Non-profit cannabis model key to success for Malta reform

Drug policy consultant Steve Rolles showers Malta’s drug reform with praise

Cannabis reform policy expert Steve Rolles
Cannabis reform policy expert Steve Rolles

Fledgling cannabis clubs have started to sprout across Malta and Gozo, and people are dabbling with home-growing practices only a few months after government passed a law to legalise and regulate the recreational drug.

In an interview with MaltaToday, senior drug policy analyst Steve Rolles showed much praise for the reform, specifically with the Maltese government adopting a non-commercial model to regulate the cannabis market.

Rolles was in Malta to address a conference on the recreational cannabis law by ARUC, the regulator for the recreational cannabis law.

“It is historically important,” he said. “Malta is the first country in the EU to make this move. It’s kind of a decriminalisation model, but it’s more than just decriminalising personal possession and use. The system of allowing small-scale home-growing and non-profit organisations means that, for the first time anywhere in Europe, people will have access to a formally regulated supply.”

The reform provided full decriminalisation for adults in possession of 7g or less of cannabis for personal use. Those caught with more than 7g but less than 28g will face proceedings before the Commissioner for Justice, rather than the criminal court.

Those wanting to buy some cannabis will either be able to grow a limited supply at home, or join a cannabis ‘social club’ and purchase their supply from there.

Malta’s cannabis clubs will have to clearly label their supplies with health and potency information, and the people who dispense cannabis in the clubs will need training to give advice on the health risks of cannabis. “There are good opportunities to target health information at the people actually consuming the drug,” Rolles commented.

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 Netherlands has had coffee shops since the 1970s but they’re not actually legal,” Rolles explained. They exist in this weird legal tolerance zone but they’re not actually legal. The supply of coffee shops still comes from organised crime.”

The Maltese model stands out from other countries because there’s no commercial incentive. Cannabis clubs must run on a not-for-profit basis, and will not be allowed to market themselves.

“They learnt their lessons I think from alcohol and tobacco where you have profit-making companies seeking to encourage use. If you take away the profits, you won’t have commercial companies like Heineken and Marlboro promoting their branded products, which are essentially unhealthy.”

Some of the places in the US have more commercialised models, allowing branded products and billboard advertising to sell cannabis, much like with alcohol and tobacco products.

Meanwhile in Canada there is a commercial market but products are sold in unbranded packaging with health warnings on it.

“A regulated market gives you opportunities to get health messages to the key people, which is people who use cannabis. The person who sells cannabis is trained to give health advice. There’s health and safety information on the packaging and information on content and potency.”

This creates a similar market to tobacco products. While cigarette packaging in Malta is branded with health warnings, the UK opted to remove all branding from tobacco products. “If you look at what’s happened with tobacco marketing over the last 20 years, bans on advertising, plain packaging, health warnings on tobacco, tax rises have gone up and up, we control the price, sales, marketing, age access. Bans in smoking public places. You can still buy tobacco and consume, but it’s much better regulated. As a result, tobacco use is going down and down.”

Many local organisations were critical of Malta’s cannabis reform. Catholic groups were among the harshest critics, while Caritas and OASI Foundation argued that the bill would normalise cannabis culture in Malta.

But Rolles pointed out that around 22% of Maltese people have tried their cannabis at least once in their lifetime, with 7% having consumed cannabis in the past 12 months.

“It’s already normalised for these people. Its use is already here,” he said. “It’s about accepting the reality of cannabis-using culture as it already exists, and putting it in a safer context that allows for and encourages responsible use. It’s not about normalising it, it’s about reducing the harms associated with it.”

He added that the law will prohibit any from smoking cannabis in public spaces. “That’s not normalised. You could get a €235 fine!”

Smoking a joint can be risky, but Rolles argued that prohibiting the drug altogether is far more dangerous. “You don’t know how potent it is, you don’t buy it off someone who is able to give you advice. It may have pesticides, fungus, or heavy metals. Regulation doesn’t make it completely safe, but it makes it safer.”

It is also impossible for government to prevent problematic cannabis consumption habits, “but regulation makes them less likely, and those with problems will be able to get support more easily, and will not be afraid from reaching out to authorities for support.”

Rolles emphasised that the role of the law is not to educate people on public health. “That’s the job of government health agencies. The law is there to stop crime, and an adult person smoking cannabis is not and should not be a crime, no more so than someone drinking wine or smoking a cigarette.”

Like other legal reforms, Malta’s cannabis legislation is subject to change as it adapts to new realities while learning from previous mistakes. “It’s possible that in 10 years’ time Malta will decide to pass another law allowing for a strictly regulated commercial market. I don’t think that’s a disaster, but there’s a lot we don’t know about cannabis markets and how legalisation and regulation of cannabis will impact society. Starting cautiously like this is wise.”

Rolles pointed out that people in the Netherlands have been smoking weed for 46 years, and they still don’t have a fully legal cannabis supply. In Uruguay, the cannabis law was passed in 2013 but pharmacy sales didn’t start until 2017.

“It’s a process, there will be bumps in the road. There will be mistakes, but it’s a learning journey.”

But is cannabis legalisation a slippery slope towards decriminalising other drugs? Maybe, and Rolles said there’s nothing bad about this.

“All of the UN agencies – the WHO, UN office on drugs and crime – all 31 UN agencies have a common position calling for decriminalisation of drugs. And when I say decriminalisation I mean not criminalising people who use drugs. You don’t decriminalise actual drugs, it’s the possession of drugs. You don’t criminalise people for using drugs anymore than you don’t criminalise them for having unsafe sex or eating unhealthy food.”

The overarching principle is that the law should not be weaponised to deter bad habits. “There are lots of risky things we do. We have a public health response to these things, we don’t criminalise them. Imagine criminalising McDonald’s or sex without condoms. It would be crazy. They’re risky things, but we don’t do that.”

The discussion to decriminalise harder drugs is a difficult one, both globally and in Malta. Rolles admitted that ultimately the same arguments for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis can apply to more dangerous drugs. “It’s not necessarily a discussion for Malta to have today, but if in a year or two the cannabis policy is shown to be effective, I hope it will create space for that longer-term discussion.