The proposed cannabis reform has led to mixed reactions among stakeholders with some expressing support and others concern.
According to the proposal, unveiled on Tuesday, cannabis users will be allowed to grow their own plants at home and legally carry up to seven grams of the drug for personal use.
Prime Minister Robert Abela during the announcement that the government was open to hearing suggestions about how the sale of cannabis and cannabis seeds could be safely regulated. The white paper is open to public consultation until May 11.
While NGOs such as Releaf and Moviment Graffitti have expressed support for the proposal, organisations such as Caritas, OASI, Sedqa and the Malta Psychiatry Association warned of a possible increase in consumption and dependency patterns among users.
‘A battle against cannabis culture has been lost’
Caritas Malta, OASI and psychiatrists argued in a joint statement that the proposed amendments reflect “a battle against cannabis culture that has been lost”.
While stating they did not believe cannabis users should be sent to prison, they stood by previous arguments that users should be encouraged to seek help and move away from drug use.
“The white paper gives less protection to people who might suffer serious consequences because of cannabis,” they said.
“These people include individuals or families in which there is a dependence on cannabis and other drugs, adolescents and those at risk of developing mental problems with cannabis use.”
They warned that the normalisation of cannabis use would carry repercussions.
Cannabis, they said, can be detrimental to the developing brain of adolescents.
They also warned that traffickers will resort to distributing in indicated quantities to ensure their runners are not arrested and that chemically dependent users trying to quit will have more difficulties accessing therapeutic care plans.
“Care plans were previously offered by the tribunal or the drug offenders rehabilitation board to offenders who were caught in possession of less than seven grams,” the organisations argued.
“Now, those offenders won’t be facing this tribunal, when, in reality, experience taught us that many offenders who previously did successfully committed to programs which address their needs.”
Caritas, OASI and psychiatrists also raised doubts about whether the proposal will lead to more substance use, and whether increased cannabis use will cause more strain on organisations offering rehabilitation and mental health services.
“If these proposals are implemented, a strong investment in the healthcare sector will be needed,” they said.
They also stated that the white paper "neglected to outline" how enforcement efforts will prohibit public use and avoid exposure to children and minors in households to the drug.
“Will there be a THC percentage and weight limitations established for cannabis plants?” they asked.
They raised questions about whether the legal amendments go against United Nations’ narcotics protocols and pointed out health and safety concerns at the workplace in relation to cannabis users.
“How will people be tested for driving under the influence of cannabis? Do we have a country-specific study about the social impact these proposals might have?” they asked.
‘Bold step promotes human rights, public health’
Releaf Malta, an NGO that has been advocating for the controlled, safe legalisation of cannabis since 2017, stated that the government “has taken the bold step to promote human rights and public health” through legal changes that focus on private consumption and cultivation.
It praised the shift towards decriminalisation as well as the amendments which, it said, divert younger offenders towards the justice commissioner rather than the criminal courts, preventing “marginalisation and stigma”.
“The focus on education and the importance of designing an educational campaign based on harm reduction principles is another important development,” Releaf added.
The white paper, it said, ensured that persons found in possession of larger amounts than prescribed by law or are involved in small scale non-violent trafficking and cultivation are not immediately considered high-level, dangerous criminals.
Moviment Graffitti’s statement echoed a lot of Releaf’s main points, adding that it had co-authored a manifesto that Releaf had proposed in 2018.
It said that the four plant per household limit “protects the market from excessive commercialisation” by allowing users to grow their own.
Graffitti also proposed the creation of "a social equity programme” that would assist individuals who suffered the consequences of the old legal regime through education, training and work placements.
Both groups believe that the new laws will free up resources within the police force, which will be able to focus its efforts on large-scale traffickers and organised criminal networks.
PN advocates for 'responsible personal use'
In a brief statement, the Nationalist Party reiterated its position taken in 2015, that laws regulating cannabis use should also consider the social impact and include safeguards against abuse.
It said it was, however, in favour of decriminalisation of responsible personal use of the drug and said it was discussing the subject in a specific focus group, consulting stakeholders.