Malta a step closer to radical drugs reform with ‘cannabis club’ law

Legislation not commercialisation: How cannabis has been regularised around Europe

File photo
File photo

Malta will allow non-profit associations to grow cannabis and distribute it among members, in new legislations to regulate home-growing of recreational cannabis.

The islands will follow in the footsteps of other EU countries which are trying to reduce the harm caused by criminalisation, while learning from the negatives of the models in countries like Holland.

Countries which regularised cannabis in recent years have each implemented various models, ranging from market liberalisation, with private operators running ‘cannabis clubs’ where each patron is granted a limited amount of cannabis; to a nationalised dispensary system.

The coffee-shop culture in Amsterdam started back in the 1980s when the country adapted its drug policy to be more tolerant of users while still taking a hard stance against the illegal drug trade.

The end to the prosecution of cannabis offences led people to sell cannabis in coffee-shops and caused a huge increase in the number of such shops across the country. In order to control these sales, the Dutch government introduced restrictions on coffee-shops in 1996.

Today coffee-shops abide by strict conditions that preclude them from advertising the sale of cannabis, with no more than 500 grams allowed inside the establishment, sale to minors prohibited, and no alcohol allowed to be sold on site. Flouting these rules risks up to a six-month ban and even permanent closure. Coffee-shops also cannot operate within a 250m radius of a school.

Still, the Dutch model does have its own ‘backdoor problem’: while consumers can purchase cannabis from a coffee-shop, the shop itself has no legal way of accessing the cannabis it is selling, because the cultivation and sale of large amounts of cannabis are still illegal under current laws. The café’s front door is always open... but it’s the ‘back door’ that is closed.

So in 2005, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) proposed a system to allow the legal production and distribution of cannabis, similar to the one the Maltese government hopes to introduce in its proposed law.

Regulation through cannabis clubs is based on four principles: 1. non-commercial basis, 2. a closed membership format, 3. Professional and collective cultivation and 4. a limited volume of marijuana.

The cannabis club sector has grown exponentially in Spain, with over 200 clubs in Barcelona alone, and roughly 400 across the whole country. Switzerland also joined the trend in 2016, and allowed the launch of pilot cannabis clubs in four cities – Bern, Zurich, Basel and Geneva.

The non-commercial approach by cannabis clubs has a number of benefits over the Dutch model. For starters, the primary goal of producers in the commercial market is that of generating the highest possible profits, which is more readily achieved by maximising consumption and encouraging the initiation of new users.

But this requires a more rigorous regulatory system that minimises profit-motivated efforts. The club model addresses this concern, because the relatively closed membership system limits availability and reduces the potential for new, and typically young, users to get into cannabis use.

It can also serve as a transitional model which helps in establishing social norms around cannabis consumption.

Still, despite clubs being barred from turning a profit, the sharp increase in clubs in Spain has led to concerns that they are turning away from their non-commercial ethos. Reports that certain clubs in Barcelona now have thousands of members, as a result of less stringent regulation, also allowing the admission of tourists, have raised concerns about how to keep the system in check.

There is simply the need to get the balance right – if the introduced system and legislation are too restrictive, consumers will turn to the black market, meaning the government’s aim of fighting illegality is not met.

On the other hand, if regulation is too lax, the public health aspect and concerns raised by professionals would be totally ignored. There might not be a perfect solution, but government has to balance priorities and through informed responsible decisions, see what works and amend what doesn’t.

READ MORE: Cannabis legalisation will allow regulated associations and home growing of plant