Cannabis associations will be non-profit as promised when laws were revised, Reforms Minister Byron Camilleri assured on Friday, after the head of the sector’s regulatory authority was sacked just 10 months into the job.

"The law is clear. I still believe that this should not be commercialised. We will implement the law and we have to ensure that this is implemented as approved in parliament," the minister said.

When pressed to give assurances to the public businessmen will not profit from the associations, Camilleri said: "Band clubs make small profits at the end of the year, but they are still non-profits. They do not make huge profits."

The minister was asked to comment after Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) chair Mariella Dimech announced on Friday that she had been sacked. Dimech said she disagreed with the “political strategy” being undertaken.

Minister Byron Camilleri speaks about the cannabis reform. Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Dimech was tasked with introducing a regulatory framework to allow non-profit cannabis associations to operate. The associations will be allowed to sell restricted amounts of cannabis to registered members.

But almost one year after cannabis laws were reformed to decriminalise the drug, no regulations have been published. Prime Minister Robert Abela told Times of Malta last week that he was frustrated with the slow pace of progress and was “pushing” for things to move faster.

Fears of profit-driven market

Reacting to Dimech’s sacking, the NGO that led campaigning to reform cannabis laws, Releaf, said it was concerned that the dealer-driven black economy for cannabis was poised to be replaced by a takeover by “an equally profit-driven market run by a few friends in high places".

The minister was asked whether any consortia were set to run cannabis associations. He did not reply directly, instead saying the government is committed to implement the law as approved in parliament. 

On the sacking of Dimech and appointment of Leonid McKay as her replacement, the minister said the new chair's job will be easier as he would not need to start from scratch and could build on the work already done.

"I understand it was not easy and she was dealing with something completely new," he said, thanking Dimech for her time in the job.

He also dismissed concerns that McKay's background and position on cannabis would negatively impact progress. On the contrary, he said, he knows the people who make use of the drug and so is in a good position to lead this agency. 

McKay formerly led Caritas, which is notably anti-cannabis and was among the lead objectors to the reformed law.

Complaints about lack of budget

In comments earlier on Friday, Dimech claimed she did not have a functional office, staff or budget to work with during her time as ARUC chair.  

ARUC will be responsible for regulating the cannabis sector, overseeing the implementation of the law and receiving and assessing period reports from associations. It must ensure associations do not grow more cannabis than permitted, restrict sale to members, maintain up-to-date membership lists and are not advertising their services.

According to the government’s budgetary estimates for 2023, the government has earmarked €400,000 in taxpayer funds to finance a cannabis education campaign in 2023, but just €200,000 for ARUC.

By comparison, the NCPE has a €500,000 budget, the Commission for Gender-Based Violence has €500,000 to spend and the Victim Support Agency has a €300,000 allocation. Unlike those authorities, the Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis is expected to licence and oversee private associations.

ARUC had a budget of €100,000 for 2022. 

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