Saying the youth vote swallowed the Labour bait on cannabis could backfire for Grech

Does Bernard Grech risk pleasing nobody by agreeing with the decriminalisation of cannabis only to deride the reform as a ploy by Labour to get young peoples’ votes?

Grech’s error was to attribute the PL’s poll boosts among young people to the proposed cannabis reform, giving the impression that younger people are either gullible or one-track minded
Grech’s error was to attribute the PL’s poll boosts among young people to the proposed cannabis reform, giving the impression that younger people are either gullible or one-track minded

Opposition leader Bernard Grech risks sending out a convulted message to his electorate by derided the government’s cannabis decriminalisation as a vote-catching exercise: his party is caught yet again hunting with the hounds and running with the hares, failing to please liberals clamouring for a more comprehensive reform, and pandering to conservatives sceptical on any ‘normalisation’ of cannabis use.

Grech’s Sunday performance was a linguistic game. He did not backtrack on his party’s lukewarm support for decriminalisation, but Grech was eager to downplay the reform as a superficial vote-grabbing exercise. Keen to point out that cannabis activists had also expressed doubts on the reform (really for not going far enough...), Grech hinted that legalisation remained off limits for his party.

His first error was to attribute the PL’s poll boosts among young people to the proposed cannabis reform, giving the impression that younger people are either gullible or one-track minded, and running the risk of insulting their intelligence.

He is ignoring the fact that even some of the government’s harshest critics on rule of law issues and environmental policies, may actually agree with the White Paper simply because it is sensible not to criminalise harmless people who pose no danger to society. Grech’s criticism of Labour’s political opportunism in championing liberal reforms begs the question: what’s wrong if the government gains in popularity by advocating an overhaul of oppressive and unfair laws?

So by attributing Labour’s success in the polls to the popularity of the cannabis reform amongst the young, Grech may well have shot himself in the foot, swallowing Abela’s bait wholly and further alienating the young not just by attacking the reform but also by depicting them as gullible pawns in Abela’s political games.

A survey-driven reform?

Past surveys do not even give credence to Grech’s claim that the cannabis reform is survey-driven. The latest MaltaToday survey on the topic held in 2019 shows that 67% of the Maltese, including 57% of under-35s, are against legalising cannabis.

That does not mean that the reform is not to Labour’s electoral advantage. For while many who are against legalisation will not change their vote if such a reform is elected, some cannabis users may actually prioritise this issue over others.

Moreover one major reason why some cannabis users may be tempted to shift their vote is that they remain suspicious of the PN, which completely ignored them during its 25 years in office, marked by a draconian approach to the drug laws which culminated in the media sensation in the Daniel Holmes case. Grech’s comments on Sunday may further reinforce their mistrust.

Grech also equates decriminalisation with not sending people to jail, ignoring other unsavoury consequences faced by users after the 2015 reform, which did not stop police from arresting and questioning people found with small amounts of cannabis, as was the case with a couple arrested in a hotel room on Valentine’s day.

Grech’s hard balancing act

Grech may also be responding to electoral pressures of his own, which include an overriding concern of keeping both liberal and conservative voices on board. But he tisks pleasing neither side of the debate.

Following disappointing results in last week’s surveys, Grech seems to have shifted from its initial non-confrontational stance – which emphasised the party’s consistent position since 2015 in favour of decriminalisation – to one which is more aggressive and in line with the more conservative views of a majority of party activists. Yet when it comes to the substance of the law itself Grech is playing for time, insisting that the party needs more time to consult with stakeholders before coming with a position of its own.

By calling for more research, the PN also risks giving an impression that it is unable to take a decision which risks splitting liberals and conservatives in the Nationalist Party itself.

For while more evidence if required on various practical aspects of the law, the decision whether to criminalise a harmless segment of the population and to provide them with a legal alternative to the black market, is a political decision based on fairness and human dignity.

While it is important to assess all research on this sensitive topic, it is ultimately the politicians’ job to weigh up the evidence and come up with solutions.

A cautious white paper

Grech is probably in synch with public opinion when saying that his party cannot discount the harmful effects of cannabis. But so is the White Paper itself as proposed by the government, which goes as far as banning the consumption of the drug outdoors even where cigarette smoking is allowed.

The government is only proposing to decriminalise the possession of 7 grams of cannabis. Canada, which legalised cannabis in 2018, allows the possession of up to 30g of cannabis. Luxembourg also intends to legalise the same amount. But as proposed in the White Paper, Maltese consumers would still be fined if found in possession of between 7 and 28 grams, while those in possession of greater amounts would still be prosecuted. But it is still unclear whether the PN wants to keep or lower the thresholds in the White Paper. It is on this aspect that the PN’s commitment for decriminalisation will be tested. For any suggestion of lowering these thresholds will come at the risk of criminalising more harmless people.

But even if the PN is fully committed for decriminalisation, it can’t escape the reality that once cannabis is decriminalised, one also has to look at how users get their supply.

For if personal consumption is simply decriminalised but the supply remains illegal, users will still have to rely on the black market for their personal provision. The fundamental question is whether we want users to continue buying from the black market or whether we want to offer legal and thus more regulated alternatives.

Therefore by supporting decriminalisation while remaining hesitant on offering a legalised supply of the product, the PN is also shunning attempts to regulate the market and take it away from organised crime.

In this sense decriminalisation will simply leave things as they are now, with the only difference being that consumers of less than 7 grams, will no longer suffer any legal sanctions. This will simply result in a bizarre situation in which users will still be relying on the black market for the provision of product whose consumption is no longer illegal while suppliers will still be hounded for catering for a legitimate demand.

Operation ‘greenfingers’

The White Paper as proposed still does not completely address this problem. While home-growing of up to four plants will be legalised, it remains unclear how those who are unable to grow their own plants will get their own personal supply. Surely by focusing on home-growing any proposed Bill would seek to avoid the takeover of the cannabis market by big business or shady criminal elements. If anything this suggests a cautious and prudent approach on the government’s part.

But one cannot ignore the fact that a large number of present consumers will not be growing their own supply and will still buy from the black market if an alternative legal supply is made available.

The government has hinted that it is open to suggestions on how to address this lacuna. This could be a way for the government to put the onus on further liberalisation on civil society itself rather than being seen as the one pushing for a more comprehensive legalisation model.

One possible solution which still falls short of a fully-fledged cannabis market was that advocated by Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer, which would allow no-profit organisations to grow cannabis for those who can’t do this at home. This may well be the Rubicon which the PN will never dare cross, irrespective of any evidence which may be presented supporting such a stance.

Grech may be far more effective if he spells out a clear position on the principles guiding him on this issue, leaving the details to after the consultation process. Voters tend to reward clarity over muddled messages like the one delivered by Grech on Sunday.