The legalisation of cannabis would be like flying the white flag in the battle against drug abuse, according to Caritas Malta director Leonid McKay.

“Legalisation is not the alternative to the current drug use. Saying that prohibition didn’t work and moving on to legalisation is an act of surrender.

“We should acknowledge that there is a problem but we should not give up,” he told this newspaper. The battle was not lost, he insisted: there were people who completed rehab with success.

Mr McKay was talking to The Sunday Times of Malta with his colleague and coordinator of the Caritas Drug Rehabilitation Services Anthony Gatt ahead of Caritas’ launch of a position paper on the legalisation of recreational cannibis use.

Caritas is however distancing itself from the word ‘recreational’ – “a misnomer” in Mr McKay’s opinion.

Instead, it draws a clear distinction between medical and non-medical uses of cannabis. Although it does refer to the former in the paper, Caritas focuses on the non-medical use.

“Just as we don’t object to the use of morphine in medical settings, we don’t object to medical cannabis,” he said.

The paper reflects the views of 45 drug rehabilitation residents and an array of professionals: rehab staff, psychiatrists, neurologists, academics and doctors.

One of physicians’ concerns is the common perception that cannabis can cure a lot of conditions. However, according to systematic reviews, there is only very strong evidence that natural or synthetic cannabis extracts can treat three conditions, namely multiple sclerosis spasticity, chronic pain and chemo-related nausea, Mr Gatt says.

Caritas, which does not have expertise in this field, hopes that professionals will be engaged in the discussion. The authors of the paper do, however, point out access to such medication is very limited and prohibitively expensive and the need for  improved accessibility is strongly felt.

Coordinator of the Caritas Drug Rehabilitation Services Anthony Gatt and Caritas Malta director Leonid McKay. Photo: Jonathan BorgCoordinator of the Caritas Drug Rehabilitation Services Anthony Gatt and Caritas Malta director Leonid McKay. Photo: Jonathan Borg

'Legalisation will reduce perception of risk'

Meanwhile, as the drug becomes more popular with increasing availability, so will demand.

“The message that legalisation will pass on is that cannabis is OK. Legalisation will remove the social sanction against cannabis abuse. Increased use will lead to increased risk of dependence,” Mr McKay said. The implications of the legalisation of nicotine and alcohol were clear to all.  “This is why Caritas is taking a stand against the legalisation of non-medical cannabis. We have witnessed the damage, not just on the dependent person, but also on those around them and on society.”

Mr McKay acknowledged that legalisation could come with some benefits, such as the separation of markets and claiming tax on profit. However, the harm outweighed the good.

We have witnessed the damage, not just on the dependent person, but also on those around them

“We are not saying that this is all black or all white,” Mr Gatt said. “One of the benefits is that people who use it habitually, and are not dependent or suffering any consequences would actually avoid contact with the underworld by buying it from dispensaries or pharmacies.

“However, a substantial number of users – 40 per cent – are affected by it.” Around 10 per cent of users develop an addiction and suffer physical or psychological withdrawal when they do not consume cannabis, while an additional 30 per cent fall within the substance abuse category. They suffer serious consequences at home, at work and financially, but are not heavily dependent, he explained.

For Mr McKay, whether it is a gateway drug or not, cannabis as a mind-altering substance is still harmful, especially for adolescents. Though the majority of people who consume marijuana do not move to other drugs, if it becomes more accessible it will be easier for adolescents to get hold of it despite the legal restrictions.

Mr Gatt illustrated this concern by referring to the latest European figures, showing 37 per cent of those in their mid-teens reported purchasing alcohol for their own consumption. Half said they drank it in bars and clubs, even though they were under the legal age.

“Illegality is a further barrier that adolescents have to overcome to consume cannabis. That is one reason that legalisation would make it easier to access.”

'Strengthening decriminalisation over legalisation'

Right now, first time use is still a criminal act but those caught are seen by a Commissioner for Justice and fined.

If they are caught again, a drugs board will oblige them to look for help.

However, some quantities, even if for personal use, are bound by a prison sentence. “Prison is traumatising and we prefer treatment over imprisonment. We believe  the courts should be given more discretion when it comes to larger amounts not intended for trafficking,” Mr Gatt said, adding that the courts had become more sensitive nowadays.

What about the black market?

It will not disappear, just as it did not disappear for cigarettes or alcohol, according to Mr McKay. “Drug traffickers will protect their turf. Legalisation will increase the demand, not decrease it,” he added.

Mr Gatt argues that to kill the black market, the price of legal cannabis would need to be kept very low. Those not well off would still turn to the black market. The typical user in the EU is aged between 15 and 24, meaning those who are underage will still try to access it illegally.

Said by residents in drug rehabilitation, June 2017

■ “If cannabis is legalised, I will pack my bags and leave. I used to smoke eight joints a day and spend six days all right but start facing problems by the seventh day... I suffered great damage after a number of years.”

■ “Teenagers are curious and mischievous. If weed, cigarettes and alcohol are legal, they would just try out hard drugs for the thrill.”

■ “As things stand it already feels as if it’s a supermarket [of substances]… I wouldn’t be able to tell my son that cannabis is bad for him.”

■ “Caritas will have bigger problems because the use of cannabis will increase.”

■ “[Politicians] already know how many children smoke [marijuana]. Children will start off with alcohol and move on to smoke… do they know how many lives have already been ruined?”

■ “It will definitely not help people or families economically.”

Caritas’ case

• Legalisation will increase demand and make cannabis access easier.

• Cannabis not yet found to cure many conditions.

• Harmful especially to adolescents.

•10 per cent develop an addiction, 30 per cent become substance abusers.

• The black market will not disappear.

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