Who came up with those new ‘cannabis rules’, anyway? Cheech and Chong?

How, then, are these people ever going to be eased out of the illegal situation that they find themselves in today… and finally brought in line with the sort of ‘regulated’ system, that these regulations were supposed to introduce in the first place?

Tommy Chong lights up in the classic stoner comedy from the 1970s, Up in Smoke
Tommy Chong lights up in the classic stoner comedy from the 1970s, Up in Smoke

Look: I know cannabis is supposed to have been ‘decriminalised’, and all that... so in theory, it’s ‘supposed’ to be OK to actually smoke it, once in a while (even though, funnily enough – a full year after decriminalisation – it still remains impossible to actually acquire any through legal channels: but more of that later.)

And besides: if you want to acquire the necessary experience to regulate something like the cannabis market… well, indulging in a little ‘puff’, here and there, might not actually be the worst place to start.

But Jesus, man! I said ‘a little puff’… not ‘bogart the entire joint’! Leaving aside the old maxim that ‘moderation is key’ (which applies to cannabis, just as much as everything else); and that there may be other people who also want ‘a little puff’ of their own (so just pass the damn thing around, will you?)… no, what I’m trying to say here is that: cannabis still remains a ‘mind-altering drug’, you know.

Which also means that – if it ever WERE to be properly regulated, once and for all – it would probably have to come complete with a ‘Surgeon General’s Warning’, along the lines of: “Do not consume before driving; operating heavy machinery; or doing anything important that requires lucidity, concentration, and having both feet planted firmly on the ground (such as, for instance: writing out a job application; testifying in court; or legislating on national matters that affect literally thousands of people…)”

In other words: if you plan to write rules regulating ‘cannabis clubs’ – and especially, if your stated aim is to “cut out the [black market] dealers, and ensure that users get their cannabis from [regulated] sources” – well, don’t smoke too much of the stuff yourself beforehand, that’s all.

Otherwise, you might end up with the sort of ‘half-baked’ (pun intended) shambles that The Association for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) came out with last Friday: which – far from ‘cutting out any street-dealers’ – is more likely to end up (as criminologist Sandra Scicluna had warned, back in November 2021) ‘facilitating the black market’ instead.

Right: with that (very helpful, I hope) ‘health warning’ out of the way… where do I even begin?

Tell you what: let’s start with the one area in which absolutely everyone, in this country, can claim to be an overnight expert. MONEY. According to the new rules unveiled last Friday: anyone wishing to apply for a licence to start up a ‘cannabis social club’ in Malta – and the applications open on February 28, by the way – will have to:

a) fork out E1,000, just to apply (with no guarantee that the licence itself will be awarded, of course; and no mention, so far, of any refund if it isn’t).

b) If successful, the candidate will have to choose between a number of different licences, varying in price according to the size of the club’s (prospective, at this stage) membership.  The maximum size is capped at 500; the minimum, 50. So far, so good… but…

c) The minimum licence cost (for 50 members) has been fixed at a staggeringly prohibitive €8,750. And that’s for a licence that will expire after only one month; after which, the holder will have to renew; and then keep renewing – presumably (until otherwise clarified) at the same price – every three months... INDEFINITELY.

d) We are also told that the cost of a licence increases, depending on the size of the club; but not, so far, by how much. Now: I find it highly unlikely that it will simply go up by an additional €8,750, every time the club grows by 50 new members (in which case, a licence for a 500-member club would end up costing a scarcely credible €175,000, every three months; or more than half-a-million, a year.)

But even with a much more realistic, incremental increase of just €1,000, per 100 members (the same as the application fee) it would still set you back by anywhere up to €50 or €60,000, per annum.

All of which raises a rather obvious question. Who the heck does the ARUC even think is going to be applying for these licences, anyway? Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Elon Musk? Joseph Portelli? (Actually, wait: he’ll probably have been signed up by AC Milan by then… just you wait and see!)

