Authorities, it takes three to tango | Andrew Bonello

By injecting realistic funds to sustain the pivotal work of an Authority or Foundation tasked with preventing harm from multiple angles, the reform would truly champion Malta’s efforts of promoting a people centred approach and a just society for all. Irrespective if consumers of alcohol, cannabis, or gaming

Long-held recreational activities such as the use of alcohol, the exclusive membership to snuff clubs in the early 20th century, and betting on different competitive games such as horse-racing, have been instrumental in creating recreational spaces in Maltese upper and middle-class societies.

Although sometimes erroneously attributed to cultural traits, the enjoyment of mind-altering substances, and the engagement in gambling or gaming activities are more an expression of human behaviour, pleasure, and socialisation, than actual culture and traditions. From card games clandestinely played in small back rooms, to the more coordinated approach of establishing the Malta National Lottery in 1934, Maltese society has throughout history been an important experiment for various profit-driven industries, particularly those of a gambling nature. A clear indication of this aggressive industry is the presence of over 240 lottery retail points of sale servicing a population of just above 500,000 (assuming every Maltese person wants to engage in similar behaviour).

Two peas in a pod

The profit-driven mania surrounding this human activity expanded throughout the decades and consolidated itself in 2001 under the Malta Gaming Authority (MGA).

The MGA’s mission statement establishes its aims as being: “to regulate competently the various sectors of the gaming industry that fall under the Authority by ensuring gaming is fair and transparent to the players, preventing crime, corruption and money laundering and by protecting minor and vulnerable players.”

Furthermore, the MGA emphasises the importance of providing support to the industry, which in the annual report of 2021 registered a year-on-year growth in value added equivalent to 14.1%.  Interestingly, the Responsible Gaming Foundation (RGF), founded in 2014 aims “to create a wider awareness of the extent, possible causes and consequences of problem gaming in Malta with a view to preventing it and to provide the necessary support and advice to problem gamblers and their dependents in their recovery efforts.”

Amongst other functions, the RGF aims to also promote fair gaming and the establishment of fair gaming and gambling markets. Curiously, the detailed statement of profit and loss and other comprehensive income submitted in 2021 explained how the RGF received an estimated €460,000 from the Malta Gaming Authority and Maltco Limited, yet still registered a deficit of €221,038.

Together, the MGA and the RGF act as the gatekeeper and the supportive arm for both the industry and the customers. With a somewhat delicate balance established between the profit-driven industry and risks associated with excessive gaming and gambling, one may notice that the RGF hosts its own support line and acts as an important point of call for customers experiencing problematic use.

This little open window on the aims and functions of the Malta Gaming Authority and its conscientious sister, the Responsible Gaming Foundation, establish an important focus on the interdependent relationship between preventing harm and challenges of regulating a highly addictive activity such as gaming and gambling.

In fact, a prevention campaign was launched in November this year by the Foundation for Social Welfare Services and Sedqa following an increase in gambling addictions.

Furthermore, a Times of Malta article dated 28 November 2022 reported how Magistrate Frendo Dimech observed that betting adverts, particularly those aired on television and not merely during some football match, were causing the “destruction of many”. Gambling victims, seated in the seemingly safe environment of their home watching television, were enticed and encouraged to return to bad habits. The magistrate emphasised that such publicity, reaching people in the sanctuary of their home, made it all the more difficult for people experiencing problematic use to overcome their addiction. She underlined that this type of policy was counterproductive to advice promoting responsible play and use.

It is remarkable to note how the law court has taken up a harm and risk reduction approach and is clearly denouncing the devastating effects of a profit driven gaming industry allowed to aggressively promote and market activities.

The green wave

The focus on the negative effects caused by marketing has been recognised and embedded in the legislative act establishing the Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) and the prospective licensing of not-for-profit cannabis associations.

The peer-led movement led by ReLeaf Malta has since 2017 underlined the importance of ensuring legislation does not allow customers are abused through marketing ploys and other techniques aimed at ensuring ‘customer loyalty’ – or in addiction terms ‘getting the person hooked’. This is particularly important for vulnerable groups such as young adults, or people experiencing life stressors such as loneliness and trauma. Therefore, a bottom-up framework founded on a human centred approach and prioritising the needs of people who consume and cultivate cannabis (the cannabis community) is imperative to shield consumers from the luring tentacles of profit driven industries and investments.

