Malta's Cannabis Reform: A Progressive Step Amidst Concerns
Malta's recent cannabis reform has been hailed as a significant transformation in the health and wellbeing of its citizens. While the reform has brought about numerous benefits, concerns about the 'normalisation' of cannabis use have also emerged.
The Pioneering Cannabis Reform in Malta
In December 2021, Malta made history by becoming the first European country to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes. The Cannabis Reform Act now allows individuals to possess up to 7 grams of cannabis in public and cultivate up to four plants at home without legal repercussions. Instead of a commercial market, Malta adopted a social club model, where cannabis is procured through non-profit associations.
Benefits of the Reform
Andrew Bonello, president of Releaf Malta, highlights the immense advantages of the bill for consumers. It offers protection against criminalisation and societal stigma and fosters a sense of community among users.
The government and the Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) have shifted their perspective, viewing cannabis consumers not as criminals but from a standpoint of social justice and human rights. However, conservative groups continue to disseminate misinformation about the reform, creating unnecessary fear.
Addressing the 'Normalisation' Concerns
Two major NGOs in Malta, OASI Foundation and Caritas Malta, have noted a decline in calls for assistance from cannabis users in 2022. Both organisations, initially against the policy change, attribute this decrease to the 'normalisation' of cannabis use.
Bonello challenges this view, suggesting that the legal changes might have led to more open discussions about cannabis rather than an increase in problematic use. He also highlights that these organisations consider any consumption beyond 3.5 grams as addiction, which could distort perceptions.
Shifting the Focus
Bonello emphasises the need to address the rising trend of synthetic drug use among the youth. He believes that health services and rehab centres should concentrate on this pressing issue instead of raising baseless concerns about cannabis. The newfound freedom, albeit limited, is a significant step forward, especially considering the severe penalties previously associated with cultivation.
The Anticipated Cannabis Associations
While the Cannabis Reform Act has decriminalised possession and cultivation, the establishment of Cannabis Associations remains a work in progress. Despite 26 applications submitted as of June 2023, none have become operational.
The application process, which began in February, has been criticised for its excessive bureaucracy. Bonello also expresses concerns that the requirements might exclude many legacy growers, missing an opportunity to redress past injustices.
Championing a Harm-Reduction Approach
All Cannabis Associations must adhere to specific guidelines set by the ARUC to minimise harm. These include ensuring the clubs are located at least 250 metres away from educational institutions and youth centres and prohibiting advertising. While there's no price cap or THC limit, associations are encouraged to offer cannabis at prices lower than the illegal market. The sale of pre-rolled joints and alcohol is also forbidden. Bonello remains optimistic that this harm-reduction approach will promote healthier consumption habits and provide valuable data to shape future policies.
Malta's cannabis reform represents a significant shift in the nation's approach to drug policy. By prioritising social justice and human rights, the country is paving the way for a more inclusive and informed future. As the world watches, Malta's journey offers valuable insights into the challenges and rewards of cannabis legalisation.