The president of pro-cannabis lobby group ReLeaf looks back on a historic year for Maltese drug policy. Read a different perspective.

Some have described me as a man sitting on a lonely platform. Others suggested that I am part of a corporate group ready to grab the cash. 

None of this is true.

I am a former national football player, and the father of two lovely, and highly energetic seven-year-olds. I am also the person that back in 2011 decided to say ‘no more’ to stigma and injustices against people who consume and cultivate cannabis. 

Today, I am proud and honoured to have been at the helm of ReLeaf Malta for the past three years and acted as a voice for so many still living in the shadows of prohibition.  

The year 2021 might be remembered as the year Malta turned on at least one green light to guide cannabis policy

This was not a change that happened overnight. Sustained discussions between different stakeholders have been ongoing since 2017 and reached different levels of intensity throughout the years. 

Nonetheless, it is the continued arrests of nonviolent cannabis consumers and cultivators which echoed louder in the press and attracted increased social and political attention.

Names such as Daniel Holmes, Christian Bartolo, Marie Claire Camilleri, Kevin Bellotti, and many more, brought to light the disproportionate human tragedy caused by the persecution and incarceration of those who cultivated or consumed cannabis.  

The cannabis march spearheaded by civil society in 2011 was essentially the spark that, 10 years later, led to a legislative framework for the partial decriminalisation of cannabis and the establishment of a Cannabis Authority to oversee the operation of not-for-profit cannabis associations. 

A public consultation exercise gathering over 300 submissions, numerous articles by a large number of NGOs and professionals on local media, and more recently, petitions calling for a revocation of the law or the introduction of amendments that seriously jeopardise its core principles all acted as a loud background to the legislator’s work.

Attempts to reverse the democratic process by repealing Legal Notice No. 478 continue to this very day.   

Although a lot has been said, one thing is certain: social dialogue about cannabis will not be over sometime soon. This is splendid news! 

This is potentially the first time Maltese society is in a position to have an open and frank dialogue with the cannabis community. The removal of criminal sanctions and the partial decriminalisation of the cultivation and consumption of cannabis are unique opportunities to facilitate dialogue between different stakeholders. 

Most importantly, a less criminal approach will finally give cannabis consumers the necessary tools to take informed decisions and know how to mitigate risks from their cannabis consumption (such as not mixing cannabis with tobacco, better monitoring of THC:CBD levels, ensuring no presence of synthetic cannabinoids, pesticides and heavy metals, etc).  

In the past decade, discussions around cannabis evolved from one-sided arguments that gave little space to those who consume cannabis, to a more balanced and open discussion about cannabis, public health and drug policy. 

For more than 40 years, thousands of people faced the risk of incarceration and of trouble with the police. These people deserve a voice. These people deserve to know that they are NOT and have NEVER been criminals.  

This is not an attempt at promoting cannabis consumption, as some factions might suggest. This is merely an initial attempt at introducing restorative justice, placing human dignity and rights before punitive and criminalised systems keen to sustain a culture of persecution and a futile and costly war on people who use cannabis.  

What we have seen in 2021 is not the normalisation of cannabis or the corruption of our youth. On the contrary, we have seen a strong civil society debate giving due space to the role of harm reduction as an important tool to promote public health, and a more dignified approach to people who consume or cultivate cannabis. 

I am proud to say that as a small NGO, with very limited resources but with a focused team of writers and researchers, we have always strived to propose legislative changes which respect the principles of proportionality and keep in view the well-being of all members of society.  

The main principles, all of which promote a less criminalised society:  (i)    The possibility to grow cannabis and reduce dependence on the illicit market(ii)    Introducing a non-commercialised system whereby members can together grow and source their cannabis from a safe space(iii)    the introduction of harm reduction education(iv)    the expungement of criminal records, (v)    protecting youths from a tainted criminal record and lengthy court cases if found in possession of cannabis

As senior drug policy analyst Steve Rolles wrote on 11 December:  

"You don’t need to use, approve of or even like cannabis to understand the costs of prohibition and the benefits of reform. […] This is not a choice between a Malta with or without cannabis. It is a choice between a cannabis market controlled by criminal profiteers or one regulated by responsible government agencies." 

I join these wise words and look towards the New Year with a hopeful heart. The law is still in its infancy, and a lot has yet to be established. Other things must also to be improved. Particularly pressing is the decriminalisation of sharing cannabis at no profit between adults (presently still considered as trafficking by sharing), and consumption of cannabis within the premises of cannabis associations.  

Although the law has been heralded as historic also by ReLeaf Malta, flexibility, transparency and continued dialogue with law enforcement agents, NGOs working in the rehabilitation field, and civil society representing the voice of people who consume cannabis will be crucial to safeguard the health, human rights and personal freedoms of all members of society. 

Ultimately, success of the law stands also squarely on the Maltese cannabis community's cooperation and trust, to shift from the illicit to licit market and to respect the new parameters of the law. 

Together, we can fade to green.  

On behalf of all the team at ReLeaf Malta, I take the opportunity to thank all our local and foreign collaborators, and to wish you a happy festive season and a peaceful New Year.  

Andrew Bonello is president of ReLeaf Malta.

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