A bill to enable the production of cannabis for medicinal use has started being debated in Parliament.

Presenting the Bill, Economy Minister Chris Cardona said such medicinals had the potential to provide pain relief to people suffering from chronic conditions, and their production was an economic niche that was being increasingly exploited by countries like the United Kingdom, Israel, and Canada.

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He expressed confidence that Malta’s experience and success in producing generic pharmaceuticals would transfer to the new market being explored.

The country would be positioning itself as a market leader from the outset, respecting the highest quality standards and manufacturing procedures. To this end, all interested parties would require a letter of intent from Malta Enterprise before they could be licensed, even if they did not intend to benefit from any of that entity’s business support initiatives.

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What was a new and burgeoning economic centre would also provide local patients with access to the medicines, making it cheaper for them to procure and use. The production process would be supervised by a special unit set up within the Malta Medicines Authority.

Pointing out that the government’s failure to develop new economic sectors had been an Opposition concern for a while, Nationalist MP Claudio Grech questioned how large the new industry’s impact was expected to be.

READ: Doctors call for greater access to medical cannabis

In the European states where medical cannabis derivatives were being produced, their production, he said, was very limited. There was only one such producer in the Netherlands, who had been contracted directly by health authorities, and Italy’s production was managed from beginning to end by the Italian Ministry.

Speaking of the need to approach the potential new sector with an open mind, he said that he had expected assessments of the economic and social impacts that the industry was expected to have, and on the extent to which it was expected to flourish.

Read: Health Minister shuts door on smoking medical cannabis

He questioned whether the law had been drafted to suit the interest of a particular operator already chosen and said he had expected greater clarity with regard to ongoing negotiations with companies which had expressed an interest to operate in the sector.

Mr Grech called for the Health Ministry to have a more direct role, over and above the Medicines Authority’s supervisory responsibilities.

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Especially in the initial stages especially, the government should wholly take over the importation and distribution of medical marijuana products to ensure that patients paid the most affordable prices possible.

He also called for the establishment of strict security requirements with the direct involvement of the Police Commissioner, so as to ensure that medical cannabis plants were not run-of-the-mill industrial complexes.

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Mr Grech also requested the explicit ruling out of the production of cannabis products for recreational use, and for reassurance that this was not the first step in the drug’s wider legalisation.

He questioned why cultivation was included in the Bill despite the minister’s statement that it was not an area of economic interest.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat explained that this was to allow for small-batch cultivation for research purposes.

Large-scale cultivation was unfeasible and he expected companies to import pre-processed cannabis oils for further refinement and preparation in Malta, from where they would be exported to the European market.

Dr Muscat said that while it was true that there was currently only one operator in the Netherlands, the Dutch Government had issued a call for a second operator to begin production.

Furthermore, the Italian Government was beginning to liberalise its own market, having issued a license to a private operator on February 1. One should not discount that these moves were the result of the Maltese government’s stated interest in bringing the sector to Maltese shores, he said.

Dr Muscat emphasised that the law was not related to the legalisation marijuana for recreational use. In that respect, the electorate had only granted him the mandate to begin a discussion.

However, even if Parliament decided to go down that path, the law under discussion would not apply in any way and operators possessing a license to produce medical cannabis products would have to apply for a further license. The law was not a ‘trojan horse’, he said.

The Prime Minister expressed confidence that strong internal security measures would prove sufficient, as they had in the case of pharmaceutical companies and currency printers. There was no need to involve either the military or the police, he said.

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