‘Mistake’ or otherwise, Malta voted for a debate on cannabis legislation

More than two years have now elapsed since that promise and still not a whisper about any corresponding change to Malta’s drug laws. I don’t know about you; but I call that ‘fraud’, myself

Ever paused to wonder why political parties make so many promises in their electoral manifestos… when they clearly have neither the inclination, nor even the logistical capability, of ever delivering on all of them?

At the last election, for instance, both Labour and Nationalist parties engaged in their habitual ‘electoral manifesto number-crunching game’.

The PN’s manifesto, we were told (boastfully by Beppe Fenech Adami, scornfully by One News) contained ‘320 pledges’ in a ‘64-page document’… whereas Labour went to town with the fact that its own manifesto contained ‘667 promises’ – more than double the PN’s – spread out over no fewer than ‘171 pages’ (all in matte gloss, too).

Never mind that most of those 171 pages were actually just oversized images of the sort of ‘smiley, happy people’ you normally see in toothpaste ads; no, the real trouble is that it is very easy to fill up any number of pages with as many promises as the imagination can possibly concoct… when there is absolutely nothing that can ever compel your political party to deliver on any of those promises in the first place.

In a sense, it’s a bit like all those unnecessary stats we get bombarded with while watching sports on TV: you know, how many ‘offsides’, ‘throw-ins’, ‘corners’, ‘fouls’, ‘yellow cards’, etc.. were awarded in the course of the game.

Sorry, but… who the hell cares? In football, there is only one stat that matters: and it’s how many goals were scored. Well, it’s exactly the same with electoral promises. What counts is not ‘how many were made’ (still less ‘over how many pages’); it’s ‘how many were kept’.

Naturally, this question proves a lot harder to answer. Around halfway through 2015, the PL issued a somewhat puzzling statement, boasting that ‘the Labour government had already implemented 55% of its electoral promises’… after serving little more than 55% of its first term in office [note: at the time, we didn’t know that the election would be called a year early.]

Even back then, I remember thinking that it wasn’t a very impressive achievement to be trumpeting in the first place… for reasons that would become pretty damn obvious, if you simply replaced ‘delivering on electoral promises’ with practically any other task or objective you care to name.

Like ordering a meal at a restaurant, for instance. When’s the last time a waiter approached your table to inform you that those ‘pan-fried veal cutlets’ you ordered 10 minutes earlier were ‘55% of the way to being 100% cooked’? (Not because you complained, or anything; but just like that: on his own initiative, for no particular reason whatsoever...)

Or that bottle of cheap Italian plonk you ordered to wash those veal cutlets down with… would you expect the waiter to stop opening the bottle halfway, so that you can admire the sight of 55% of the cork protruding through the bottleneck?

No, I suspect not. And it would be the same if you hired someone to paint your house, or fix the plumbing… or practically any other odd-job you care to name. In all such cases, what any reasonable person would expect is for the job to get done, by the people they paid to get it done… without any unnecessary updates regarding the actual nitty-gritty of the ‘job-doing’ process itself.  

But when it comes to governments, and the job we ‘pay’ them to do – in votes, not in cash (though who knows? There could be some of that, too) – it’s as though a whole different system is suddenly in place.

Let’s face it: nobody would bat an eyelid if a government (any government) were to admit that it hadn’t managed to implement 100% of its own manifesto, in the course of a single five-year term.

And that’s because none of us actually expects our government to keep its word on everything. Unlike virtually any other contractual agreement, anywhere in the professional world – because that’s what an electoral manifesto is: a written contract with the electorate, signed on the ballot sheet – governments are from the outset ‘exempt’ from any liability in the case of contractual default.

And instead of complaining about being ripped off (as we certainly would, in any other context)… we all either simply bow our heads and accept being shafted; or, worse still, fall to our knees in grovelling gratitude for the tiny percentage of that manifesto that was actually delivered within schedule.

Viewed from that perspective, Labour’s 2016 boast does start making a little sense. Humble though the achievement may appear in itself [note: and regardless if it even stands up to scrutiny… which I don’t have time to check right now]… ‘getting 55% of the job done’  is evidently still seen as a landmark, by an electorate that has almost given up hope of ever seeing anywhere near 100% of what it had been promised.

What doesn’t happen very often, though, is for a government spokesperson to just come out and admit as much to our faces. “That promise?

Oh, that was just something we said to keep this or that section of the electorate quiet… why, you didn’t really expect us to deliver on it, did you?” Etc, etc.

For this reason alone, I more or less welcomed Julia Farrugia Portelli’s frank admission that her party had ‘made a mistake’ by referencing ‘recreational cannabis’ in its 2017 manifesto.

It made a refreshing change from the usual waffle we have become accustomed to hearing in such circumstances (like, “It’s the PN’s fault!”… or… erm… “It’s the PN’s fault!”…. Oh, and did I already tell you that “It’s the PN’s fault’? Because it is, you know…”, Etc., etc).

There is, however, a tiny little snag in Farrugia Portelli’s argument.

She made that declaration in response to a very specific question by the presenter of on TVM’s Ras Imb’Ras: Why has the Labour government not delivered on its electoral promise to ‘start a discussion on the legalisation of cannabis use for recreational purposes?’

