Cannabis legalisation is a health and safety issue | Eric Castillo

Eric Castillo, of the newly formed pro-legalisation group ‘Releaf’, argues that is safer for both society and the individual to legalise marijuana, than to leave it a monopoly of the criminal underworld

Eric Castillo (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Eric Castillo (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

The main reason for deciding to form a new association today was the [2017] election. During the election campaign, a commitment was made to launch a debate about this subject. We felt that we needed to participate in this discussion: especially because we also saw that a number of other organisations had taken a position against legalisation. In fact, nobody came out in favour at all. This was the main reason we decided to launch ‘Releaf’...


Yet in recent years the legal status of marijuana has already been downgraded. In 2014, the government introduced new legalisation which (it claimed) ‘decriminalised’ the substance... 

It did, yes, but at the same time it didn’t. To me, the decriminalisation legislation was a little ‘half-baked’... pun intended. For example: today, cannabis possession has been ‘decriminalised’. What it means in practice is if you are caught with less than three grammes, you’d be looking at a fine of between 50 and 100 euros. But you will still be taken into custody and held in the lock-up... so you will waste a working day until your police statement is taken, and you are eventually released. Also, you still have to go to a tribunal: another day wasted, just to get a fine...


And there are still fines to be paid: which means that, though ‘decriminalised’, the offence is still subject to penalties at law...

Exactly. So ‘decriminalisation’ is not, in fact, decriminalisation. At least, not in my opinion. Another thing is that the above procedures only count for the first three offences. After your third offence, you are given an option to attend a Sedqa rehab programme. If you choose not to, it will be up to the judge to decide whether to impose a prison sentence, or another fine.  


So prison still remains a possibility for cannabis possession?

Yes, but only after the third offence. And to be fair, it is no longer something that is resorted to in the first instance, as it used to be in the past. We have progressed a bit in that sense. But I don’t think it’s enough. And it doesn’t really make sense, either. If the penalty for smoking a little weed is a simple fine... it means we are looking at a minor offence. So why does a third time warrant ‘rehab’, or, even worse, prison? 


Speaking of rehab: is it even applicable to a drug like marijuana... which does not have the same physical addiction properties as, say, heroin or cocaine?

I would say, yes and no. The people involved in rehabilitation centres are on the whole genuine, and ultimately they only want the good of society. But what we are also seeing is that there are certain rehab centres which... [pause]. At the end of the day, it’s a business. There is a certain financial interest involved, in keeping a relatively harmless substance like cannabis illegal... while much more dangerous substances like alcohol and cigarettes remain perfectly legal...


But rehab exists for alcoholics, too...

Yes, and we’re not suggesting that rehab for cannabis should stop altogether, either. If someone wants to go to rehab for that reason, they should be free to. I was talking more about the system as a whole: which forces people into rehab, by court order.  I don’t want to put all rehab centres in the same bracket – on the contrary, there are many genuine examples which do a lot of good work. But there is clearly a financial interest involved in the equation... 


If I’ve understood correctly, the system itself creates an automatic flow of inpatients, which benefits the rehab centres...

There is a bit of that, yes.


OK, but my question was about ‘rehabilitation therapy’ in itself: whether it is a suitable recourse for people who smoke marijuana. Do marijuana smokers need rehab in the same way as a heroin or cocaine addict might?

It is not physically addictive in the same way as heroin is. In fact, you never hear of people stealing to finance their marijuana habit: when that happens, it will almost certainly be harder drugs. We definitely don’t agree with a point of view that places marijuana on the same footing as drugs like heroin or cocaine. From our research, it appears that – for starters – marijuana has never actually killed anyone. The possibility of overdosing on marijuana doesn’t exist. Ultimately, it’s just a very different plant from, say, the poppy that produces heroin. It should not be looked at in the same way. Moreover, there is extensive scientific research that proves marijuana has significant medical benefits and usages, too. Cleary, we are talking about a plant that is naturally beneficial. 


Coming back to ‘Releaf’ and the reasons for its launch: you are currently working on a ‘manifesto’. What sort of proposals will it include?

What we’re trying to do is tackle all aspects so as to give a full picture. The manifesto itself hasn’t been finalised yet but what it will definitely include is that anyone over 21 years of age can freely smoke marijuana; we will be coming out strongly against anyone caught selling to minors, or selling without a licence; we’re proposing a licensing model for the sale of both recreational and medicinal marijuana.... and also, revised regulations for the growing of marijuana for personal use...


The proposed 21-year limit is significantly higher than the limit for alcohol. Doesn’t this contradict the view that marijuana is the ‘safer’ substance?

In general terms, it is the safer substance. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to be aware of. We approached Dr Andrew Agius – who has been very vocal about medical marijuana: in fact he is part of the campaign – for advice on the medical aspect. Yes, there are health considerations for people younger than 21. Science clearly shows that until that age, a person’s brain would still be developing... and using these substances doesn’t help with the development. If science warns us against taking something before a certain age, we will accept that warning and take it on board in our proposals. At the end of the day, ours is a science-based approach. 


Earlier you mentioned ‘models’ for licensing and trade regulation... but there are many different examples in other countries. In Uruguay, for instance, legalisation was criticised (by even pro-legalisation voices) for creating a State monopoly. Which model are you looking at, exactly?

