For the first time in Malta’s history, a Parliamentary Secretary has been specifically given the task of looking into drug reform, with a particular interest in cannabis. Julia Farrugia Portelli will be leading the process to see what should be done – if anything – to make Malta’s drug laws more rational and sensible.
With all the major political parties referring to weed in their recent election campaigns, and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat coming out in favour of a discussion on recreational cannabis, it might look like legalisation is right around the corner.
The good news is that the discussion won’t be starting in the last year of the legislature. In fact, it’s already started. And Julia is listening.
She’s a former journalist who focused on equal rights, change and social justice, once even going undercover with a group of prostitutes for an investigative piece. She’s also a mother of a four-year-old girl and someone who Joseph Muscat personally asked to contest in the recent election. As a young parent and someone interested in social justice, she might be perfectly chosen to probe the sensitive issue of legal weed.
At least, as much as someone who has never smoked a joint can. But as Julia settles into the Castille office that formerly hosted Konrad Mizzi, she’s excited to make history. For now, she wants to understand why recreational weed is so important to some people – and how it can reduce harm.
“In truth, the Labour government did a lot of progress in the last four years,” Julia starts. “Two drug reforms were undertaken – we decriminalised cannabis use in a way that users are not sent to prison, and we legalised the use of products with cannabis extracts for medicinal use.”
These reforms did come with a caveat: according to Chapter 291 of the law, getting caught with a joint “shall not cease to be a criminal offence and the courts of criminal jurisdiction shall retain a concurrent jurisdiction to try that offence”. Legally speaking, cannabis use was decriminalised without being decriminalised.
“Technically,” agrees Julia. “However, the difference is in the approach. If a policeman finds someone with a joint he would be doing something bad if he doesn’t question that person, because it could be related to drug trafficking.”
While critics cried that these reforms weren’t enough, they were widely welcomed as a step in the right direction. “While the decriminalisation may have been small, the major aim was to put cannabis in a different category from other drugs,” she points out. With Malta not having descended into chaos with the ‘decriminalisation’ of cannabis over two years ago, Julia now looks forward to creating the discussion that her party said they would.
“The next step,” she explains, “is to undertake a national debate to see if and how there should be further steps, among them being a discussion about cannabis for recreational use. This is clear. My task is to kick off this debate, to get all the stakeholders on board, that is magistrates, the NGOs, victims…as it is, I cannot be orientated in favour or against, if I come from a position in favour or against then I am not good for this job,” she says emphatically.
“If I rule out anything right now I won’t be doing my job,” she continues. “I’ve never taken drugs and I don’t like cigarettes, but who am I to judge? When we had the divorce debate, I was one of those in favour – and one week later I stepped onto the altar and got married!” she smiles. “I was lucky enough to be in a good situation – but who am I to keep someone in a bad situation just because as a nation we refused to reform the law?”
Her past as a journalist colours her way of looking at issues, as is shown in her strong objectivity and ability to put herself in others shoes. This will be essential as she now begins the process of speaking to all the people involved in reefer and its many effects in society. While she may have little personal experience with drugs – even though she did once conduct a survey on drug use among students and host a debate on the topic in Junior College – she is curious to understand more about this burning issue.
“What do you think about coffeeshops,” she asked Lovin Malta, and wondered aloud if one plant is even enough for one user.
Now, she wants to hear from the public and the stakeholders. “When I was thinking about the model we could use to discuss the drug reform I thought we could have those fully fledged conferences that are open to everyone, but I personally believe that what is even more effective are those core groups to create a more comfortable setting for people who might be scared to speak out.”
Julia is ready to dig into the implications of possible of recreational cannabis – the advantages, disadvantages, and the changes it could bring to Malta’s social fabric. But some are already taking note of the government’s forward approach to the drug, and are ready to get to work. “I’ve already had a situation just this week where a foreign investor is interested to have an open investment in what would be a factory in Malta, producing medicines related to cannabis extract, and that means job creation,” says Julia.
The obvious economic benefit that comes with cannabis legalisation – along with being on the international forefront of another topical social issue – is not lost on this administration. But it’s still early days, with Julia admitting she won’t be looking at the bud seriously until after summer. But with medical and recreational users feeling like they might finally have an administration that is sympathetic to their cries, and a public discussion already under way, Julia is already forming her ideas about where the reform could be heading.
“If we are going to do something, we have to do it in a correct way, we cannot fail.”
“I want to see the interests of the minor protected for sure, and if we are going to do something, it is going to be done in a way that absolutely minimises the impact on the individual in society,” she says. “I want to think that if we are going to consider that if we are going to let any type of drug to be legalised there needs to be a fully fledged educational campaign, plus harsh and very strict fines – this is what I personally think – with testing on the street level.”
At this point, Julia, and probably even Joseph Muscat, knows that cannabis law reform could be a game changer. If they choose the correct model they could create a more inclusive society that is harm-reductive, as well as boosting Malta’s international reputation and financial situation.
She enters this new project with an open mind and even more open ears, knowing that either way, Malta cannot continue ignoring the issue of drug reform.
“The reality is,” ends Julia with a determined look, “if we are going to do something, we have to do it in a correct way, we cannot fail. And if we do nothing, we will be doing something as well, and not necessarily a good thing, as we’ll just continue shelving this issue. I understand that using drugs is a common thing nowadays, we just can’t say drugs aren’t here, in the festi and so many other places…I mean, they’re here. And I’m not saying this, but the stakeholders like Caritas are. If we are going to keep our heads in the sand, it’s not going to be the best approach.”