One may therefore recognise that the establishment of the ARUC is an important new development in addressing recreational activities within a public health and human rights framework. In fact, ARUC has the potential to become a regulatory blueprint for drug policy reform in the European Union whilst also propel best practices for other recreational activities such as gaming. Importantly the ARUC has no mandate to regulate or introduce an industry, instead, it has been placed at the helm of a human centred reform aimed at primarily correcting the wrong doings of the past whilst creating a safe space for people already using cannabis.

Tasked with the mammoth duty of transforming a punitive approach into a regulated model, the ARUC has as its core foundational principles the need to advance a respectful and non-coercive basis for people who consume cannabis.

Most significantly, the ARUC’s most daunting challenge will be to instill trust, transparency, and confidence across the cannabis community in Malta. Together, these qualities directly contribute to attain the long-term goals of combatting the violent criminal market and of bridging respectful dialogue between the local cannabis community and different health, social and legal authorities.

Inspired by various decriminalised models around the world, and the municipal systems governing Cannabis Social Clubs in Catalunya, Spain, the ARUC is not only a unique opportunity to better understand the role of an authority in regulating commodities, such as gaming or cannabis, but is also an innovative approach how to advance a more humane society by embedding a philosophy grounded in harm and risk reduction principles, social justice, and social equity. The latter, social equity, is of critical importance when considering that cannabis continues to be a criminalised substance entrenched within the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, and diversely from gaming related activities, continues to incriminate sharing, and cultivation and possession above what is prescribed by the law.

Pari passu?

Significantly, no consumer of the national lottery or players of iGaming or other gambling activities such as Esports are criminalised for engaging and over-indulging in their favourite recreational activity. Instead, the support system administered by professionals working with the Responsible Gaming Foundation, and the option for responsible decision making through self-exclusion from gambling websites without the involvement of law enforcement agents or law courts, are important mechanisms to prevent harm from the law, and protect and preserve the dignity of the customers.

Ultimately, instead of advancing punitive measures acting as a deterrent, similar platforms promote constructive dialogue and a humane approach aimed at advancing positive behavioural changes. Therefore, without judgmental and coercive measures, the RGF develops a harm and risk reduction approach and recognises that people who engage in similar recreational activities continue to retain full access to their human rights, particularly their right to privacy, autonomy, and non-invasive practices to preserve physical, psychological, social, and legal well-being.

Worryingly, one notes how the gaming industry has taken hold of the marketing machine further enriching big businesses and directly impacting levels of use and harm. Therefore, considering the grave harms identified with the gaming industry and invasive marketing strategies adopted at the expense of consumers, one may highlight the delicate role of similar authorities, and the unique identity of the ARUC. By addressing the unintended consequences of the war on drugs, primarily the creation of a violent criminal market and incrimination of non-violent personal users, the ARUC is tasked with combatting legal and social injustices, whilst advancing the noble aim of safeguarding consumers from potentially newfound threats posed by lurking moneymaking hyenas.

Nonetheless, information on budgeting, or the lack of it, raises serious questions on the government’s deep-seated intentions. An article by the Times of Malta published on 11 November explained that for the year 2022 ARUC had a budget of €100,000. Furthermore, it explained that according to the government’s budgetary estimates for 2023, the government has earmarked €400,000 in taxpayer funds to finance a cannabis education campaign in the same year, but just €200,000 for ARUC. By comparison, the government allocates €500,000 to the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality and the Commission for Gender-Based Violence respectively, with a further €300,000 provided to the Victim Support Unit.

Interestingly, on 21 October 2021 the Ministry for Equality, Research and Innovation and the Foundation for Social Welfare Services signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at revamping prevention programmes delivered by Sedqa, both in schools and at the workplace with a total amount of €1,053,684.87 disbursed between 2022 and 2024.

Regulate or get baked!

In a nutshell, legislation regulating recreational activities, such as that of gaming or the consumption and communal cultivation of cannabis, needs to ensure that responsibility for a reduction of risks and harm (particularly health, legal and commercial) is equally shared across all actors and stakeholders, and holistically embedded within all structures of the regulating bodies. Furthermore, legislation needs to not only recognise the role of third variables directly impacting levels of use, such as personal trauma or socio-economic status, but be also conscious of different risks associated with a profit driven industry competing in aggressive markets.

Ultimately, by injecting realistic funds to sustain the pivotal work of an Authority or Foundation tasked with preventing harm from multiple angles, the reform would truly champion Malta’s efforts of promoting a people centred approach and a just society for all. Irrespective if consumers of alcohol, cannabis, or gaming.