[ANALYSIS] Five reasons Labour is so cautious on legalising recreational marijuana

Two years on, no concrete plans have been presented and Malta may be overtaken by Luxembourg as the first EU country with a legalised cannabis market. Why is Labour – once so eager to push the boundaries on gender identity and same sex families – more cautious on this liberal reform?

Labour promised it would initiate discussions on the use of recreational cannabis in what was interpreted as a commitment to legalise the drug as suggested by the Prime Minister’s own declarations before the election.

Two years on, no concrete plans have been presented and Malta may be overtaken by Luxembourg as the first EU country with a legalised cannabis market. Why is Labour – once so eager to push the boundaries on gender identity and same sex families – more cautious on this liberal reform?

Only last week Julia Farrugia Portelli, the parliamentary secretary entrusted with spearheading the reform, expressed her misgivings on acknowledging the drug’s recreational use, while still confirming the intention to regulate cannabis in what she described as a “harm reduction” measure.

Her statement unleashed a storm in her own party, with activists like MEP candidate Cyrus Engerer insisting on her honouring the manifesto commitment. Farrugia nipped the controversy in the bud by reiterating the manifesto commitment. But still it appears that the parliamentary secretary is in no rush to present the reform which she wants preceded by an educational campaign. This may well be her way of winning over support among more cautious segments of the population for a reform she ultimately wants to enact.

But why is Labour so cautious on what could be the only foreseeable liberal reform it has left in its arsenal?

Daniel Attard (left) and Cyrus Engerer (right) have taken issue with Julia Farrugia Portelli's remark on the PL manifesto's use of the word recreational cannabis
Daniel Attard (left) and Cyrus Engerer (right) have taken issue with Julia Farrugia Portelli's remark on the PL manifesto's use of the word recreational cannabis

1. Malta still lacks a strong movement for legalisation to steer the debate

So far the only group to advocate legal changes is Releaf, a self-described community-based pressure group that is demanding a change in national cannabis policy.

The group has engaged in lobbying political parties and broke the taboo by giving a voice to a marginalised segment of the population. Yet the campaign to legalise cannabis has not attracted support from more respectable establishment figures like politicians, law enforcement officers, artists, public officials, celebrities and public intellectuals who can give legitimacy to an argument associated with a fringe minority.

Their support was vital in ensuring a shift in mentality in other countries which have seen drug reforms.

On the other hand, established anti-drug charities like Caritas, which are highly influential have remained largely opposed to the idea. George Vella, the newly elected president has also expressed his misgivings. People are also bound to change opinions when faced with the experience of people who function well in society and who have no qualms in admitting their recreational use. But so far people have remained reluctant fearing the stigma of being associated with illegal drug use of any kind.

2. Surveys still show widespread opposition

According to the latest MaltaToday survey on the topic, support for cannabis legalisation stands at 23.6%.

Opposition to legalisation ran at 66.6%, and almost 10% were unsure where they stood on the issue. But surveys had also previously indicated widespread opposition to adoption by same-sex couples, something which is now widely accepted.

Moreover, surveys indicate that support for legalisation rises to 38% among those aged 18 and 35, and that a tenth of Maltese have smoked cannabis; 30% know someone who does. This may well indicate that legalising cannabis may turn off some voters but may be a popular measure among strategic cohorts. Moreover legalisation may well give Labour an opportunity to reconnect with liberal voters.

3. Marijuana is already depenalised

One reason why the government may be under less pressure to legalise cannabis is that consumers no longer risk prison sentences even if they may still be subject to arrest and warning.

Moreover consumers still have to rely on the illegal market to get access for the product. While conservatives fear that the availability of legal cannabis may encourage law-abiding citizens to try a product which they shun because of its illegality, the current situation is putting otherwise law-abiding citizens in contact with the black market, where they may even be exposed to more dangerous substances.

With a legal product Consumers would also have access to a safer product which contains less THC, and higher levels of CBD, the non-intoxicating compound called cannabidiol. In fact one of the problems of keeping cannabis illegal is that there is no control on the product bought. This has led to a dramatic increase in THC levels in the past decade, with current strains being as much as 40 times more powerful than the stuff consumed in the 1960s.

4. Legalisation may pose logistical problems

Legalisation can be achieved through different models, ranging from tight control of the entire supply chain by the state – as is the case in Uruguay where users have to register to collect their ration from pharmacies – and a more open market as is the case with Colorado and Canada, where cannabis can be bought from private but licenced providers.

Another major issue is whether to permit home growing and whether tourists and non-residents will be allowed to buy from the legal market. Irrespective of the model chosen, the state will have to licence growers to secure a legal supply. Moreover legalisation comes with regulations on age, packaging, amounts which one can buy and chemical composition. In all countries where cannabis has been legalised, advertising and selling to minors is banned.

One contentious issue is whether to allow cannabis smoking in public areas or whether to restrict use in public homes. In legalising cannabis, Malta would also have to consider the impact on other neighbouring countries where the product is still illegal. Addressing these logistical issues is one more reason for the government to present a road map with a clear goal because it will take months if not years to come up with a concrete model. In fact Luxembourg has done exactly that by stating its intention to legalise cannabis in two years time.

5. The parliamentary secretary herself is very cautious

Julia Farrugia Portelli, known for her firm stance against the use of the use of drugs, is definitely not the type to rush on a law which may well seal her legacy. Some may question whether she is even the right person to steer the reform.

Yet her caution and character may well make her the best person to sell the reform to more conservative elements in both her party and in society at large. Much depends on whether she has a clear roadmap in mind. The question is whether she is able to bring forward a legalisation model which addresses the concerns of more conservative elements or whether these concerns will weigh on her conscience, leading to further procrastination.

How Luxembourg is tackling the issue

Luxembourg, whose coalition government has a clear mandate to legalise cannabis, intends to enact the reform in two years time and thus become the first EU country to fully legalise cannabis.

Other countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain already permit the sale of the product in licenced establishments or clubs but the supply remains illegal. Outside the EU only Uruguay, Canada and 11 US states have fully legalised the product.

While the details have still to be worked out the parameters of the reform are already clear. Adults aged 18 and over to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis while in public. Minors aged between 12 and 17 will not be criminalised for possessing up to five grams of the drug but will not have access to the legal market.

The government also intends to introduce strict regulations on the sale of cannabis. The THC content of cannabis will have an upper limit, which has yet to be fixed, and people who sell cannabis outside of the legal framework will face harsh punishments – possibly even harsher penalties than now.

Additionally, only Luxembourg residents will be permitted to purchase cannabis – a decision that may have been made following concern from authorities in neighbouring France and Germany. Authorities are yet to decide if residents will be permitted to cultivate cannabis for their personal use.

The cultivation and sale of the drug will be highly regulated, overseen by a cannabis agency and all taxes generated from the sales will go into drug education and treatment for drug addiction. But it is unclear how the product will actually be grown and sold.

One area of contention is whether to ban the use of cannabis in public, which risks discriminating against tenants and people of limited means. The officials recommended allowing use of the drug in specific public areas.