From decriminalization to re-criminalisation, in just three years

Cannabis is ‘harmful’ when smoked by ordinary people but it suddenly becomes ‘totally harmless’ the moment some Big Pharma company somewhere looks set to invest millions in Malta

You’ve got to hand to the government, though. It takes a special kind of genius to first promise a reform which would ‘decriminalise’ cannabis… and then unveil a proposal designed to maximise the criminal stigma associated with that drug, in ways that it had never really been stigmatised before.

I mean, what on earth did I just read in the papers? “Cannabis users will register with the State”? “There would need to be some way of monitoring how much cannabis users are consuming”? “We will have a complimentary law enforcement package that will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of policing"?

Erm… policing what, exactly? Cannabis was supposed to have already been decriminalized in 2015. And the whole point of that exercise was in part to relieve the police of the enormous waste of time involved in cracking down on random teenagers smoking joints in Paceville… so that maybe, just maybe, they might devote a little more time and energy to fighting real crime instead.

And as for a register of cannabis users… the only categories for which we have a ‘State register’ in Malta right now are paedophiles and child-molesters. I suppose it gives you a rough indication of how the present, ‘progressive and moderate’ Labour administration still views the occasional marijuana smoker here and there: i.e., as a dangerous criminal, to be kept an eye on at all times.

And I mean literally at all times. For with this ‘reform’, government is also proposing ways of ‘monitoring’ marijuana consumption: something which can realistically only be done by breathalyzer, or through regular urine or blood tests.

Oh, I know what you’re all probably thinking right now: ‘Nonsense! All you need to do is monitor the amount being bought by a registered user from a State-licensed dealer; after all, nobody can smoke more marijuana than he or she actually has, etc.’

But if you are thinking that, you have clearly overlooked two very basic possibilities: one, if someone buys X grams from a licensed dealer, it doesn’t follow that he is going to smoke it all himself; and two, for all the State knows, users might also be buying separately from the black market (as, after all, they have always done in the past).

So make no mistake: if the State seriously intends to accurately gauge the exact amount of THC in anyone’s bloodstream, at any given moment, there are only a handful of ways of doing it… and all extremely invasive. And besides, the overall approach is not exactly conducive to encouraging cannabis users to step forward and register themselves in the first place. What they will be signing up for, anyway? Regular drug testing at a government clinic? Reporting to the nearest police station once a week?

That’s the sort of thing we normally associate with bail conditions, house arrest or parole. In a nutshell, it is how criminals are treated… not how the State is expected to treat users of a drug it supposedly ‘decriminalised’ itself just three years ago.

So all in all, I think an explanation is in order for why the government reneged so utterly on its previous commitment to decriminalize cannabis… and above all, why it chose to return to the discredited (and totally self-defeating) drug policies of yesteryear.

Part of the explanation can be found in the same government announcement: “Our reform is inspired by the Icelandic model which has a history of success,” MP Julia Farrugia-Portelli said, adding that “government was looking to the experiences of other countries.”

Erm, yes, that might explain why this reform does nothing more than roll the clock back directly to Malta’s failed pre-2015 drug policies. For the ‘Icelandic model’ is hardly an example of ‘decriminalisation’; quite the opposite, in fact. This is a very recent (December 2018) excerpt from a Tripadvisor site: “The possession, cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana are all illegal in Iceland. In particular, the possession, cultivation, and sale of this drug are heavily penalized. Anyone caught doing these things in Iceland faces the possibility of a jail sentence. When it comes to consuming marijuana, however, the Icelandic authorities tend to impose heavy monetary fines rather than jail time to first-time offenders at the moment. Either way, it’s not accepted.”

Sound familiar? It should, because that could just as easily be a description of Malta’s own cannabis policy before this ‘reform’. With one small difference: the Icelandic model doesn’t also stipulate measures that seem to fly directly out of the pages of some literary dystopian nightmare. That seems to be a little extra touch we added ourselves….

But the part that I find most irritating is the official excuse to justify this humungous U-turn: i.e., that “the government intend[s] to adopt a harm reduction approach when dealing with the drug.”

Let us, for the sake of argument, ignore the usual sanctimonious, self-righteous and patronizing tone we have to come to expect from do-goodie politicians these days: e.g., “the reform would be seeking to educate users and drive them away from, or reduce their dependence, on [THC] the psychoactive ingredient”. (Excuse me, but how can government presume to ‘educate’ others about a subject it very clearly knows nothing about? To put it another way: if I wanted to learn anything about marijuana, I would talk to people who actually smoke it… not to people who publicly boast about never having touched the drug once in their lives.)

