Activists fear medical cannabis companies want in on recreational market

MaltaToday understands that a medical cannabis company has already reached out to the government over its intention to “know the way forward” on recreational cannabis

Established medical cannabis companies could be looking to set their foot in Malta’s flegdling recreational cannabis market, according to sources who spoke to MaltaToday.

Releaf, the NGO that led the campaign to legalise recreational cannabis, fear that the sacking of the Authority for Responsible Use of Cannabis’s first director could lead to the dealer-driven black economy for cannabis poised for a takeover “an equally profit-driven market run by a few friends in high places”.

Mariella Dimech was sacked after 10 months in the job, with not one single licence for the non-profit cannabis ‘clubs’ having yet been issued. Dimech complained that she had been left without a functional office, staff, budget or political strategy with which to carry out her job.

MaltaToday understands that a medical cannabis company has already reached out to the government over its intention to “know the way forward” on recreational cannabis, with sources claiming this could be a sign of business interest in the ‘non-profit’ regime of recreational cannabis.

“Why else would they reach out to government? They are already established in the medical cannabis industry, and would have no other intention then to make profits,” the sources said.

The sacking of Mariella Dimech, a proponent of the not-for-profit model for cannabis-growing associations, has raised eyebrows within the pro-legalisation community over government preparedness in enacting the law.

Andrew Bonello, a spokesperson for ReLeaf, pointed out a number of shortcomings yet to be dealt with by government.

“There are good things – such as allowing people to grow their own cannabis at home and allowing private consumption,” he said. “Also positive is the expungement of criminal records, even though government has yet to issue a single figure.”

But he believes one of the first red flags of the law’s implementation is to establish the cannabis-growing clubs Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) rather than Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

“As ARUC head, Dimech told us that the associations were being turned from an NGO into an NPO. How are they going to be regulated then? How are they going to be registered? Why the change?” Bonello pointed out.

“We don’t want the associations to be turned into commercial spaces, because a community-based approach provides a safe-space for users.”

Critics believe a NPO would leave much room for commercialisation and large revenues.

Bonello says it would be a “messy” situation that runs counter to the spirit of a community-based approach where associations “understand the needs and wants of the users... but unfortunately we are seeing none of this.”

Even criminal defence lawyer Franco Debono believes the government has placed the cart before the horse on recreational cannabis. “You cannot make possession of the substance legal, when there is no legal outfit from where to buy it from. If the State decides on legalising possession of the substance, it should have catered for this.”

Debono pointed out the reality that while home-growing is legal, not everybody who consumes cannabis will grow their own product. “We’re in a situation where the authorities have to close their eye to an illegality, where people are still buying their cannabis illegally. Whichever way you look at it, it’s wrong, and it is unfair.”

Debono said the government’s legal framework had now created a demand for a product whose supply was still illegal. “If you legalise, it should provide a source from where to buy it from.”

In 2021, Malta officially legalised recreational cannabis and home-growing – the first country in the EU to do so. The law allows the individual possession of up to 7g of cannabis, and the growing of four plants at home.

It also provides for regulated clubs from where cannabis can be sold to registered members, within limits. The government believes the law will pull cannabis users away from the black market, by allowing the purchase of cannabis from non-profit sources in the form of ‘cannabis clubs’.

Non-profits, under current legislation, would be allowed to grow cannabis on behalf of registered members, while being licensed and regulated by the Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC).

But after the sacking of the ARUC head, Mariella Dimech, pro-cannabis activists have criticised the apppointment of former Caritas chief Leonid McKay as her replacement.

Home Affairs minister Byron Camilleri has insisted that cannabis associations will be non-profit as promised. “The law is clear. I still believe that this should not be commercialised. We will implement the law and we have to ensure that this is implemented as approved in parliament.”

But the minister has not answered directly as to whether any business groups had signalled their interest in running cannabis associations. “Take band clubs as an example: they make small profits at the end of the year, but they are still non-profits. They do not make huge profits.”