Harsh cannabis sentence exposes serious gap in Maltese law

A draconian, six-month prison sentence for a woman whose cannabis sapling had not yet produced any buds, might well be one of the most egregious cases in which Malta’s supposed drug reform is failing

Malta has legalised medical cannabis but has so far stalled on legalising cannabis for recreational use
Malta has legalised medical cannabis but has so far stalled on legalising cannabis for recreational use

A draconian, six-month prison sentence for a woman whose cannabis sapling had not yet produced any buds, might well be one of the most egregious cases in which Malta’s supposed drug reform is failing.

Marie Claire Camilleri is appealing the six-month prison sentence but has been shocked by the severity of the court’s decision, which she says is “totally out of synch” with the spirit of the drugs reform heralded by the Labour government.

“It has been a surreal experience that has thrown my life off-kilter,” Camilleri told MaltaToday. “I cannot understand how such a dreadful prison sentence is possible in a country which decriminalised personal cannabis and is now building a new industry infrastructure for medical cannabis businesses.”

Camilleri, in fact, is insisting that her sole sapling was still in its infancy and was clearly intended for personal use.

“The total mass of the plant, that is stem and leaves, were just 6.83 grammes. It had not produced any buds – that is, the actual cannabis that can be consumed – and it was not being cultivated with the use of artificial light or hydroponics. This was a sapling inside a 10-litre margarine container… not an industrial cultivation,” Camilleri said, sounding distraught.

“They were just shoots. And you have to consider that they had yet to produce their first flowers, which is when you start seeing whether they are either male, or female. It’s the female that produced THC, the psychoactive constituent in cannabis. At that point, the female flowers have to be separated from the males or it will produce just seeds, and not the bud that can be consumed.”

Under its recent Drug Dependency (Treatment) Act, Malta removed a previous mandatory term of imprisonment of six months for people found cultivating cannabis “in a small quantity not exceeding one plant, in circumstances where the Court is satisfied that such cultivation was for personal use.”

Camilleri insists this is exactly her case. “I know that the courts have given suspended sentences for countless others who have cultivated cannabis plants in more advanced stages than mine. That is why I cannot understand the harshness of the sentence.”

Camilleri also says that it was evident that the way the plant was being cultivated was expressly for her personal use. “This was just one plant being cultivated on my roof, still in its juvenile stages. It was months away from flowering, and there were no artificial aids assisting it. You cannot say that it was anything but personal use.”

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has now said he will be “seriously looking into” the case, telling Lovin Malta he would change the law – potentially intervening in the case itself – once he ascertains all the facts around the case. “I assure you I am taking this very seriously, but it’s a delicate matter and we cannot rush into it,” Bonnici said.

Camilleri had told the court she used cannabis to personally deal with anxiety, and that she smoked around six joints per day.

But as the magistrate who decided on the sentence said, the law surrounding the cultivation of cannabis “fails to suitably distinguish who truly deserves effective imprisonment.”

Bonnici said that changes would have to be approached with caution, fearing that Malta could end up in a situation where mass cultivation of cannabis at home is encouraged.

The magistrate did suggest that sentencing in such cases should sometimes be under the discretion of the courts. But Bonnici said it was imperative to streamline laws when it comes to personal use.

Prior to Malta’s decriminalisation reform, cannabis users could be sent to prison for simple possession.

Malta’s reformed drug laws

  • Police can prosecute on small quantities of drugs – 3.5g of cannabis, 2g of other drugs, two pills of ecstasy – but users will be subjected to fines ranging between €65 and €125, or between €50 and €100 in the case of cannabis.
  • Police can still detain people caught with small quantities of drugs for up to 48 hours, to extract information related to drug trafficking.
  • Second-time offenders, except cannabis, are referred to Drug Offenders Rehabilitation Board. Repeat cannabis offenders are exempt from appearing in front of the board, irrespective of how many times caught in possession of the drug.
  • Cultivation of a cannabis plant for personal use is no longer punishable by a mandatory prison sentence or suspended sentence, and doctors can prescribe cannabis in medicinal form if no other viable alternative exists.

More in National