December the Bill was passed without any amendments. 

The question begs itself: why bother asking for public consultation if you are going to ignore the public? 

To make matters worse, this issue, as so many before it, has been bogged down in partisan politics. While there are those who are genuinely against the idea of making recreational cannabis legal, irrespective of who would have proposed it, it is clear that there has been a vociferous lobby against the law by those who oppose anything proposed by the current administration, which they see as too progressive and liberal. 

Having said that, even many Labour supporters are not that keen on the path their party has taken, which seems to be clutching at whatever liberal issue is left and passing laws in haste, just so that it can grab international headlines, like we saw this week. Not for the first time, may I point out that there is a strong conservative core in Malta, especially among those who are raising young families, who feel no one is representing them. So where is the PN in all this?  

I found it telling that the Opposition had to have its knuckles rapped by none other than former Nationalist Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi who wrote in a Facebook post that, “…somebody must prepare to remove it (the law) as soon as possible using all legitimate means.” It was obvious to everyone that he was referring to current PN leader Bernard Grech who has flip-flopped on this issue like he has on others. Grech’s latest statement was that, “a PN government would not trample on the rights of Maltese society but would analyse the situation by studying data and consulting experts.” 

Frankly, I’m not sure what experts still need to be consulted as most of them have already submitted their views. As for data, he can simply take a look at what has happened in other countries which have legalised weed (and how they did it) and he will have his answer. Yet again this was another missed opportunity for Grech to stand for something and be the voice of voters who are uncomfortable with the way Labour is doing things when it comes to introducing social changes.  

As for the Labour government, while I have agreed with some of the liberal issues it has advocated for and helped to push through, such as divorce and gay rights, there are times, such as with the cannabis law, when I feel it is trying so hard to be “with it” and “hip” that it is not seeing the bigger picture. Reading through the petition mentioned above, for example, I see nothing wrong with anything which was proposed and cannot understand why these amendments were not embraced. 

These were: 

• increase the age when consuming cannabis would be made legal through the Bill from 18 to 25;  

• increase the distance of cannabis clubs from schools, youth centres and post-secondary institutions from a mere 250 metres to 1 kilometre; 

• double the fines for smoking cannabis in front of children and in public;  

• remove the possibility allowed in the law for cannabis to be grown in residences adjacent to schools; 

• regulate the amount of THC allowed in cannabis; 

• remove the reference to educational campaigns mentioned in the Bill to retain clearly the present situation whereby Government campaigns on drug use focus exclusively on prevention measures explaining the risks of cannabis use. 

If the government had listened and compromised, it would not really have made a difference in essence to the Bill, but would have made a great deal of difference to how parents and social welfare organisations feel about it. Labour might feel it has the upper hand because it is ahead in the polls, but riding roughshod over the electorate on such sensitive matters smacks of sheer arrogance and a complete disregard towards what people think. What ever happened to the art of compromise? 

And what is even worse, is that despite all its ‘progressiveness’, Labour is still woefully behind in other areas which I would expect from a left-wing Government. Rather than obsessing over frivolous things such as whether we should say Happy Christmas or Happy Holidays, or officially replacing words like mother/father with parent and husband/wife with spouse, it needs to take a look around and deal with real issues such as social and material poverty, upholding the rights and safety of workers and protecting children from all sorts of abuse.  

I sometimes feel like this administration has a checklist of what it wants to achieve but that it is so out of touch that it has grabbed the wrong checklist; one which does not tally with what really concerns ordinary people.