A survey and random testing of schoolchildren aged 10 to 15 years are among options being studied for evidence-based clarity on illicit cannabis use among youths, according to Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli.

Entrusted with reforming cannabis legislation, Ms Farrugia Portelli said that the intention was to establish what under-15s were dabbling in and address it early. She questioned whether stakeholders would be averse to such a survey being carried out in schools.

“We require a proper analysis of what drugs these youngsters are taking to determine what treatment services we should introduce.

“At the moment, I’m informed we don’t have enough psychologists or support staff to treat adults, let alone 10-year-olds,” she said.

Ms Farrugia Portelli was speaking during a three-hour roundtable meeting on non-medical cannabis held last week by the National Centre for Freedom from Addiction, which forms part of the President’s Foundation for the Well-being of Society.

The meeting, headed by  President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and chaired by foundation director general Ruth Farrugia, was attended by Opposition health spokesman Stephen Spiteri and more than 20 experts, doctors, psychiatrists, policymakers, law enforcement officers and the cannabis pressure group ReLeaf Malta.

No other EU country has legalised cannabis

The general feeling during the debate was that Malta was rushing to legalise non-medical cannabis, risking the creation of a new “big tobacco”.

Pointing out that no other EU country had legalised cannabis, the experts said if Malta forged ahead it would go against the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

ReLeaf’s representative called on those present to differentiate between users and addicts and said the present system was clearly not working.

“Whether you legalise it or not, cannabis is already part of society. It’s the Wild West out there. You can either confront it and address it, or bury your head and ignore it.”

The idea of randomly testing children, say, by using mouth swabs, was heavily criticised by the drug experts present for its “huge ethical implications”.

They questioned the purpose behind such a study when, they insisted, the authorities could rely on the scientific trends that emerged from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (Espad), which Malta had been taking part in since 1995.

Pointing out that nothing was set in stone, Ms Farrugia Portelli noted that Espad targeted 15- and 16-year-old students, meaning there was a void in statistics on drug use among those under the age of 15.

We’re moving towards a culture where nothing seems to shock. I also fear we’re not yet prepared to legalise cannabis

“Our focus is on harm reduction and we’re listening intently to all stakeholders. This reform merits a sincere debate that goes beyond partisan politics. We need an honest campaign on the side effects of drugs, balanced with creating a safe mechanism in which occasional users can take cannabis without the fear of going to a trafficker,” she said.

Her secretariat was working hand in hand with the founders of the Icelandic model and building on its experiences to tailor legislation for Malta, she added.

Iceland had not legalised cannabis but focused on promoting alternatives to adolescent substance abuse by pushing sports and other activities. Its model placed it at the top of the European table for the cleanest-living teens, the debate was told.

Ms Coleiro Preca noted that those present for the meeting were mostly moving away from using the term “recreational drugs” since there was nothing recreational about cannabis.

The President lamented the gap in societal values on drug use and articulated the sentiment of those present to urge the government to build on the good work being done by NGOs and other entities.

Those attending the debate called on the government to build on the legislation in place and focus on strengthening the legal instruments to deal with cannabis within the Drug Dependence Act so drug users were not criminalised.

“We’re moving towards a culture where nothing seems to shock. I also fear we’re not yet prepared to legalise cannabis. I’m not condemning those who use it, but we’re not ready to open the floodgates. We cannot transmit the message that cannabis is OK,” the President added.

The timing had to be right to prepare society to cope, inviting the authorities to pay psychosocial experts a decent salary  if they wanted to have good people on board to target early intervention.

It was acknowledged during the event that cannabis was being used at all ages and did not discriminate on the basis of class  or profession.

Cannabis use among 15-year-olds in Malta stands at 13 per cent, which is below the European average.

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