Cannabis may be legal. But it’s not a ‘free-for-all’ | Mariella Dimech

Malta will not become ‘another Amsterdam’; for as MARIELLA DIMECH – executive chairperson of the newly-formed Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis – points out… the emphasis is on the word ‘responsible’

Mariella Dimech
Mariella Dimech

In your first interview as chair of the ‘cannabis authority’, you stated that Malta would not become ‘another Amsterdam’. But… what is so ‘intrinsically wrong’ with the Amsterdam model, anyway? If the idea behind this reform is to ‘remove the criminal stigma associated with cannabis’… why not do it the Dutch way: and ‘normalise’ the drug, to the point that it is openly sold in licensed coffee shops?

Let’s start with this: I made that statement because I know that – just as there are people out there, who do not want Malta to model the Amsterdam model – there are many others who do. But I didn’t mean it in the way you’re suggesting: as though that model is, in itself, ‘intrinsically wrong’…

All I meant is that… we are not going to be following the same model as Amsterdam. We are going to do things differently, here. Because the reality in Amsterdam is that – even if cannabis can be bought openly in coffee shops, and consumed in public – it is still technically illegal. It is culturally ‘accepted’, yes… it is ‘tolerated’… but – and this is the situation in many parts of Europe today; not just the Netherlands –what happens, in practice, is that the authorities in those countries simply ‘turn a blind eye’. They just pretend it’s not illegal, and look the other way…

This also means that the cannabis that is being sold in those coffee shops, is still all from the black market. So when people buy cannabis from a coffee shop in Amsterdam, they are not going to know exactly what they are buying. They will not know the precise THC level, for instance…

In Malta, on the other hand: if people buy cannabis from an organization, that is following the procedures and policies of the authority, they will know the quality of the cannabis they are buying. Why? Because it’s legal here. We are the only country in Europe, to date, to have fully legalized cannabis.  

So unlike those other countries, we’re not ‘pretending’ that it’s legal. It’s not a case that the authorities are just ‘turning a blind eye’. If something is legal, it’s legal… and if something is not, it’s not…

The reform has, however, been criticized on that score. For instance: it is legal to carry 7 grammes on your person outside (and keep up to 50 grammes at home); it is also legal to grow up to four plants. But if you smoke your cannabis in public, you are liable to an on-the-spot fine; ditto, if your four plants are visible to anyone else. So… aren’t we still ‘pretending’, up to a point? Isn’t it a case where cannabis is ‘legal’… but only on paper?

I think that’s a very important statement you just made there: because if we were to just go ‘gung-ho’ – and allow everything all out in the open: plants, everywhere you look; coffee shops on every street corner…  sorry, but that is not the right way to create, and develop, and build on, a proper, well-researched cannabis policy. We also have to assess what the impact of this law is going to be.

Because, in line with the structures we are creating – the authority itself; the licensing of organisations, to grow and sell cannabis legally – we are also going to be assessing the impact of the new policy. Are there any problems? What are the problems? Even the fact that we are now allowing certain things, that were illegal until only yesterday…  that’s a big change. It cannot simply be done overnight. We have to also ask ourselves: what is the outcome of all this going to be?

Within a year, we will be in a position to answer some of those questions. We will have a clearer picture of how this reform is truly affecting our society. But in the meantime, the Authority certainly cannot take its decisions only on the basis that ‘some people want this, and others want that’.

Because just as there are a lot of people, out there, who would like to see the same sort of permissiveness as Amsterdam – with its coffee-shops; and the freedom to smoke wherever you like, etc. – there are also people who are very afraid of all that; who are not knowledgeable about the subject; and who don’t know what the impact of all that is going to be…

And this is the information we are going to be providing: not on the basis of what I myself – or anyone else – thinks is ‘right’… but on the basis of clear, objective, scientific evidence.

This is, in fact, why I think that passing this law was a very good move. Because it wasn’t a case of simply creating a ‘free-for-all’; there has also been an endeavour, to balance out the various different types of research, ideas, beliefs – and wants and needs – of people.

And this is how it should be. I think there has to be a balance: you have to take into consideration all aspects of research, and all aspects of what the Maltese people want; or are worried about. So I think it’s very fair, that the law both allows cannabis to be legal – so that people can grow, and smoke their cannabis in peace (and above all, safely) – but also, that people are being reassured that the changes will not be too drastic, or too rushed. I think the reform balances those two objectives quite successfully…

Perhaps: but – at the risk of repeating a question you’ve been asked before – this must be viewed in the context of your previous opposition, to the same reform you are now piloting. Given that you are on record, sharing those same concerns yourself… isn’t there the danger of drifting away from the original aims of the reform itself: for instance, by making the situation more ‘prohibitive’, than it needs to be?

But that’s exactly what I meant by scientific evidence. It has nothing to do with ‘what I think’, or any opinion I might have myself. Whether I ‘agree’ with anything, or not: the policies and procedures we are in the process of formulating, will be based on a scientific assessment of the actual impact on the ground. My own views don’t come into it all.

