The cannabis leap: perspectives from the field | Clyde Preston

Despite the legislative changes, issues identified by practitioners back in 2018, particularly those linked with the surge of synthetic cannabis use amongst the young, and lack of education on cannabis, continue to find fertile ground

The legislative changes enacted in 2021 to partially decriminalise the non-medical use of cannabis in Malta, fomented an unprecedented social reaction by various stakeholders and entities hailing from the academic, legal and medical fields, amongst others.

A petition presented to Parliament, by the anti-reformist movement, aimed to turn back the clock on the proposed body of law based on a harm reduction and a not-for-profit approach. One of the most worrying proposals was the request to remove the word ‘education’ from Malta’s new human rights leaning approach to cannabis policy. As history was made on 18 December 2021, it is interesting to take a look back and explore the sentiments of practitioners within the field of addiction as expressed in 2018.

A study conducted in 2018 as part of a degree programme with the University of Malta, titled ‘The Recreational Use of Cannabis: A Study on Field Practitioner Perspectives’ aimed to give a practitioner’s perspective on whether recreational cannabis use led to drug dependency and if services were in place for problematic cannabis use, including their efficiency in engaging users in such drug treatment services in Malta.

Practitioners voiced their perspectives (based on their own experience working with drug dependants) and reflected also on the prospective legalisation of cannabis use in Malta. Organisations which accepted to be interviewed were namely Sedqa, Oasi and the Probation and Correctional Services, along with two academics specialised in research, policy and/or practitioner experience in the field of addictions from the University of Malta.

Practitioners explained that although dependency is associated with cannabis use, there are no medicinal treatments to address withdrawal and cravings. It was also noted that such drug-treatment services require more financial support and human resources as they are often over-run with entries and are under-staffed.

Practitioners noted that more women are seeking treatment in recent years. Practitioners linked this phenomenon to social changes in gender ascribed roles and biological differences between men and women. In fact, although females start their drug taking careers at a later age than men, data shows that they require treatment in a shorter span.

Participants highlighted the importance of a robust educational campaign, with both sides of the cannabis debate meeting and discussing on even terms. This in turn would contribute to help members of the Maltese society to make an informed decision on their position when it comes to cannabis use. They warned that similar discussions need to be weighed in against their impact on local perceptions of harm caused by cannabis, in turn directly impacting availability of treatment and willingness to seek treatment for problematic use.

They also identified lack of education on illicit substances, including cannabis, as directly linked with a hogwash of opinions, but meagre informed debates and decisions. This matter has been identified as a barrier to the realization of evidence based research and honest debate between stakeholders.


Protecting youths

Youths’ well-being was also central to the practitioners’ comments, with most calling for increased protective measures to shield this age-group from the negative effects of cannabis, particularly synthetic cannabis. The latter was identified as a growing problem for young teens and adolescents.

If one had to look at the most recent data on cannabis use in Malta, one finds that the National Report on the Drug Situation in Malta (2021), underlines that: “What is worthy of note is the figures for the Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists (SCRA) which highlight an average of 83 individuals seeking medical assistance in the last five years. Though there is a shortage of information on synthetic cannabinoids, it shows that these substances are highly available locally and synthetic cannabinoids are causing adverse health effects to people using these substances.”

Legalisation? Yeah, but no, but yeah!

Participants identified more education on the adverse effects of illicit substances has also been identified, whilst emphasising the recurrent problem of a data vacuum on cannabis trends in Malta. These serious shortcomings prompted practitioners to be weary of moving to a legalised cannabis market.

Nonetheless, practitioners agreed that education remains key to guide the person to make the right choices for themselves, despite the health repercussions of their actions.

The introduction of a partially decriminalised system, thus including the possibility to grow your own is a reality many have been enjoying for the past half a year. This reality is primarily shielding law-abiding citizens from the negative effects of the criminal justice system and the clutches of criminal gangs monopolising cannabis availability for over half a century.

Despite the legislative changes, issues identified by practitioners back in 2018, particularly those linked with the surge of synthetic cannabis use amongst the young, and lack of education on cannabis, continue to find fertile ground.

One augurs that as the summer hype of a post-covid era slowly transmutes into a new autumn, non-judgmental education, thus including a strong harm and risk reduction component is given priority by the legislator and the newly formed Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis.