The bad of cannabis “definitely outweighs the good”, the director of Caritas has said, ahead of the expected national debate on whether the drug should be legalised.

Leonid McKay, who heads the country’s leading NGO for drug rehabilitation, is in favour of a debate on the subject taking place but says it must be a balanced one.

The Labour Party had pledged to kick-start a national discussion on the subject in its pre-electoral manifesto, while the Nationalist Party has called for debate grounded in scientific evidence. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat personally leans towards the legalisation of “recreational marijuana” because it would take it out of the hands of traffickers.

Leonid McKay: The term ‘recreational use’ is used too loosely and does not reflect reality.Leonid McKay: The term ‘recreational use’ is used too loosely and does not reflect reality.

While Mr McKay, who has worked with drug abusers for years, agrees that an open debate is certainly needed, he says Caritas’ position on the matter is clear: the dangers of the drug are greater than any benefits that might result from its legalisation.

 “As Caritas we think that the issue can no longer be shoved under the carpet. We be­lieve there should be an informed debate based on the views of different people, not only of those who are in favour of legalising the drug but also those of professionals.”

He referred to an event recently attended by professionals, ex-users and those in favour of legalisation, during which the concerns raised by the former two groups were “very telling” and proved that the debate was needed.

Former users, he said, argued that the legalisation of cannabis could spell the start of something more serious and feared this could be “the beginning of the end”.

The issue that concerned him most was the term “recreational use”. It was being used too loosely and did not reflect the true reality, he said.

“We are bringing together two terms which in my opinion have nothing to do with each another. To speak of using such a substance as recreation is a no-no. When we speak of cannabis we are talking about a mind-altering substance that carries the risk of dependence.

“We often think it is harmless but let’s not believe that just because it’s a natural plant there are no dangers to it. Just because something is natural does not mean it is not harmful.”

There should be an informed debate

When it was pointed out that other substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, are legal despite the problems they cause, Mr McKay said one needed to look beyond mortality rates.

“Just because the mortality rate of a substance is low does not mean it should be legalised. Take heroin, where locally the number of people who die from it every year is a handful and the number of deaths caused by alcohol and cigarettes much higher.

“The argument that what is legal is good and what is not is bad doesn’t make sense, especially when discussing something like cannabis use.”

Mr McKay conceded that from an economic point of view it might make sense to legalise cannabis as it could generate substantial income while also discouraging criminal activity. But he was also quick to point out that this would all be rendered irrelevant when weighed against the risks posed to the most vulnerable.

There are two main groups in this category – those who are likely to suffer the most if cannabis is legalised: adolescents and those with a mental illness. Drug abusers who were in recovery would also be susceptible to relapsing, he added.

Regular cannabis use would not just impact those with existing conditions but also those who were unaware they might be at risk – it might trigger off a condition in someone predisposed to it, he said.

“We’re not saying that everyone who smokes a joint will end up having health problems. In fact, the majority of people only make occasional use of cannabis and have no problems. But there are those who would have problems, and this is worrying.”

He raised another concern: legalisation of cannabis could also lead to more people resorting to harder drugs as the idea of tasting ‘forbidden fruit’often enticed young people to try out different substances.

“I fear they would look for something else that is not legal. The question is, what would they start going for?”

On the question of dependency, Mr McKay said he had recently met two users who had completed rehabilitation and who admitted that it was only after they had stopped that they felt they could not live without cannabis.

“They told us they could not make it through the day without cannabis. After being caught by the police and spending a number of months off cannabis they realised their use of it had not been recreational.”

Mr McKay also dismissed the claim that the legalisation of cannabis would result in the destruction of the black market because it would deprive criminals of the revenue.

These people always found ways and means to continue ope­rating, he said.

“The black market knows how to adapt. The only way to address the problem of the black market is through enforcement.”

Many people against the legalisation of the drug often argue it could be considered a ‘gateway drug’, meaning it is the first substance tried before moving on to something harder.

Mr McKay said this was not the case for all users but in his experience of working closely with drug users over the years he had met several people who admitted that their drug habit had started off with the use of cannabis.

While moving on to harder drugs was not necessarily the next step for cannabis users, the risk did exist, he said.

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