We’ve looked at several, but the ones we paid special attention to were those of Canada and Colorado in the USA. Unfortunately, the Canadian model hasn’t been implemented yet... it’s now in its third reading... so there isn’t any research on its effects. And the model itself might change in the meantime. But those were the models that were mentioned officially, when the government first said it wanted to kick-start a debate. And there is a lot in the proposed models with which we agree. Canada’s model is very much based on health and safety, which is the line we also want to take. Colorado has some interesting ideas, too. To give an example: in Colorado, the limits on growth for personal use are based on the individual; whereas in Canada, they are based on the household.  But these are just details. The reality is that Malta is not the same as either Canada or Colorado. So we feel we need something tailor-made for our specific circumstances as a country. While we might borrow ideas from those models, the result will not be a photocopy of anything found in any one country... but a mix-and-match solution designed specifically for Malta.


What about licensing? Under your proposals, who would be eligible to apply for a licence to sell marijuana? Or would it be a state-run business, as in Uruguay?

If it were up to us, it would not be a State monopoly. Ideally, the possibility to apply for a licence should be open to the entire population. As for who should get the licence, however... that’s a different question. There will be restrictions, no doubt. As there are with alcohol, or anything else for that matter. But we haven’t gone into any detail on this yet... I would say it’s something to be decided on the basis of a discussion involving the whole country.  

Gateway drug: If marijuana really was a gateway drug, there would be millions more drug addicts than there actually are. Because a lot and a lot of people smoke marijuana: and if ALL these people took the next step... well, our society would already be completely screwed


Meanwhile there are many different arguments raised in favour of legalisation, and not all are the same. Stripped to its bare essentials: what is Releaf’s reason for being pro-legalisation?

As a group, we believe that it is ultimately about the freedom to choose. We argue that you should be free to choose to smoke a joint, in the same way as you are free to drink a tot of whiskey. But there are practical issues also. As I said, our approach is based on health and safety. It is safer, both for the individual and society, to legalise marijuana than to leave it illegal. If marijuana were properly regulated, it would drastically reduce the black market sale of the same drug. If the sale price of legal marijuana were less than the black market price... there would be no incentive to sell it illegally. This also means that to buy marijuana, you would no longer have to expose yourself to the criminal underworld. And the product itself becomes safer as a result, because you have the peace of mind that what you’re buying hasn’t been adulterated or spiked... you’ll know it’s natural and not synthetic. May I emphasise, by the way, that ‘synthetic marijuana’ is not marijuana at all. And above all, there will be reassurance that the people buying will not be minors.  We fully support the harshest penalties for anyone caught selling to minors. This is something that we expect to be enforced.


At the same time, however, Releaf seems to be a tiny minority when compared to the many organisations which have come out against legalisation. Were you expecting such a co-ordinated resistance?

Yes...  as in fact there had already been resistance even when the topic was raised just for discussion. But Malta is no longer the same as it used to be. There are indications that the population at large is no longer all that conservative: at least, not when it comes to possession and personal use of cannabis. We’re seeing, for instance, that a lot of older people agree with our position. The perception that this is something that appeals only to younger generations is not really true. We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from people of all ages... for different reasons, perhaps. The medical marijuana issue made a difference in the way people perceive the drug. Some parents even told us that their children stopped using other drugs once they turned to marijuana...  


This seems to directly contradict one of the main arguments against legalisation: the ‘Gateway drug’ scenario, which views marijuana as a stepping stone for harder and more dangerous drugs. How do you respond to that particular argument? Isn’t it partly true that most hard drug users would, in fact, have started out by smoking marijuana?

Science paints a very different picture. Recently, even the CIA has admitted that the gateway drug theory isn’t true. Not even they believe it anymore. If you look at each individual case of drug use, you will often find that it started first and foremost with legal substances: cigarettes and alcohol. But because society doesn’t view those substances as ‘drugs’ – and even then, only because they’re not illegal – they don’t get counted as the original point of departure. Besides, everyday experience demonstrates the opposite. There are plenty of scientific studies proving that, in places where marijuana was legalised, it was viewed as an ‘opt-out’ drug for heroin addicts: in some cases addicts were prescribed marijuana as a means of easing out of their heroin addiction. Even the use of marijuana itself actually went down wherever it was legalised. But the biggest argument is that, if marijuana really was a gateway drug... there would be millions more drug addicts than there actually are. Because a lot and a lot of people smoke marijuana: and if ALL these people took the next step... well, our society would already be completely screwed.  It’s like the old argument that anyone who touches whisky will become an alcoholic... you can see with your own eyes that it’s not true.

Age-limit: Science clearly shows that until that age [21], a person’s brain would still be developing... and using these substances doesn’t help with the development. At the end of the day, ours is a science-based approach


How extensive would you say marijuana use is in Malta today? I’m not asking for a precise figure, naturally, but just a general idea...

It’s hard to say. My impression is that a lot of people smoke marijuana in Malta. We’re certainly talking about large numbers. But it varies: there are those who smoke regularly; others only once in a while... some may take it only for medical reasons: pain relief, and so on.  But ‘marijuana use’, as such, is a reality that is here to stay. It was here before, and it’s not going to go away... so what we’re suggesting is that it should be properly regulated.


That’s a job that falls to the government; and already there are indications that the issue might turn into the usual political football. The Opposition has in fact come out against legalisation, and the Labour Party is itself understood to be internally divided. How do you see this developing politically?

Unfortunately the issue has already become politicised. It’s a pity because what many don’t realise is that ordinary people are affected. When an issue like this becomes polarised on partisan lines, you can’t even discuss it seriously... the discussion gets taken over by other interests. I understand that there has to be a debate; we weren’t expecting everyone to agree with us. But I was hoping the discussion would be based on scientific facts and correct information... and not the same old scaremongering tactics of the past.  Having said this, from our end, we will be willing to work with anyone who is ready to listen to our proposals. Whether it’s Labour, AD or PN, it makes no difference to us.