A belated admission that cannabis users are not 'criminals'

All in all, the proposed reform may still fall short of a fully liberalised regime; but – to be fair – perhaps Malta is not yet ready for that, either

A point that is often overlooked, in the debate on cannabis regulation, is that the current legislation on drugs has so far only succeeded in criminalising an entire subsection of the population: without, it seems, having any discernible impact on either the availability, or consumption, of the drug itself.

Indeed, it appears to have had the opposite effect. A survey, carried out by this newspaper last year, indicates that no less than 9.3% of the population – estimated at 32,000, of whom 17,000+ are aged between 18 and 35 – admitting having used cannabis in their lifetimes. This number more than tripled when people were asked whether they knew someone who used cannabis: which equates to some 100,000 potential cannabis-users, in a population of 500,000.

This suggests considerably widespread use of the drug in Malta: especially considering that these figures may even be understated (given that cannabis is illegal, it is very plausible that people may – not unreasonably – be fearful of incriminating themselves.)

But even if the taboo is still enough to discourage many people from openly admitting to its use, it is nonetheless clear that cannabis is, in fact, widely used by a vast cross-section of society: including professionals, successful entrepreneurs, and otherwise respected individuals.

From this perspective – and coupled with exhaustive evidence that the drug is in itself not as ‘harmful’ as it is so often portrayed – one can only question a legal system that transforms those respectable, productive members of society into ‘instant criminals’.

And such questions can only multiply, when one considers that – even within the narrow sphere of the legislation’s declared aims – Malta’s drug policies have not exactly been a great success.

If the purpose of our draconian drug laws was to discourage cannabis-use, or prohibit it altogether… it has very clearly failed. And it is this fact – more than any amount of lobbying by proponents of decriminalisation – that ultimately led the government to consider changing tack: as evidenced by a new White Paper, that aims to create a more realistic, sustainable legal framework to regulate cannabis.

Ironically, this much appears to be acknowledged even by opponents of decriminalisation. In a joint statement issued this week, Caritas, the Oasi Foundation and the Association of Psychiatrists warned that “the proposed law is a reflection of the lost battle against the cannabis culture”.

And they are right. The ‘war on cannabis’ has indeed been ‘lost’. In fact, this has been the specific position of the United Nations’ International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC): whose seminal 2018 report was described as “another nail in the coffin for the war on drugs.”

With this in mind, government is now proposing that the possession of more than 7 grams, but less than 28 grams, for one’s exclusive personal use should be subject to proceedings before the Commissioner for Justice (as currently contemplated for the possession of less than 3.5 grams.)

It is also being proposed that every household can grow up to four plants. The cultivated cannabis cannot be sold, and can only be consumed in the same habitation. Cannabis cannot be consumed before minors, and residents are to ensure that it is stored in places which are inaccessible to minors residing in the same habitation.

Admittedly, this still leaves room for many questions regarding how the new legal regime will actually work in practice.

Government’s proposals stop short of introducing a safe, legal way to acquire cannabis seeds for the purpose of cultivation. Nor do they regulate the dispensation of home-grown cannabis: possibly through the introduction of licensed cannabis clubs, a legal way of allowing experienced growers to pool resources and sell cannabis, within limits, to registered users.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the proposed changes, however, concern the reversal of the current ‘criminalisation’ policies. Not only does the proposed law do away with punitive measures for cannabis-users; but it is also being proposed that people found guilty of previous cannabis-related offences, may have their criminal record expunged.

All in all, the proposed reform may still fall short of a fully liberalised regime; but – to be fair – perhaps Malta is not yet ready for that, either.

Nonetheless, the new White Paper does address the main causes of complaint regarding cannabis usage in Malta. It has widened the amounts that one safely possesses, without fear of criminal reprisals; and this brings peace of mind to ordinary people, who make responsible use of a mostly-harmless medicinal product… and who do not, by rights, deserve to be treated as criminals.