On cannabis, we should be pressing the brake… not the gas | Anthony Gatt

Government’s plans to further decriminalise recreational cannabis has been met with resistance. Dr ANTHONY GATT, director of Caritas Malta, outlines why this new approach could end up inadvertently ‘promoting’ a not-entirely harmless drug. He was interviewed on Reno Bugeja Jistaqsi

Caritas director Anthony Gatt
Caritas director Anthony Gatt

Caritas is among a number of professional to have publicly opposed the government’s White Paper on cannabis reform. Can you explain exactly what your objections are?

We are worried about three aspects, first and foremost. The first is that the proposed changes may have the indirect, unintentional effect ‘popularising’ the drug. When certain limits are removed, the public perception of cannabis will also gradually change: especially among adolescents. Already, we are encountering parents whose children are telling them: “Ma, Pa, why are you worrying? Cannabis is harmless, you know. They’re even going to make it legal.” And when they use this kind of terminology, those parents are stuck for an answer. 

So ‘popularisation’ is our first major concern. We are worried that these proposals will unconsciously promote cannabis, instead of trying to limit it. 

The second point is that we at Caritas – and other entities such as Oasi or Sedqa – come face to face with the realities of people suffering from addiction, every day. We know that not everyone who smokes cannabis will develop severe problems. But there are some who do…

From your experience at Caritas: how many cannabis users will go on to develop problems as a result?

There is international literature suggesting that one of out of 10 cannabis users will form a serious, severe dependency. But there is also a larger percentage that will suffer from other, less severe consequences. Depending on the various studies, it could be as many as 20 -40% that are negatively affected: either because of problems at the workplace, or conflicts in their personal and/or family relationships. 

It is not, therefore, realistic to argue that cannabis is ‘entirely harmless’; it does cause problems… and the affected people often turn to us for help. Over the last three years, we received increasingly more cannabis-related requests each year. Today, 25% of the people approaching us for help, do so because of cannabis.

At the same time, however, there are statistics suggesting that cannabis is more popular today than ever before. Doesn’t that also mean that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has, in fact, failed… and that we should therefore be experimenting with other models instead? 

But that is true of other drugs as well. At present, for instance, there is an increase in cocaine usage, too. So if the number of people using cocaine goes up…. is that a justification for liberalizing the drug altogether? 

With regard to cannabis, however: it is true that the numbers are increasing. The 2011 census indicated that around 4% of adults made use of the drug; but a MaltaToday survey two years ago suggests that the percentage of adult cannabis-users has gone up to 9%.  

This also suggests that public attitudes towards this drug have changed as well. So I understand that politicians will be increasingly confronted by these realities; and also by people who are beginning to consider cannabis along the same lines as cigarettes or alcohol. 

We can talk about the dangers of cannabis; we can warn about the pitfalls of any reform… but ultimately, it is the State – and, up to a point, the people – that must decide. And the choice is clear. We can take measures that will promote the use of cannabis; or we can take measures to limit it. 

But successive governments have always ‘tried and limit it’; evidently  without much success. And some of those measures have involved imprisoning people: not because they are ‘criminals’, but simply because of cannabis possession. Are you suggesting that we should retain that approach, in spite of its evident failure?

But Caritas – and the same applies to Sedqa, Oasi and others – is not saying that cannabis users should be imprisoned. This is a widespread misconception. We agree with depenalization: but in a sense, this has already happened. 

To be fair, the situation today is that anyone who is caught with a joint can still be arrested by the police; and interrogated to find out where they bought the drug from. And to some people, that will often come as a shock. I might also add that, to some adolescents – and even adults – it may also serve as a ‘wake-up call’. 

But let’s admit that, in the present cultural climate, that approach is now considered ‘heavy-handed’. The fact remains, however, that first-time offenders caught with less than 3.5 grammes of cannabis, for their own personal use, will be handed a fine, of between 50 and €100, which can be paid online. Second-time offenders, however, will face another tribunal - the Drug Offenders Rehabilitation Board – and may be ordered to seek professional help. 

But I know of no one who was actually sent to prison by that tribunal…

Your own position paper makes it clear that Caritas is against the criminalization of cannabis possession for personal use. At the same time, however, you’re also raising many questions about the level of enforcement of the proposed laws…

Yes: because that’s the third of the concerns I mentioned earlier. The proposed reform would also reduce the resources available to the authorities, including the police. 

One of the limiting factors, proposed by the White Paper, is that cannabis consumption is not permitted in public; and has to be limited to private homes. This raises issues such as, for example, how to control the use of cannabis in front of children. In practice, it is very difficult to enforce these regulations; so the authorities will need certain additional resources.

Moreover, we’ve also seen successes, when the law enforcement sector is properly resourced. The forces of order have done a tremendous job, as attested by numerous large hauls of drugs in recent years. The Customs Office are likewise contributing an invaluable service. 

