Why bottom-up approach is necessary for not-for-profit cannabis associations | Andrew Bonello, Oscar Pares

As Malta nears its one-year anniversary since enacting legislative changes allowing the limited possession and cultivation of cannabis, various questions continue to overshadow this important reform. Primarily, is the why and how not for profit cannabis associations will be established

People who use cannabis have been cooperating in an informal approach for decades. From helping each other out to source and share good quality cannabis, to imparting tips what to do when experiencing unwanted effects.

From shared warnings that law enforcement agents are raiding streets and neighbourhoods, to shared tears for friends incarcerated for a non-violent crime. This has been the reality faced by thousands of young and old, living in a somewhat parallel existence, or double life. This cooperative approach provided users with a safety net and an important hub where to exchange information and seek help when needed.

As Malta nears its one-year anniversary since enacting legislative changes allowing the limited possession and cultivation of cannabis, various questions continue to overshadow this important reform. Primarily, is the why and how not for profit cannabis associations will be established in the coming (one hopes) months.

Why? In the joint policy document by ReLeaf Malta and Moviment Graffitti titled A social equity approach for cooperative and environmentally sustainable practices within Maltese cannabis associations and presented to the Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis in April 2022, it was reaffirmed that the voice of the cannabis community is imperative to ensure parameters are built by and for their well-being.

Nothing about us, without us!

The act of sharing cannabis (via smoking or via other means) and of meeting in a group of friends to share a common interest, is a strong harm reduction tool, and one which favours a collective and a community, as opposed a moralistic approach to the use of mind-altering substances. As has been attested by various experts in the field of health and well-being, the act of consuming in a group and of sharing a set of norms, act as protective factors against the development of problematic use or other unwanted behaviour. The ‘safe space’ environment is therefore not limited to the physical parameters of where cannabis is being consumed, but is also directly linked to other third variables, such as the role of the community and friends to promote responsible practices (Belackova et al., 2015). In other words, social isolation increases the risks associated with consumption.


A Cannabis Social Club (CSC), or a not-for-profit Cannabis Association, is a registered non-governmental organization (NGO) constituted by people of legal age who want to consume and cultivate cannabis together without the need to resort to the illicit market. Founded on the core principles governing an NGO, a cannabis social club aims to promote the well-being of the members through different health, social and legal tools, yet does not promote or market the use of cannabis.

The CSC model is a bottom-up approach spearheaded by civil society organisations denouncing the injustices suffered under the persistent prohibitionist regimes and advocating for the protection of human rights for people who use cannabis. CSC are constituted by users who explicitly want to stop supplying from the illicit market in order to reduce its associated risk. For more than 20 years, cannabis consumers, researchers, and human rights activists have been advancing different self-regulatory models in full view of alternatives to incarceration permitted within international drug control conventions and national legislation advancing public health and human rights.

People in Spain, UK, Uruguay and Belgium, amongst others, have been at the forefront in demonstrating how a community-based approach to cannabis consumption in society is advantageous to the whole of society. Concretely, in Spain, more than 1.200 CSC’s open their doors every day. Nonetheless, unfortunately, within the Spanish State there has never been a specific regulation governing the activity of the CSCs. In fact, although different municipalities or autonomous regions have tried on multiple attempts to regulate cannabis social clubs, there continues to be a lack of political will at federal level to reach a consensus on their regulation.

Pertaining to the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies’ Code of Conduct for European Cannabis Social Clubs, the 5 basic principles of a CSC should revolve on the key shared values of ensuring: supply follows demand, non-profit, transparency, health oriented and open to dialogue with authorities. Therefore, under this model, a cannabis social club starts with it being founded with at least 3 people and recorded in the registry of non-governmental-organisations. Next, cannabis consumers who wish to join this collective approach to the cultivation and consumption of cannabis apply to become members.

The club rents land, buildings, equipment and all that is necessary to cultivate and later distribute the harvest. The calculation of how much is cultivated is done on the basis of a prediction of each member’s consumption levels. The care of the plants, according to the formula chosen in each club, is carried out by voluntary members, staff hired directly by the club, or professional cultivators (who are usually also members) and who are paid for the land rental and the hours worked after producing the relevant invoices.

The accounts are kept very carefully in case there is an investigation or audit required. Distribution is done on the club’s premises, which are normally in commercial buildings or offices, and only club members and accompanying adults can attend. Cannabis is distributed in small quantities, for more or less immediate consumption. Most CSC also have a consumption area for members, although they often allow small quantities to be taken away for consumption over the following few days, so members don’t have to attend on more regularly.

The clubs produce and distribute herbal cannabis, from both indoor and outdoor cultivation depending on the club. Sometimes CSCs also produce hashish, and increasingly, other products such as cream, oils, tinctures, edibles, etc. so as to promote alternative consumption methods to smoking (Some clubs also loan out vaporizers). Club members pay membership fees proportionate to their consumption, which in turn are used by the CSC to cover production costs, storage and management. Pertaining to the core principles of an NGO and the role of a community approach, any economic profit generated is reinvested in the association and agreed upon by all members.

Social equity

More and more jurisdictions moving towards legalisation and regulation of cannabis, notably some of the state level reform in the US, are incorporating social equity principles into their models. The goal of these approaches is firstly to ensure that emerging markets remain diverse, allowing and encouraging new small to medium sized actors, and preventing the market from becoming dominated by monopolies or oligopolies of powerful national or transnational corporate interests, as has happened with global alcohol and tobacco markets.

The risk is not only that smaller businesses will be unable to compete and be crowded out of the market or bought up in a corporate consolidation process, but also that large scale corporate power is able to distort policy making process in the interests of commercial profits rather than the public good.

This process, of so-called corporate (or regulatory) capture, can already be witnessed to some degree in North America - most troublingly in the active investment of big alcohol and tobacco companies into the emerging cannabis markets. Ways to mitigate these risks - such as limiting vertical integration within the industry, limiting the number of production or retail licenses available to any one licensee, or restricting participation of alcohol and tobacco industry actors - are all being explored or implemented in different jurisdictions.

A second element of the social equity approach is a more reparative one; ensuring and encouraging access to the market for illegal market actors and communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, as well as reinvesting a proportion of the tax revenues from the industry back into these communities. These social equity policies have increasingly become part of the evolving US landscape and can include elements such as preferential access to licenses for equity candidates, often supported by grants, loans and training. Reinvestment in impacted communities is also emerging more strongly, for example in New York 40% of state tax revenue will be invested in local impacted communities, while the figure in New Jersey is 70%.

The emergence of such social equity models reflects both the role of activists and civil society groups in shaping emerging policy, and the growing acknowledgement that the burden of drug war harms has not been shared equally.


A human-centred and human rights-focused model for the design, implementation and oversight of cannabis regulatory policy allows for things to be done differently and be done better. Therefore, not only learning from mistakes in the past but also trying to heal, at least some, of the unintended consequences of the war on drugs, whilst preventing newfound regulatory traps and corporate capture.

Andrew Bonello is president ReLeaf Malta, Òscar Parés has a degree in philosophy and anthropology and a master's degree in drug addiction from the University of Barcelona