A bill to reform cannabis laws is designed to reduce the harm that users of the substance are currently subjected to, minister Owen Bonnici said during a second reading of the bill on Tuesday.
"The government is not encouraging people to use cannabis. But if someone wants to, the best way to do so is in the context of harm reduction," the minister said, noting the "real and great" spread of cannabis use across Maltese society.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Bonnici said the number of people who are charged with cannabis-related crimes is the highest when looking at all the drug offences that make it to court.
Under the proposed new laws, cannabis users will be able to grow plants at home or buy the substance from specially set up associations. Smoking a joint in public will remain against the law, while adults will be able to legally possess up to 7g of cannabis.
While the Nationalist Party initially appeared to back the proposal, it has since changed tack and argued that the plans would "normalise" the substance.
'Do criminals ask children for an ID card?'
Bonnici insisted those who make "responsible use" of the drug are, under existing laws, "disproportionately penalised".
On the other hand, drug traffickers benefited.
"Those making use of cannabis have no choice but to resort to criminality – either by growing the plant illegally or to buy it from traffickers… criminals. Only God knows what quality of drugs is being sold.
"Do you think a criminal will ask a child for an ID card? Our laws certainly do not protect our children and the vulnerable," Bonnici said.
He said the reform is also needed as it would end the stigma towards the thousands of "good people" who make use of cannabis.
"Let's stop calling these people criminals. Let's treat adults as adults and make sure that if they want to make a decision [to use cannabis], this is legal and safe."
Workplaces 'free to make their own rules'
Bonnici also touched upon criticism of the bill moved by lobby groups representing commercial entities and employers, who have raised concerns about employees reporting for work under the influence of cannabis.
The minister said workplaces would, as they always have been, free to enforce their own rules and introduce whatever policies they deemed fit.
“What we don’t want is for cannabis users to be persecuted,” Bonnici said.
He also argued that the bill intentionally did not set a maximum limit on the percentage of THC that cannabis could contain.
“Setting a limit would automatically open up an avenue for the black market,” he said.
Bonnici also brushed aside a suggestion by Church organisations to subject cannabis users to a psychological assessment, saying “let’s treat users with dignity”.
“Let’s not use the politics of fear here,” the minister said. “Critics will try to frighten people and paint everything as negative, as though everything is collapsing. This is what everyone who tried to bring about meaningful change in their society went through."
Reacting to Bonnici's speech, Opposition MP Claudette Buttigieg said she was surprised that the minister failed to get into the details of the bill that has been tabled.
The MP said research is crucial when it comes to such laws and urged the government to look at existing studies.
"We have a serious problem when it comes to drugs and alcohol in Malta. So why are we not looking at ways of helping people? Why are we not involving the University of Malta?" she said.
Buttigieg also asked the government to clarify what the workplace rules will be: "Will it be that you cannot smoke cannabis while on the job? Or can someone walk out during the break, chew cannabis, and go back?
"How will the employer check for all this? What will the systems in place be? How can we put the onus on the employer? And what about those under the effect of cannabis, can the employer send them away and then take away their sick leave?"
The law, she went on, does not say anything on any of these issues.
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