Caritas seeks ban on synthetic cannabis products sold in stores

Caritas director Anthony Gatt had flagged the case of the ‘ketamine’ gummies sold on the legal market to the University of Malta’s forensic analysis laboratory

The sachets of MDMA gummies tested by the University forensic analysis lab
The sachets of MDMA gummies tested by the University forensic analysis lab

Caritas director Anthony Gatt had flagged the case of the ‘ketamine’ gummies sold on the legal market to the University of Malta’s forensic analysis laboratory.

In an address to a graduation ceremony for substance abusers at its San Blas centre, Gatt said that in cooperation with University of Malta researchers and colleagues from the substance abuse charity OASI, Caritas had been pushing for a ban on the sale of synthetic cannabis products like HHC being sold in groceries, corner shops and stationeries.

The analysis revealed the extent of synthetic chemicals found inside unregulated, yet legally available edibles until recently also purchasable from the online marketplace Wolt.

The forensic lab, which carries out drug analysis for the police force, said a packet of so-called ‘MDMA gummies’ had revealed the presence of a novel synthetic hallucinogen – 2-Fluorodeschloroketamine. “The ease of obtaining such product makes the situation even more worrying,” the University forensic lab warned in its public alert.

Researchers analysing the gummies, marketed under the names of ‘Speed’ and ‘MDMA’ gummies to allude to the effects of the aforementioned substances, chiefly found the presence of the 2-Fluorodeschloroketamine in the gummies.

“A colleague bought them and sent them to the laboratory, and surprise, surprise, there were traces of MDMA (Ecstasy), Ketamine, and Amphetamine,” Gatt told the Caritas graduation ceremony. “This is a moment where we are truly seeing darkness. We believe there is a solution if there is a will for true enforcement.”

Synthetic hallucinogens are chemically manufactured drugs that mimic the effects of traditional hallucinogens. These substances are typically employed in the formulation of stimulants and psychoactives such as ketamine or PCP, and LSD, substances that induce altered perception and detachment from reality.

Synthetic cannabis is presented often as herbs which are adulterated with HHC – hexahydrocannabinol – to mimic the effects of THC. The reason they can be marketed for sale in Malta is that the product, often labelled as being “unsuitable for human consumption” has low levels of THC below 0.2%.

But neither the pharmacology nor the toxicology of HHC in humans has been studied in detail.

Since HHC products are not regulated, there is no way of understanding the quantity of HHC in a product, whether it will lead to its consumer getting high, or how long that high will last since the process that extracts HHC makes it hard to get a consistent amount, even in the same batch.

Caritas: heroin problem users fall

In 2023, Caritas registered 808 clients seeking drug treatment or counselling, with 257 being admitted to their residential programme.

Data presented by Caritas shows a decade-long decrease in problem users reporting heroin addiction, which in 2012 represented 58% of all its clients. Over the decade, that rate fell to 17% of total clients – a decline of 70%.

On the contrary, cocaine users reporting to Caritas more than doubled (124%), when in 2012 these represented 25% of clients, growing to 56% last year.

Cannabis users reporting to Caritas for its services, on average grew by 4.65%.

Gatt has complained that a lack of law enforcement on cannabis smoking was leading to abusive smoking in public places or next to children. “Teachers are asking us whether cannabis is still dangerous – it’s a walkover when they face students. What can they do when students say, ‘isn’t it not legal now? My father smokes, he grows plants.’”

Malta partially decriminalised the recreational smoking and growing of cannabis in 2021. Non-profit associations can register up to 500 members, to dispense to 7g of cannabis daily, capped at 50g per month. The use cannabis in public is not permissible. Individuals can grow up to four plants of cannabis in their home and have up to 50g of dried produce in their residence at any given point. Such plants cannot be visible to third persons.

“I have never taken drugs in my life... but I must admit that since December 2019 I have started encountering it when I go for a run on Għar id-Dud, at the beach... it’s becoming more frequent that marijuana smoke gets into my nose,” Gatt said in his address to the Caritas ceremony.

Gatt complained that while the regulation of cannabis clubs had been carried out “seriously” by the Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis, the agency’s campaign to inform the public about the law and where cannabis can be consumed does not include a warning to keep away from the substance.

“We know what happened with cigarettes, and unfortunately, we will go through the same cycle with cannabis. What cancer is to tobacco will be mental health problems for cannabis,” Gatt said.