The controversial cannabis reform bill will move to its third reading and final vote with no major amendments after calls for change were dismissed by the government.
The bill will legalise cannabis for personal use, with adults being able to legally possess up to seven grams of cannabis without the risk of arrest or confiscation.
Recommendations made by the Nationalist Party as well and the NGO’s Caritas, Oasi Foundation and the Secretariat for Catholic Education included introducing a cap of the percentage of THC, the element that gives cannabis its kick as well as reducing the limit of legal possession below seven grams and expanding the amount that would land a person before a drug tribunal.
No formal amendments were moved by the Nationalist MPs but they also suggested that the bill should require more technical qualifications from people chosen to lead the new authority that will regulate cannabis use.
Mixed messages on harm reduction
Concerns were raised that the dual role of the authority to regulate the sector and also conduct harm reduction campaigns would result in mixed messages undermining the main aim of discouraging people from taking drugs.
PN MP Claudio Grech pointed out that while both sides of the House agreed in principle on the focus of harm reduction, the government and the opposition had different perspectives on what constituted harm reduction in principle.
Grech said that he was concerned that when tasked with carrying out educational campaigns, the new Authority being set up by this bill may focus on teaching people the legal definition of responsible drug use and not actively discouraging people from making use of drugs.
Caritas Director Anthony Gatt said that while he understood the perspective of adults who made infrequent personal use of cannabis, there were fears that the legislation as proposed would lead to an overall increase in cannabis users a few years down the line.
He added that while accommodating those who are capable of using cannabis in a contained way, the law would not actively discourage drug use.
“We appreciate that we are giving more security to people on an individual level, but in the long run it will increase the number of people who are impacted negatively by it,” he said.
“So, let’s be more stringent to address this and focus on personal use, rather than responsible use.”
Ian Mifsud, from the Secretariat for Catholic Education, said that the problem with cannabis was that people were seeking pleasure from external sources. Education should focus on encouraging people to seek pleasure from internal sources.
“Just like I can be stimulated by eating a slice of pizza, so do cannabis users,” Mifsud said.
“Eventually when my pleasure wanes, I’m going to go looking for another pizza and when that stops being satisfying I’ll be tempted to try a burger.”
“While not all cannabis users thankfully resort to hard drugs, from my experience all those who’ve brushed with hard drugs have had cannabis on one of the rungs of their ladder.”
Mifsud added that this may also be exposing vulnerable people to more risk.
“While we actively dissuade our children from drug use, not every home has dialogue like this and in some instances, children may hear the opposite message. I believe there may be more vulnerable people exposed to risk than the benefits afforded to those making responsible use.”
In a brief comment, Re-leaf president Andrew Bonello said that till the present-day education campaigns had focused on fear and punishment for cannabis users, and it was time to explore the other side of the coin.
In his reply, Reforms Minister Owen Bonnici said that the bill was clear on what constituted responsible or irresponsible used.
“We’re not actively encouraging anyone to smoke cannabis, in many ways we want to encourage people to make better choices. We agree that people should seek pleasure from other things like sports, culture and volunteering,” Bonnici said.
“But if a person makes the decision to take cannabis, then we have to treat them like adults and provide a safe way to obtain it. We believe this is the best route to take rather than criminalising these people.”
He added that while carrying out information campaigns, the authority would seek to explain the law and inform people of their obligations as well as provide factual information about all the risks associated with consuming cannabis.
Criminal records to be expunged
Bonnici also said that a clause in the law would expunge the criminal records of people who were found guilty of possession of cannabis for their personal use.
The procedure would not require involving lawyers, but those impacted could write to the authority responsible for criminal records, which currently is the Police Commissioner but eventually will be moved under the Justice Ministry.
“As a lawyer, I’ve encountered people whose lives were destroyed because they were growing two plants at home,” Bonnici said.
“I think this will be a fair measure that gives people the opportunity to move on with their lives after facing disproportionate punishment and do justice with those who have been suffering in silence.”
The measure was welcomed and praised by both the opposition MPs and NGO representatives.
“We agree wholeheartedly with this, we don’t want people who use drugs to be tainted by it and it’s a huge shame that this has happened,” PN MP Claudette Buttigieg said.
No capping on cannabis potency
While discussing the clauses, Bonnici also said that the law would not be introducing a cap on the level of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) in the cannabis product available, as it would create a niche for the black market.
“The minute we restrict THC content to, let’s say, 15 per cent, we create a niche for the black market to sell cannabis with 16 per cent THC content and above and undo the work we are doing to cut off its client base,” he said.
In response, Gatt said that the issue of potency created some concern as it directly tied to the effect the amount of acceptable possession would have on a person.
“Like many things it’s a bit of a double-edged sword, if you do introduce a cap, yes, the black market will respond, but if you don’t you’re going to have a free for all,” he said.