But you get the general drift. Who else, in this country – or even in the entire Universe, for that matter – has enough ‘throw-away money’, to actually afford spending tens of thousands of euros a year – just on licence fees; before factoring in salaries, organisational costs, etc. – on what is effectively a ‘non-profit’ association: which not only also has to “reinvest all proceeds into the organisation itself”; but (separately) also “contribute a portion of their sales to a harm reduction fund”?

I somehow doubt it’s going to be the few odd-thousand Maltese resident ‘home-growers’:  who have been (legally) cultivating up to four plants, on their own property, over the past year; and some of whom might have been looking forward to an opportunity to finally ‘regularise’ their own position (given that it is currently illegal for them to actually sell any of their own, legally-harvested produce… or even, for that matter, to simply ‘give it away’.)

Now: I stand to be corrected, of course…. but I was under the impression that the entire point of these regulations, was to both provide ‘a safe, legal channel’ for users to acquire their cannabis; and also, to provide home-growers with an alternative to ‘selling their weed illegally’ (either to friends and acquaintances; or – probably, only in rare cases – by selling it to the criminal organisations which control the cannabis racket).

Because that, as far as I am aware, is how the situation stands at present. Despite a legal reform, in December 2021, that ‘decriminalised cannabis’ (and also legalised the home-cultivation of up to four plants): there is still, effectively, no real alternative to the black market at all: either for users looking to buy; or growers looking to sell.

So the whole ‘cannabis social club’ idea, from its very inception, was to close both those loopholes at once: thus (in theory, anyway) also dealing a devastating blow to the black market itself… which would – from one moment, to the next – no longer enjoy its ill-gotten, unchallenged monopoly.

But… well, this is why legislating on such matters requires ‘lucidity, concentration, and feet-on-the-ground’. The only way to achieve that objective, in practice, is to not just provide legal pathways for people to by-pass the black market, altogether… but also, to ensure that those pathways are more attractive, to all parties concerned, than the existing illegal ones.

Do I need to continue? If those are really going to be the start-up costs, for an operation that is (by definition) destined to never see even a single centime of profit, in its entire lifetime… you can forget, a priori, that anyone (except maybe the likes of Gates, Musk, Bezos, etc.) will ever apply to form a ‘cannabis club’, to begin with; but, much more calamitously… you can also forget that anyone will ever buy from (or sell to) those same ‘legal’ clubs, even in the unlikely event that any materialise at all.

No, siree. They will simply stick to what they’re already doing, right now (without, it must be said, even facing any ‘consequences’, anymore): i.e., buying from, and selling to, a criminally-controlled black market, that – whatever its other flaws – will still remain more convenient to them, even (or especially) with all these new regulations in place.

If nothing else, because those prohibitively expensive start-up costs, will only force legal clubs to push up their own prices: not to make a profit, mind you… but just to avoid bankruptcy.

And given that (for obvious reasons) neither the illegal street-pushers, nor the criminal organisations that control them, are shackled by any comparable cost-factors [note: apart from the expense of actually importing the stuff; and whatever other costs are involved in running an illegal cannabis trade]… well, there is nothing stopping the black market from simply responding to this new ‘market challenge’, in exactly the same way as any legitimate enterprise would, in its place.

In other words: by lowering the cost of their own product, to make it more attractive to prospective buyers.

Effectively, then, these regulations will only succeed in making it more expensive – and probably, a LOT more expensive – to buy cannabis legally, than from a pusher on the street. So how, pray tell, are they also expected to entice users away from doing… erm, precisely that?

And by the same token: any cannabis club operating under such onerous conditions, will also be compelled – by the laws of demand and supply – to offer far less competitive prices, to any growers looking to sell. To those, too, the prospect of ‘sticking to what they’re already doing, anyway’, will no doubt appear a lot more attractive.

How, then, are these people ever going to be eased out of the illegal situation that they find themselves in today… and finally brought in line with the sort of ‘regulated’ system, that these regulations were supposed to introduce in the first place?

Honestly, though: now I feel I owe Cheech and Chong an apology, for having dragged them into this mess in the first place (after all: they’re not exactly the ones who have a vested interest, in ensuring that this reform FAILS… are they now?)