No, the real problem is that government’s approach forces us to turn our attention to the ‘harm’ it hopes to actually ‘reduce’. Now: I am not naïve enough to seriously believe that a mind-altering chemical like THC is in no ways harmful to the person who indulges in it. I also happen to agree with the proposed 21-year age restriction: there are, after all, known and document health risks associated with smoking marijuana in adolescence. I won’t argue with any of that.

But if we are going to talk about ‘harm reduction’, the first thing we need to do is establish how ‘harmful’ this drug really is. Immediately we are beset with a conundrum: for while government is busy re-criminalising cannabis for recreational purposes… it has gone gung-ho in the opposite direction when it comes to legalising ‘medical marijuana’.

Sorry, but this is getting a little confusing. Is cannabis ‘harmful’, or isn’t it? Let me guess: it is ‘harmful’ when smoked by ordinary, everyday people at home or in the street… yet somehow, the exact same drug suddenly becomes ‘totally harmless’ (if not a downright miracle cure for every ailment under the sun) the moment some Big Pharma company somewhere looks set to invest millions in Malta, create a tonne job opportunities, and basically pass on a small chunk of its mega-million profits to the Internal Revenue Department.

And please: no comparisons with morphine, demerol, or any other cousin of heroin to be found in hospitals the world over. There is a reason why opioids like morphine are illegal for recreational purposes, despite having wide-ranging medical uses. They are dosage-based drugs, and have this depressingly consistent habit of occasionally killing their users.

Even so, however: I am unaware that heroin-users in Malta were ever asked to register themselves with the State, or subject themselves to ‘consumption measuring’ methods. And incidentally, Malta boasts the highest incidence of problem heroin use in Europe. (Thought I’d just remind you all of how wonderfully successful our past drug policies actually were, seeing as how we are now going to re-implement them).

But to return to the debate about the ‘harmfulness’ or otherwise of cannabis… there is more in life to make comparisons with than just other drugs or alcohol. It is a question that has been troubling me for some time now: not just with regard to the present government’s overall approach to drugs, but also to the way the entire subject tends to be treated in the local and international media alike.

Why do we only ever talk about ‘harm reduction’ when it comes to drugs, and nothing else? Why do we never talk about ‘reducing the harm’ we do in so many other spheres… continually, on a day-to-day basis, all the time?

Compare, for instance, the physical or psychological harm that may or may not be caused by smoking marijuana, to all the stress, trauma and physical hardship endured by 49 people – including women and children – stranded at sea for 18 days, at the coldest time of the year… because the same government that wants to ‘educate’ us about the dangers of THC, decided to hold them all hostage while it negotiated a resettlement deal with other EU member states.

Would smoking a joint have ‘harmed’ those people more, I wonder? And while I’m at it: it’s not just people who are sometimes directly harmed by a government’s policies and actions. There are also considerations such as the environment. For the harm that one does to oneself by smoking marijuana – a drug not known to cause any major extended social problems – is in the main limited to that one individual alone. If there is short-term memory loss, for instance… or an increased risk of bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or any other physical or psychological side-effect you care to name… it will be only ever affect the user of that drug; not the country as a whole.

Can government say the same for the untold harm its own policies have caused, and continue to cause, to our natural environment? If marijuana consumption causes such ‘harm’ that government feels the need to ‘measure’ it… what can we say about the continual loss of natural habitat to overdevelopment? That’s measurable too, you know. Or how about an aquaculture industry that has ruined our seas, and is contributing to a global depletion of marine life even as we speak? After all, what ultimately causes more ‘harm’… the occasional marijuana smoker, or the wholesale depredation of the environment in the name of unbridled, insatiable greed?

There are, of course, other areas we could go into: does cannabis cause more harm than corruption? Nepotism? Misogyny? Racism? Domestic violence…? But we’d be at it all day. Bottom line is: if government expects to be taken seriously when talking about ‘harm reduction’… it should start by reducing some of the much more grievous harm it causes itself, every day.

Until it finally starts putting its marijuana where its mouth is… quite frankly, it has absolutely no business to be ‘educating’ anyone about anything at all.

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