One of the most vocal opponents of a new cannabis law reflects on historic changes in Malta's drug policy. Read a different perspective.

The year 2021 may be lauded as a year of victory by the one pro-cannabis organisation that has hijacked the government into introducing the de facto legalisation of cannabis use.

However, this new legislation is a huge defeat for the well-being of our society and has landed a double blow to our country’s future.

The first major blow was struck when the government rushed through very weak legislation, normalising cannabis use within our society without adequate protection for the most vulnerable, particularly children and youths.  

The second blow was a steamrolled legislative process that put the nail in the coffin of any supposedly democratic consultation.

Instead, our country was faced with an arrogant refusal to listen to reason, science, and the experts. For the government, consultation meant listening only to one pro-cannabis organisation and completely ignoring the many professionals, drug rehabilitation experts, educators and others who warned that we were walking blindly into law without having undertaken adequate local research and without mitigating the negative effects this law will undoubtedly leave on children and youths.

At each step of the way, from the White Paper feedback process to the rushed debate in a parliamentary committee, to the drawing up of a petition which collected nearly 10,000 validated signatures on Parliament’s website in just one week, the government ignored one and all.

It even chose to ignore six reasonable proposals put forward by 57 constituted bodies and NGOs in a final attempt to try to strengthen the law to ensure greater protection for children and youths.

Throughout the whole process, we were regaled with a veritable compendium of double-speak by government representatives. We were told the government was honouring an electoral pledge which was, in fact, never made. We were told that the government is following the science without being told exactly which scientific studies were being referred to.

Most importantly, the government tried to spin the new law as a civil rights measure that would decriminalise the use of cannabis for personal use when it knew full well that this was already implemented through the 2015 legislative changes and about which consensus could easily have been reached to widen further.

Let’s make this point clear once and for all. All who objected to the way the law was being introduced agreed that a person using cannabis for personal use should not be criminalised or stigmatised. That government tried to pitch the debate as one in which those opposing the law seemed to want to place cannabis users in prison was once again double-speak at its worst.

In effect the law does much more than simply widen the 2015 provisions. It allows possession of up to seven grammes of cannabis for 18-year-olds and older with no consequence whatsoever.

It allows possession of up to 28 grammes of cannabis with only a minimal administrative fine being paid. It allows the growing of four plants in any household, without the need to register with any regulatory agency and without any constraints related to the vicinity of schools or youth centres.

It allows the introduction of an unlimited number of cannabis clubs with up to a maximum number of 500 members each. For now, these clubs are being touted as non-profit-making associations and places where cannabis can only be purchased but not consumed. However, the Labour Party’s publicly declared position is that it is in favour of the introduction of clubs where cannabis can be consumed.

It seems that this will be the next step in the introduction by stealth of the commercialisation of recreational cannabis use.

This law is no great victory for civil rights. It is a victory for those who are already eyeing the profit margin when this gateway law will eventually be widened to allow commercial clubs where cannabis can also be consumed.

The law also proposes a new regulatory authority. Incredibly, minister Owen Bonnici has issued the legal notice putting into effect the new law in December, when this regulatory authority is not yet in place.

This is yet another example of the irresponsible way the government has tackled this law. Presently, all cannabis consumers can now legally possess cannabis according to the provisions of the new law but this can only have been purchased from drug traffickers.

Kudos to minister Bonnici for giving an early Christmas present to the local cannabis black market.

At the end of the day, the experiences of other countries do not augur well that what the government has touted as the benefits of this new law will materialise.  

We get no pleasure by once again pointing this out. However, scientific studies in US states which have legalised cannabis use already indicate higher rates of marijuana-related driving fatalities, more marijuana-related emergency department visits, hospitalisations and accidental exposures, an expansion of the criminal black market and increases in workplace problems. A full list of the scientific papers giving this data is available here.

2021 has been a sad year for those of us who work with children and youths, trying to guide them away from dependence on any substances, towards healthy holistic lifestyles through which they can develop their full physical, mental, social and spiritual potential.  

Nevertheless, the experience of working together with so many organisations and people in such a short time to try and make the government see reason has been an uplifting one.

We will certainly build on this experience as the government moves to implement the law to keep it to account. We will also continue to oppose any moves to open this law to the further commercialisation of cannabis.

We will continue reminding the government of our proposals to strengthen the law by offering greater safeguards for the protection of youths and children. Finally, we do not exclude exploring all other democratic options to allow the voice of the people, the majority of whom clearly do not agree with this law, to be heard.

Stephen Cachia is deputy co-ordinator of the Church Schools Association (CSA)

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