But the fact that cannabis is becoming more and more culturally accepted – and this is noticeable everywhere: even our clients tell us they smell it, all the time, out in the street – will only undo all that good work. If the legal limit is raised from 3.5g to 7g, and the legal consequences are removed… people will only risk more…

Still, however, all past efforts – despite those successes you mention – have so far failed. What are we supposed to do, then? Keep our heads buried in the sand? 

Let’s not forget that the law also sends out a message. One example I like to use is that of mandatory seat-belts. I am about to turn 45; and when I first started driving, there was hardly any enforcement of this law at all. And as a result, hardly anyone wore their seat-belt. 

But when the fines starting to be handed out… that’s when people’s attitudes started to change. People suddenly started wearing seat-belts, for fear of being fined. 

The idea of a fine for certain contraventions, then, sends out a message: and in this case, the message is that cannabis itself is not something that should be promoted… but also, that it is not a contravention that deserves an exaggerated punishment, ither. 

So we all agree that nobody should be sent to prison; we all agree that people shouldn’t get a sullied criminal record because of cannabis. But there is still a line that should not be crossed…

At the same time, however, the White Paper does specify certain limiting factors: cannabis can only be used in private homes; trafficking remains a crime… so the proposed reform does not simply fling open all the doors at once, as you seem to be suggesting…

Some of those doors, however, will be left ajar.  Once the drug has been normalised, there will sooner or later be pressure, from people who use it, to be able to buy cannabis openly from sources other than the black market. 

So I do feel that we are at a crossroads here. Do we really want, as a society, to go in that direction? To stick to the car analogy: do we want to ‘step on the gas’… or do we want to apply the brakes: and try and understand why adolescents and adults turn to cannabis in the first place… and offer them other, healthier means of entertainment instead?

There is another argument, however: if we have already accepted the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes… what’s the problem with also accepting recreational cannabis?

The two scenarios are very different. Take the example of heroin: people with certain medical conditions are, in fact, prescribed morphine in hospitals… which is ultimately a purer version of the same drug. And in cases where people are suffering from unbearable pain: God forbid there wasn’t that option.  Because morphine is not only a painkiller… it also restores the human dignity of people in those conditions.

But if, on the other hand, you take heroin without any medical need… the same drug will cause incalculable harm. 

So Caritas’ position on medical cannabis has always been clear: if certain extracts from the plant can be used for the purposes of healing… then we fully support it. 

We even have the Caritas Malta Epilepsy Association: where Prof. Janet Mifsud has conducted exhaustive research into certain severe types of epilepsy – such as Dravet Syndrome – which registered significant results, using medical extracts from cannabis. That is something we support whole-heartedly.

But it is important to stress that every law can be abused. We know of cases, for instance, where people with cannabis dependencies are given prescriptions by doctors: which they then present to the police during road-blocks. Or who buy the medical products, and replace the contents with cannabis bought from the street: so, if they caught, they can pretend it’s ‘medical cannabis’…

Yet it still boils down to whether smoking cannabis should be considered a crime, or not. On this point, Caritas sometimes gives the impression of having a foot in either camp. You agree that users should not be imprisoned… yet you still argue that cannabis should remain illegal. Isn’t this a contradiction?

The issue here is ‘depenalization’. As things stand today, the drug is still illegal. As I said earlier, first-time offenders still face the possibility of being fined. 

But there is also a reality that we cannot afford to ignore. More people are using cannabis today; and a percentage of those people end up facing serious consequences. I still haven’t mentioned all those who make considerable efforts to get out of those difficult situations…. and who now, as a result of these changes, will only be more exposed to cannabis, on a daily basis, than before. 

But to answer your question, our position at Caritas is: let us not ‘promote’ the use of cannabis. Let us leave certain legal limitations in place. But at the same time… let’s not be too heavy-handed about it, either. The legal amendments of 2015 were brilliant, in this regard; and so were the reforms of 2020… which granted the judiciary the discretion not to impose prison sentences, in cases involving the cultivation of more than one plant. 

As Caritas, we even went to court to testify in certain cases: arguing that this or that person should not go to prison, simply because he had two cannabis plants.

Even more so, when cannabis dependency has already brought those people to their knees. Prison is the last thing those people need.

But it doesn’t mean we should also stop trying to contain the use of cannabis. For instance: the latest ESPAD [European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs] survey, released by Sedqa, indicates that 12% of Maltese adolescents have tried cannabis. Five years ago, the percentage was exactly the same. And there were no change of policies in the meantime.

Also, Malta’s rate of cannabis use by adolescents is significantly lower than the European average. So – even if the overall usage is on the increase – these figures show that containment strategies do work.

It is, therefore, possible to obtain positive results by keeping restrictive measures in place. So what we’re saying is: let’s keep applying the brakes, for now. Let’s not step on the gas…