Malta has become the first EU country to legalise the cultivation and personal use of cannabis. Equality Minister Owen Bonnici tells Claire Farrugia the authorities are determined to do a good job.
CF: What does the cannabis reform mean for people? When can they go out and buy cannabis legally? OB: We expect that the bill would be signed by the president of Malta by the weekend, and then the government would enter the law into effect without delay.
Some changes will happen immediately, others will happen after a short while.
From the moment the law comes into effect, people won’t be arrested for processing up to seven grams of cannabis. If they possess between seven and 28 grams of cannabis, they won’t be taken to court, but they will be charged in front of an administrative tribunal unless there is any suspicion of drug trafficking.
If the police suspect someone is going to sell cannabis to another person, then the police would still have the power to arrest and take procedures.
Secondly, cannabis users who grow plants at home – because people already grow plants at home, they grow them illegally – will be able to grow up to four plants and keep 50 grams of cannabis safely without any risk of running counter to the law. That will happen immediately.
We will then start the process immediately to set up the authority, which is tasked with regulating the sector, and has important functions. One of the main functions is to license non-profit associations, to open outlets from where people can obtain cannabis for personal use. We’re going to set it up as expeditiously as possible but at the same time, we’re going to obey good governance rules. We want to do a good job.
CF: There are a number of authorities and we know what happens in some cases. Rules aren’t followed and it seems like regulations aren’t enforced. How will people be assured this will be a serious authority and that people won’t just get away with doing whatever they want?
OB: We’re talking about a sector which is already heavily regulated, so if you act outside the law, you are committing a criminal offence. It’s in the interest of everyone to make sure rules are followed, failing which they would face criminal procedures. Let me be very frank with you – if there is an outlet which is giving cannabis to its members and it transpires that apart from cannabis, it’s also giving out other drugs, that person would be committing a very serious crime of drug trafficking.
“I remember opponents of the divorce bill saying marriages would be broken because of the law”
I know some parents are genuinely concerned their children will end up using cannabis because of this law. That is something which is being portrayed by opponents of this law. I remember opponents of the divorce bill saying that marriages would be broken because of the law. I remember opponents of the equal marriage bill, saying children will run through hardship because they end up being adopted by same-sex parents. This is something we are accustomed to, but still, we have to allay the fears of people who are afraid that things will not be taken seriously.
We are taking things seriously and we’ll make sure the authority is a robust authority, well-manned with good people and we are not going to take any shortcuts to make sure the authority does its job well.
CF: Does this mean it’s going to take a while until you set up this authority? Do you have any timelines set?
OB: I don’t want to tie myself to a deadline because we must make sure we follow all the principles of good governance. At the same time, we’re going to act expeditiously and my personal working timeline is that by the end of the first quarter [March], the authority will be in a position to start receiving the applications for the first outlets to open.
That’s an internal timeline I’m working with. We’re going to do our best to make sure things are set up and we can move ahead while respecting the principles of good governance.
CF: Will people be asked where they got the drug from because before we start selling the drug legally, there’s going to be a phase where even though you’re allowed to have it, you buy it from someone who is not licensed. So, you are essentially getting it from the black market. How would that work?
OB: I have been meeting people who are telling me why we didn’t simply decriminalise possession of cannabis and stop there without setting up this authority and having the outlets. If we had to do that and just stop criminalising people, we would end up strengthening the black market.
CF: Looking ahead, how will the government assess the impact on society brought about by this change? Will it carry out assessments from time to time to understand the impact of the law on society?
OB: The authority has a list of duties established in the law and one of them is precisely that of educating people not to make use of any drug. So, we’re going to keep telling people to make healthier choices in their life. But at the same time, it has to carry out research to have the scientific facts in our hands.
CF: Before the vote was taken, a petition was signed, doctors spoke out, as did the NGOs. Now there’s also talk of a referendum. Just because the vote has been taken doesn’t necessarily mean that all this will just go away. What do you say to those making such calls?
OB: We have a duty to explain. I feel that people who oppose this bill missed an opportunity, and I am referring to the Nationalist Party, to participate during the stage where the actual consultation was taking place.
CF: But we’re not just talking about the Nationalist Party here. We have other parties speaking, doctors, NGOs…
OB: I’m not trying to score any points. But I want to underline the fact that during the white paper stage, the Nationalist Party could have submitted its proposals. And even, when we were discussing the bill, at committee stage, the Nationalist Party didn’t come with a single amendment to the bill.
With regards to other NGOs and people who are writing in the papers and discussing: I’m very happy to see this whole debate going on because for a number of years, cannabis was kind of a taboo subject. People making use of cannabis were criminalised but at the same time, they were invisible.
They were hidden from public eye, as if we had a reality we did not want to discuss. There is an estimation that 12 per cent of our population made use of cannabis at some point in their life. I have a duty to keep explaining and I will make my absolute effort not to politicise the issue.
CF: Another issue specifically brought up by doctors was the fact that studies have found a direct relationship between the level of THC in the blood and impaired driving. Doctors said we need to review our legislation related to driving under the influence.
OB: I repeat what I said before, we’re not urging anyone or advising anyone to make use of any sort of drugs or substance. But if a person decides to make use of cannabis, he should not be treated like a criminal. That is our position. With regard to driving, the law already prohibits someone from driving under the influence of alcohol or any kind of drug. And this won’t change.
I’ve seen what other jurisdictions do. For instance, New York, which legalised cannabis, went a step further than us, and did not change their law with regard to driving. Colorado changed their law and included a test a police officer could do on someone suspected of being under the influence of drugs. I believe the police already enforce of not being able to drive under the influence of drugs for ages.
If need be, we’re open to seeing how to improve the system, by all means, but as I said before, the law already prohibits driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And it’s been like that for generations.
“People making use of cannabis were criminalised but at the same time, they were invisible”
CF: What do users need to do to have their previous convictions expunged?
OB: They only need to send a letter to the competent authority. Right now, it’s the police force, which takes care of the conduct certificates. Eventually, they will be transferred to the Justice Department. All they need to do is write a letter and then it will no longer show up on their conduct.
I think this is a measure of giving back justice to a sizeable chunk of people who suffered the consequences of a conviction in a very cruel manner. I happen to be a lawyer who worked in a very busy, village. I had a number of cases related to drug offences, where people were being arraigned in court for having to 20 grams or for growing three plants. And they suffered a lot of consequences not only with their immediate family and their reputation, but also with regard to their career, and this will help to mitigate that suffering.
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