Cannabis reform is one vote away from becoming law

Opposition MPs raise a number of concerns on cannabis reform in committee stage but do not put forward substantial amendments

The cannabis reform Bill is one step away from being passed in parliament after it cleared committee stage on Tuesday.

In a four-hour-long sitting MPs discussed the individual clauses and approved minor changes to the Bill that will allow people to possess up to 7g of cannabis, grow the plant at home and buy from regulated clubs.

However, despite being against the reform, the Opposition MPs on the committee did not put forward any substantial amendments.

The Bill now has to pass the Third Reading in parliament, which is a mere formality given government’s majority, before being signed into law by the President.

The cannabis authority

During the discussion, Opposition MPs and NGO representatives, who were invited to contribute, questioned the proposed cannabis authority’s role in carrying out an educational campaign on the responsible use of the substance.

“It’s contradictory to regularise a substance, but at the same time carry out an educational campaign on it,” PN health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri said.

Nationalist MP Claudio Grech also questioned how the authority will be able to carry out educational campaigns. “How can we educate someone to take drugs responsibly?” he asked.

He also voiced concern at how the Bill frames the reform as “the responsible use of cannabis.”

“It’s as if we are sending the message that there is a good way of consuming drugs,” Grech said.

Stephen Cachia from the Church Schools Association said the law needs to be strengthened from a regulatory standpoint.

“We are not clear on the educational campaigns – are they on the prevention or the responsible use? We are fearing they will have conflicting arguments,” he said.

PN Health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri said the cannabis authority must include professionals like psychologists and doctors.

“We could have chosen to stop the authority at just a regulatory level, but we chose to go a step further and ensure the needed studies are carried out,” the reforms minister Owen Bonnici said replying to the concerns raised. “Yes, I find no issue with experts and doctors within the authority, for this legislation to be successful, we need to have a successful authority.”

NGOs raise concerns on increase in cannabis use

Anthony Gatt from Caritas said certain clauses within the law will inadvertently lead to an increase in cannabis use.

“The crucial point is: 5/10 years down the line, will cannabis use be reduced? Let’s put brakes on this law,” Gatt said.

During the discussion, Claudio Grech called on the minister to raise the age of people who will be allowed to purchase and be in possession of cannabis from 18 to 25. “All experts have called for the age to be raised.”

“If we do that, we will create a vacuum, and they will face the same consequences we are trying to eliminate,” Bonnici replied.

Andrew Bonello from the NGO ReLeaf welcomed a number of aspects of the bill.

“Our education system has always been geared towards prevention. We are now taking a bold step towards harm reduction. We are now looking at the realities of people who are making use of cannabis,” he said.

Stephen Cachia said the 250-metre limit from a cannabis club to a school needs to be increased to 1 kilometre. “This puts our children in danger, especially those in post-secondary institutions.”

He also voiced his concern that residences overlooking schools will have cannabis plants which can be seen by students.

Bonnici insisted that the law was clear in barring plants from being visible to the public.

Minister Bonnici also said the definition of cannabis has changed within legislation. The substance used to be referred to as ‘Qaneb Indjan’, and will now be changed to cannabis.

“The definition has been changed, because we are excluding from the definition of cannabis, products with less than 0.2% THC. You have creams, you have shampoos and other products. There is a European court sentence which states that products with less than 0.2 grams have to be allowed to be distributed freely,” he said.

When the issue of THC limits was raised by a number of representatives, the reforms minister rebutted by saying that it will open the door for a “new black market”, where drug dealers sell higher THC products.

In his concluding statements, Grech said that he expected suggestions made by the Opposition to be included.

“I would have expected the Opposition to present concrete amendments if it believes so much in its arguments,” the minister rebutted.

Minister Owen Bonnici, MPs Rosianne Cutajar, Ian Castaldi Paris and Jonathan Attard were representing the government on the committee, while MPs Claudette Buttigieg, Claudio Grech and Stephen Spiteri represented the opposition.