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Opinion: Open The Legal Market And Destigmatise Weed In Malta – Or Dealers Aren’t Going Anywhere

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This week, Malta celebrated 4/20, the unofficial international cannabis holiday.

It’s the perfect opportunity to talk about what could be done for Malta’s cannabis market to move out of its vegetative state to flower, bloom and bring that (legal) bud forth.

Seven potential cannabis associations have reserved their chosen names ahead of opening in a new, pioneering market. When they eventually open – and under the right circumstances – clubs will be able to begin selling THC products to their memberships, which will be limited to 500 individuals. 

The road towards this greenlight for Cannabis Clubs has been long, delayed and arduous – and the end of this slow beginning is still not in sight.

The regulations implemented in February fell short of what some greenthusiasts may had hoped for, yet they were an undeniable step forwards for those seeking to cash in on a blooming legal industry in Malta. 

Despite this, if authorities are hoping to eliminate illegal cannabis dealing, the regulations put in place are unlikely to do much.

Organised drug-dealing actors will continue to operate illicitly as long as it is profitable to do so, and proposed regulations aren’t likely to undercut street dealers. 

Cannabis Club license fees are now fairly reasonable, having been reduced from €8,000 to €1,000.

This shouldn’t be too prohibitive of a cost for those making a serious attempt at starting a legal cannabis business, but investors have been concerned about limitations which could kneecap their businesses before they’ve a chance to get on their feet.

Restrictions on where growing can take place – outside of public view and at least 250 metres from schools or youth centres – might be discouraging because they do nothing to integrate the cannabis plant into the realm of cultural acceptability.  

Legalising a substance which is often stigmatised and misunderstood, while still attempting to keep it under wraps, is counter-intuitive. This will do nothing but reinforce all too common perceptions of weed being shameful, or necessarily negative.  

An outright ban on advertising and promotion – meaning that signage will not be able to promote cannabis in any way, contributes to the same stigma. Clubs might struggle to promote their core product without being able to mention… that core product. 

Cannabis Clubs will be allowed to hold up to 500g on their premises. This falls significantly short of what individual dealers have been found carrying in the past.

The fact that cannabis dealers in the street are transporting such quantities indicates that demand could be so high as to outpace the quantities that legal organisations will be able to supply in the near future.

Potentially the most challenging issue faced by this emerging industry is the very fact that registration and membership might stand between consumers and their access to weed.

Those who have internalised narratives about weed being a plant-based-evil might be less likely to want their name on what amounts to a list of registered stoners – even if they do not believe in those narratives. 

Although authorities consistently reassert that “Marijuana Tourism” is to be avoided in Malta at all costs, it is undeniable that it already exists.

It should be mentioned that visitors in Malta will be able to register themselves with clubs to acquire weed legally.

With that in mind, if the process is more complicated than a brief conversation on the street, a quick exchange of phone numbers and cash, or a few minutes of searching through dating apps looking for a leafy profile pic, visitors are likely to bypass official processes. 

Warning: I’m about to make over-generalisations based on (sometimes inaccurate) stereotypes.

Recreational and medicinal weed consumers alike may find the bureaucratic safeguards in place anxiety inducing, complicated and lengthy enough to seek an alternative approach. Criminality probably shouldn’t be more welcoming than the letter of the law.

Prohibition across most of the world has lead to the preparedness of many weed people to bypass a few laws here and there. This is particularly true if it isn’t very difficult, and there are cost benefits to doing so.

Cost is probably the most important consideration.

Cannabis Clubs have been told that they should aim to price their product below that which is offered by dealers. If they are successful in doing so, much of what has been mentioned in this article can be disregarded.

Legal businesses might find it difficult to undercut street prices.

Running a legal business will come with significant overhead expenses such as paying staff on shift, rent for premises, advertising and taxation – none of which tend to be issues for the average dealer.

The regulations in place are indicative of the current government’s preoccupation with garnering votes by appearing to support weed consumption – without upsetting those opposed – and openly contributing to the continued stigmatisation of cannabis. 

It remains to be seen what form the “harm reduction” financed partially through Cannabis Club license fees will take.

If efforts to educate the public on the reality of weed consumption –  as something which can be safely conducted within reasonable limitations are made – the likelihood of undercutting street dealers and bringing the industry wholly into the realm of regulation and taxation, would be higher. 

Consumption in public will still be illegal. Growing in public will still be illegal. Advertising will still be illegal. Serving tourists – a potentially huge seasonal market – could be difficult. 

These barriers may disempower the legal industry whilst pushing people towards illegal dealers. Socially, this is a disadvantage, which will maintain or widen the rift between those who are for and against use of weed.

Economically speaking, it might limit the amount of taxable income which can be collected to cover authorities’ overseas data roaming charges from an industry which has endured in scale throughout prohibition.

Given that cannabis has had fewer proven negative impacts than have legal alcohol and tobacco industries, it might make sense for Cannabis Authority regulations to aim towards destigmatising weed in their pursuit of harm reduction.

Editor’s note: Recommended listening after reading the article – Mary Jane – Collie Buddz

Do you think more should be done to bring green into the public’s good graces?

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Pawlu is a journalist interested in Race, Environmental Issues, Music, Migration and Skate Culture. Pawlu loves to swim everyday and believes that cars are an inadequate solution to our earthly woes. You can get in touch at [email protected]

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