MPs give Grech no support to attempt new tack on cannabis law

Opposition leader Bernard Grech faced stiff opposition inside the Nationalist Party not to back Labour’s cannabis bill

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

A meeting in which the Nationalist parliamentary group was finally expected to iron out its position on a cannabis legalisation Bill, was marked by a heated exchange between PN leader Bernard Grech and the veteran MP Mario Galea.

Grech has been facing stiff opposition inside the PN not to back Labour’s bill, which allows households to grow up to four plants indoors, but also legalises the dispensation of up to a monthly 50g of cannabis per person, from non-profit associations.

Grech has already attacked the cannabis legalisation bill as a ‘vote-winning’ ruse by Labour.

But he was faced with calls not to back the Bill again, despite the popularity the law might have with younger PN voters.

As Grech canvassed the MPs on where they stood on the law, it quickly became apparent he had no support whatsoever from those present for the meeting.

Ryan Callus was one of the few voices calling for support for the bill, having previously also charged some MPs with ‘short-sightedness’ on the need for reform in drugs policy and the popular support such rules could enjoy. But he did not attend Friday’s meeting. Likewise, the MPs who could have offered Grech some support – Karl Gouder and Therese Commodini Cachia – were also absent on Friday.

READ ALSO: PN will not support cannabis legalisation: ‘law will normalise drug abuse’

Claudette Buttigieg for example, was said to have told Grech she would vote with the majority of MPs, showing herself non-committal on the matter.

Secretary-general Michael Piccinino, who by right can attend parliamentary group meetings, was present but did not participate in the heated discussion.

Former leader Adrian Delia told Grech that if the PN supports the Bill, it would get none of the credit, since people would still attribute the reform to the Labour Party.

Grech seemed to acknowledge his defeat when he did not even call for a vote on the matter but moved to determine how the party should best present its decision. The resulting statement was that the party now “considers the bill proposed by the Government as normalising and aiding in a rise in drug abuse in our country”, and that the MPs will not back a bill that favours a “prevalent drug abuse culture” without safeguards for addiction or a strategy against trafficking.

“With this bill, the Labour government is turning its back on children and their interests. The Nationalist Party believes that parliament should only legislate to strengthen Maltese society and should never be used by a political party to create a diversion on the eve of a general election,” the PN said in its official statement.

Yet even after this resolution, Grech still challenged his MPs about the way decisions taken by the parliamentary group would be reflected in polls. “Don’t come talking to me about the surveys then,” one source privy to the proceedings reported Grech as saying.

A group of MPs voiced their disagreement at Grech’s accusation, but it was Mario Galea, the party’s spokesman for mental health and animal welfare, who took most offence at Grech’s words.

“You dare accuse us of being the reason for your poor polling numbers?” Galea was said to have retorted at Grech. “Why don’t you acknowledge that we are fed up with you coming before us having already made up your mind about things without discussing anything with us?”

And Grech apparently rose to the challenge. “If you’re fed up, don’t come here!”

Galea too would not step down. “If anyone should leave, it’s you,” he told Grech. “After all, I was co-opted here in a fair vote. You are only in your seat by chance and because we put you there!”

Other MPs then intervened to calm the two.

The sources who spoke to MaltaToday said it was apparent that Grech had not yet managed to garner consensus on certain issues. “In the case of major party policy as is our position on cannabis use, it is the executive committee that votes and decides, not the parliamentary group,” one party official told MaltaToday. “Once a vote is taken in the Executive, the General Council would then be called to vote on the policy.”

The official thinks Grech should have taken the matter to the PN executive committee, which includes a representation of MPs but not the entire group, before committing the party to a major policy change.

“It’s not the first time that party structures are bypassed. Grech promises much about what to do if elected to power, but it is the Executive and the General Council that ultimately approves the electoral programme.”

Another source suggested that Grech’s latest recruits to the party had riled the party establishment and backbench. “Grech or his advisors will be unable to cancel ‘tradition’... some MPs are fed up of having policies shoved down their throats without proper discussion.”

READ ALSO: Grech won’t support cannabis bill that is all about legalisation, and not decriminalisation