Malta must act fast on medical cannabis like it did with gaming, Muscat tells Parliament

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said a number of multinational corporations involved in medicinal cannabis production had already expressed interest in setting up export operations in Malta  • Recreational cannabis debate up next

Parliament the afternoon started debating legislation that will regulate the production and distribution of medicinal cannabis in Malta
Parliament the afternoon started debating legislation that will regulate the production and distribution of medicinal cannabis in Malta

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has stressed the need for Malta to act quickly if it hoped to exploit the potential of a growing medicinal cannabis industry before it was too late.

“The window of opportunity won’t be open for ever,” said Muscat. “Just like when there was a Nationalist government had the vision to open itself up to online gaming.”

Muscat acknowledged that the government was taking a risk-based approach, but argued that it was similarly risky when the country opened itself up to the gaming industry.

The Prime Minister was speaking in parliament as it started debating a proposed law that would allow companies to manufacture medicinal products made from the cannabis plant. He said that a number of multinational corporations had already expressed interest in setting up in Malta, including one that was “listed on the stock exchange”.

“I am speaking about the economic strategy that has been this country’s edge for a long time,” said Musact. “We have the legislative agility, that allows us to pass legislation within a timeframe that other countries can only dream of, once we have taken a decision.”

Opposition wants reassurance

Nationalist MP Claudio Grech said there were still a number of points that needed to be clarified by the government, including on the economic impact of such an industry, as well as whether the government could guarantee that operators being brought to Malta would not eventually become distributors of recreational cannabis.

Grech pointed to the Netherlands, where he said there was only one operator, and Italy, where the medicinal cannabis sector was operated solely by the military.

Replying to Grech's comments, Muscat said that up until recently there were actually two operators in the Netherlands, and that the Dutch government was currently in the process of renewing one operator's contract. Moreover, he said that while it was true that the military used to run the only medicinal cannabis operation in Italy, the market had recently been liberalized.

“The market is moving, and I don’t exclude that market is moving because they can see us moving”

Referring a MaltaToday article last Sunday in which it was revealed that the government was already in talks with medicinal cannabis operators, Grech questioned whether the law being presented had been drafted with a particular operator in mind.  He also insisted that the medicinal cannabis industry could not be compared to the pharmaceutical industry.

Grech also questioned whether the medicinal cannabis industry was the type of industry Malta wanted to attract to its shores, adding that the industry was a controversial one.

“Maybe the minister can eventually present to us impact assessments on what economic impact and employment it can produce,” said Grech.

Furthermore, he said that while the minister said that Malta would be looking to set up an industry that did not include the cultivation of the plant, he said the bill presented appeared to say otherwise.

Another point of concern, said Grech, was the fact that the bill did not outline what security measures would be required, while insisting that the government should consider overseeing the entire process itself.

Most medicines more dangerous than cannabis

Replying to some of the concerns raised by Grech, the Prime Minister said that most of the medicines that were already available in the country were significantly more dangerous and sensitive than cannabis.

He stressed that once the country had accepted that it was acceptable to import and sell the product, it was logical to manufacture and import it to other countries.

Turning to the cultivation of the plant, Muscat said that companies looking to tap into the European market wanted the comfort of knowing that they could be on the market in a short period of time. He said Malta could offer this, like it had managed to set up the Crane Currency factory in less than 12 months.

“Nobody is going to get that lead time if they are cultivating,” said Muscat.

He said that despite this, the law allowed for the cultivation of cannabis because it wanted to allow the plant to be grown for research and development purposes.

Prime Minister inclined to favour recreational cannabis

Throughout the debate, members of the Opposition expressed concerns about the possibility of the government using the bill as a gateway to the production of cannabis for recreational purposes.

Muscat pointed out that while he was inclined to favour the legalisation of the plant, the bill being discussed only related to manufacture but stressed that the government had a mandate to discuss recreational cannabis.

He said he preferred the term “harm reduction approach” to recreational cannabis, and said that if Malta were to legalise the recreational use of the plant it would be required to pass another law.

“I am not saying these because I want you to rest assured that that discussion is not coming because it is,” Muscat told Grech. 

Long history of pharmaceutical manufacturing

Speaking before the Prime Minister, Economy minister Chris Cardona said that while there were other countries that were better equipped to handle the cultivation and extraction of the plant’s active ingredients, Malta had a “long history of pharmaceutical manufacturing”.

 “The industry is one that can only grow, and the opportunities after we establish ourselves as a manufacturing hub will open up the possibility of research, the management of intellectual property and fiscal matters.”

Cardona stressed that the law before parliament was based on foreign legislation, “with a particular emphasis on Canadian law”.

He emphasised that all companies operating out of Malta would have to conform to the law, as well as any applicable regulations in the Medicines Act.

According to the law, “possession, production, selling, providing, distributing, transporting and destroying cannabis and the profits” from it would require a license. Cardona stressed that in addition to conforming to the law, prospective operators would also need a green light from Malta Enterprise. 

“All projects in this sector will require strict security and will be subject to inspections by the Medicines Authority,” added the minister.

The Medicines Authority would also be setting up a specific directorate to monitor the industry.