On the subject of my past statements, however: the reason that I took on this role, in the first place, is that I very much believe that – if the authority functions well – it is perfectly possible to achieve the objective of ‘harm reduction’, precisely through this type of approach.

Because while the policies we enact, and the models we adopt, may change over time… the basic objective has always remained the same. We are still trying to protect people, from the dangers of substance abuse.

So I don’t feel that I have shifted from any previous position, myself. I still stand by everything I’ve ever said before. I will certainly never ‘promote substance abuse’, in any shape or form. Never. That was my position 10 years ago, and it remains my position today.

But at the same time: l do have some experience with substance abusers; I have worked with, and cared for, substance abusers for all my working life; and this gives me at least a little insight, into the factors that lead people down that sort of path.  It’s my line; my profession; and from that perspective, it is far more important, to me, that we have a Cannabis Authority that functions properly… rather than a system that, however well-intentioned, simply doesn’t work in practice, at all.

Let’s look at how this law works, then. According to what you’ve just told me, Malta will not become ‘another Amsterdam’; but at the same time, there will licensed organisations selling cannabis legally, to paid-up members. This means that they will have to provide large quite large quantities of cannabis; where will it all come from?

It will be grown, by the organisations themselves…

You make it sound easy; but a cannabis plantation is a fairly large, expensive undertaking: it requires land, expertise, specific indoor lighting, etc. Yet these organisations are all supposed to be ‘non-profit’. So who could even afford to embark on such an investment, with no possibility of a return?

Tell you the truth, we are only at the very beginning – both locally, and internationally – of the process leading to the actual policies themselves: regarding who can apply for a licence, and how, and under what conditions, etc.

But first up, I can tell you from now that the same opportunity will be open to everybody, who meets the established criteria. And while there may well be large organisations involved… I myself expect there to also be smaller, ‘personal’ organisations forming: where you have a small group of people who decide to grow their own cannabis; share the expenses; and basically, avail of the same opportunities…

But what would be in it for them? They can’t make any profit out of it; especially when – as you also hinted, in another interview – the resulting cannabis will have to be sold ‘at a cheaper price than the black market’…

And by quality, I don’t just mean how ‘good’ the weed is… or how ‘high’ it makes you… but what its active THC content is; how it can be expected to affect you, both physically and mentally; and even whether it’s the sort of cannabis that you were actually looking for. Because not everyone’s experience of that drug is going to be the same.

There are people who only want to have a few grammes at home, so that – every once in a while – they can relax by smoking a joint, after work; there are others who may need some cannabis, for those moments when they feel anxious… and there are some people who might get anxiety attacks, simply because they don’t have any cannabis.

By the same argument, however, there are also going to people who – possibly because of a psychiatric condition: there is, after all, solid research about the negative effects of cannabis, in such cases – quite frankly shouldn’t be smoking cannabis at all, under any circumstance.

In fact, I have seen some cases myself. There are people who have experienced psychotic episodes, triggered by substance abuse. Not just cannabis, mind you: but the research is all there; and yes, it can – and does – happen. This is also something to be concerned about…

How does the law provide for such cases, though? Will, for instance, these licensed organisations be able to refuse a customer, on that basis?

Well: the reality is that these cases have always happened in the past, and will continue to happen in future, no matter what the law says, or doesn’t say. Let’s face it: there is no such thing as a law which can simply stop people from either doing drugs in the first place… or, still less, suffering serious consequences, if they do.

And to understand why, we have to go back to the question of what makes people resort to substance abuse to start with. There is, in fact, a very good study – undertaken by Prof. Andrew Azzopardi and Prof. Marilyn Clark, of the University of Malta – which analysed the risk factors of substance abuse among adolescents. Very interesting, and precisely the type of information we are currently looking at.

Because one of the responsibilities of the Authority is also to ‘educate’; and this includes the responsibility of learning to recognize what these risk factors’ actually are.  So to answer your question more directly: yes, the idea is that those licensed organisations which are selling cannabis, will ideally also undergo training, where necessary.

And apart from learning about the different types of cannabis: the THC-levels, the technical aspects of cultivation, and so on… we want them to also be able to, at least, recognize any ‘red flags’, if they see them.

Ideally, they should recognize if someone comes in, who is visibly feeling unwell… or who is manifesting symptoms of any condition, that might make it dangerous for that person to consume cannabis. Likewise, if someone starts coming in, and buys 7 grammes, each and every single day… clearly, that’s a problem. That’s another red flag, to look out for...

So at the end of the day, it’s all about striking the right balance, really: how to allow a safe, non-stigmatised way for people to be able to smoke cannabis… but at the same time, to educate – and give all the necessary information – for people to make informed decisions, and reduce the risk of serious repercussions.

We shall have to wait and see, naturally, how successful we will be…. but the reform is, at least, an important first step.