Policymakers in the UK, across Europe and around the world are watching Malta’s cannabis reforms unfold with great interest. Malta will soon join a growing number of countries implementing reforms to the evident failures of cannabis prohibition. Canada, Mexico and 18 US states have already made the move and, with rival Democrat and Republican bills being debated in the Senate, federal US legalisation inches closer each day.
You can already travel from the Arctic circle down the West coast of the Americas almost to the equator without leaving a legal cannabis jurisdiction.
In Europe, Germany recently announced a move to establish a legally- regulated market for non-medical cannabis use, joining Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. When US federal legalisation takes place, and including South Africa, Uruguay and Australian reform states, more than half a billion people will soon live in legal cannabis jurisdictions.
So, Malta is not alone and nor is it plunging headlong into some radical unevidenced experiment.
The arguments for change that have played out across all of these countries are well-trodden but bear repeating. Cannabis prohibition has failed on its own terms; it has not significantly deterred use or restricted availability; cannabis is more available and widely used than ever.
Criminalisation has, however, incurred a huge cost: to the taxpayers, who fund the failed enforcement efforts, to the millions across the world who carry the stigma of a criminal record. The only beneficiaries – other than politicians who like to parade their ‘tough on drugs’ credentials – have been the organised crime groups and street dealers who profit from rising demand in the absence of legally-regulated availability.
There are, of course, legitimate concerns around the health impacts of cannabis, particularly around frequent use of more potent cannabis among adolescents. But such challenges have demonstrably worsened under prohibition not got better. The economic dynamics of an illegal market have tilted it towards more potent but profitable varieties, often now with dangerous adulterants and contaminants.
And unregulated criminal supply makes cannabis more easily available to youth, not less. Drug dealers do not ask for ID. Ironically, for a policy designed to keep people safe, the health risks associated with cannabis are actively increased by prohibition.
But a policy approach that takes control of production and supply away from criminal entrepreneurs and puts it back within the hands of legal actors overseen by responsible government regulatory agencies can mitigate these risks and serve the public good, not criminal profits.
A regulated model would include age controls, potency indication, health warnings, licensed accountable suppliers and so on. Youth use has not lurched upwards in legalisation states, as many feared. Instead, it has generally plateaued or, in many cases, trended downwards.
There are concerns too that a legal cannabis market could become over commercialised, that, like alcohol and tobacco historically, huge profit- seeking multinational corporations could distort policymaking processes and aggressively market their risky products, increasing use and negative health costs. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
More than half a billion people will soon live in legal cannabis jurisdictions- Steve Rolles
Better regulation of marketing, prices and public use of tobacco, combined with effective health education campaigns, has seen use fall steadily across Europe over the last three decades, just as unregulated illegal cannabis use has been rising. We have an opportunity and, indeed, a responsibility, to make sure lessons are learned from the historic failings of alcohol and tobacco policy are not repeated.
No policy will be perfect. There will always be some negative outcomes and, sometimes, the priorities of different stakeholders will be in conflict. There will be a need for flexibility to respond to shifting priorities and evidence of effectiveness as it emerges, from Malta and around the world. But Malta’s cautious first steps towards allowing home growing and not-for-profit associations, avoiding the risks of a full-on rush towards an over-commercialised retail market, suggests a responsible approach and that lessons are being learned.
These are policies that have been successfully road tested in a number of jurisdictions – in Spain, Uruguay, Australia and North America. And if Malta makes a move to a more formally regulated retail market in the future, it is reassuring to know the same cautious public health pragmatism will guide them.
International observers have also welcomed Malta’s emphasis on ending the criminalisation of people who use cannabis – a policy now advocated by all 31 UN agencies as an essential part of any meaningful public health response – and removing the drug war’s toxic legacy through expungement of past criminal records for minor cannabis offences.
You don’t need to use, approve of or even like cannabis to understand the costs of prohibition and the benefits of reform. But everyone in this debate needs to start by accepting one reality; cannabis use and cannabis markets are here already. This is not a choice between a Malta with or without cannabis. It is a choice between a cannabis market controlled by criminal profiteers or one regulated by responsible government agencies.
There is no third option under which cannabis can be magically wished away. No drug and no drug policy reform are completely risk free. As Malta reforms its cannabis laws, they need to make sure they get it right; an international perspective suggests they are doing precisely that.
Steve Rolles senior policy analyst, Transform Drugs, Policy Foundation, UK. He is also the author of ‘How to regulate cannabis; a practical guide’ and has served as a consultant for the governments of Uruguay, Canada and Luxembourg on cannabis regulation.