Please note: ‘Why has your government not kept its electoral promise?’ Not: ‘What was your personal, private opinion about that promise when it was made?’

And it’s an important distinction, because… no offence or anything, but the 53+% that voted for the Labour party in the 2017, did so on the basis of its electoral manifesto… not on the basis of Julia Farrugia Portelli’s private, personal views on any given issue or controversy.

So let’s go back to that manifesto, shall we? That’s right, the one that contained 671 promises across 171 pages…

One of those promises (number 16 of section 16, as it happens) is that “the next step is to start a discussion […] about the use of cannabis for recreational purposes.” The sub-heading is ‘Sensitive and Necessary Debates’, and the overall section is entitled ‘Civil Rights’.

Everything about that electoral promise is rooted in the premise that legalisation and/or decriminalisation of recreational drug-use is a Civil Rights issue; and that, as such, a debate is ‘necessary’, regardless how ‘sensitive’ it may be to some people.

Yet here we have the parliamentary secretary entrusted with this very reform – by a Prime Minister who is already on record stating that he agrees with legalisation of cannabis for recreational purposes – telling us all, to our faces, that the original promise had all along been a ‘mistake’.

And instead of committing herself to implement it anyway, regardless of her own private misgivings – for, mistake or no mistake, it is still a contractual government obligation towards the electorate – Julia Farrugia Portelli went on the suggest other ways the issue can be discussed instead: such as, by going back to the old ‘harm reduction’ model…  which is in many ways the opposite of the ‘legalisation’ argument, as it presupposes – unjustly – that cannabis is as harmful a drug as others which may need to be regulated more.

In any case, ‘harm reduction’ is also the same model the PN government used to hide behind when refusing to discuss any meaningful changes to Malta’s drug laws for around 25 years.

So, if we wanted another futile discussion on ‘harm reduction’, we would have voted for the party offering us that model… not the one which dangled a different, more progressive approach in front of our collective noses… only to then turn around and say: ‘That? Oh, that was just a mistake. You didn’t seriously expect us to keep that promise, did you…?’

Erm… yes, actually, I did. Not only that; but I also expect an explanation for why some parts of the Labour government’s ‘progressive approach’ regarding cannabis have indeed been implemented since 2017 – medical marijuana, for instance – but not this one.

Let’s see now: why would a government deliver on one promise that turns cannabis into a giant cash-crop for Malta – with international pharmaceutical companies now falling over themselves in the mad scramble to get a slice of Malta’s multi-million-euro ‘Magic Medical Marijuana Space-Cake’ –  but not on another promise, also involving the same drug, but which doesn’t automatically translate into hundreds of millions of overnight direct foreign investment?

Hmm… what a tough question…

There is, however, a tougher one the Labour government may have to face. If Joseph Muscat really intended to deliver on that ‘recreational cannabis’ promise… why did he entrust the reform to someone with Julia Farrugia Portelli’s widely-known aversion to cannabis legalisation?

Could it be because, that way, he knew from the outset that this reform would never stand a chance of seeing the light of day? Or was it just another ‘mistake’?

In the latter case, the mistake could very easily be rectified. Given that Julia Farrugia Portelli has gone on record stating that she disagrees with any discussion about ‘recreational cannabis’… the only way to ensure that this promise is ever kept is to remove it from her remit altogether, and entrust it to someone who really does believe in the issue’s Civil Rights dimension.

Either way, however, more than two years have now elapsed since that promise was made; and still not a whisper or a squeak about any corresponding change to Malta’s drug laws.

I don’t know about you; but I call that ‘fraud’, myself.


Right of Reply - parliamentary secretariat for citizenship and reforms

The conclusion that the electoral promise will not be implemented is completely mistaken and does not reflect what was said in an interview on TVM.

The electoral manifesto promised a debate on cannabis for non-medical use. This debate kicked off in an inter-ministerial committee a few days after the general election, and continued with various stakeholders. It was agreed that the electoral promise on cannabis for medical use must be separated from the rest of the cannabis discussion and during this legislature the respective laws passed through Parliament.

During this short period of time, Malta has also enacted new laws to enhance our pharmaceutical industry and open doors to the manufacturing of cannabis derivatives for medical use.

In parallel, the Parliamentary Secretary continued discussions with numerous stakeholders regarding the third step - cannabis for non-medicinal use. With reference to the TV programme, the Parliamentary Secretary never said that this electoral pledge would not be honoured.

To the contrary, she explained that the basis of the argument should never be to give the impression to our children that they should resort to drugs for their recreation (irrespective if it is cannabis or not). It was in this spirit that the Parliamentary Secretary made reference to the educational campaign.

Unanimously, stakeholders including the community representing cannabis users, agreed that the basis of this reform should be an educational campaign amongst children, teenagers and even adults. This campaign began a few months ago and by the end of this scholastic year (which will start this week), we will reach 9,146 students.

As explained on various occasions, the Parliamentary Secretary does not agree that users keep on relying on drug dealers to buy cannabis with all the dangers this poses. Many times users are offered cannabis mixed with chemicals or other hazardous materials.

Hence, the need of a debate on how adults who are 21 years and older can use cannabis responsibly and in a safe way, is paramount to our commitment. Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli insists that like all the other reforms entrusted to her portfolio, this reform will also be implemented.

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