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INTERVIEW: Cannabis Associations Will Be Up And Running In 2022 – Mariella Dimech, Malta’s New Cannabis Chief

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Malta will have non-profit cannabis associations up and running this year, with prices lower than that found on the black market, Malta’s new cannabis chief told Lovin Malta in a new interview.

Just weeks after she was appointed the head of the island’s first ever cannabis authority, Mariella Dimech sat down with Lovin Malta to explore her vision for Malta’s budding cannabis industry, her background in dealing with addiction for decades, and whether she’s ever consumed cannabis herself.

1. Representing a historically ostracised community 

“I want to make one thing clear – a substance user has never been a criminal in my eyes. It’s important to note, and it is one of the things that made it clear that my position won’t be easy here, but I’ve always wanted to work within this field, the field of addiction.”

“Using substances is something that’s been done since the beginning of mankind, we need to understand it, not judge it, and that’s my scope for the role.”

2. Has she ever consumed cannabis herself?

When asked if she ever used cannabis herself, Dimech laughed, saying: “I have children” and refused to answer, before recounting her late teens and early 20s.

“At the age of 19, I was an air hostess, then returned to Malta to work with a travel agent, and then there was an opening – to work for six months on addiction in New York,  and that was very attractive to a 23-year-old. And I saw some severe addiction cases while working in New York.”

“Then I worked in Caritas – and you don’t use in Caritas.”

“But in my youth, I was very much around that culture, it was very much the culture to be around those that smoke… this is why I don’t believe that the law being passed will increase cannabis use here.”

“I remember way back, whenever I went out I’d be around cannabis smoke in Malta, back in the 80s – it was the norm… but I’ve always been very curious to understand what makes a person want to escape reality, and I know it’s about pain.”

Asked if she believed that all cannabis use was to escape reality, she said: “some use it to escape reality, some use it to alter reality, and some use it to relax because they don’t have other options that they know of, or is available to them.”

3. Dimech’s first priority: setting up social clubs

“The biggest question is the club’s timeline – I think people are truly excited to both set them up as well as join them. It will happen in 2022 – it has to happen in 2022. Which month, I cannot say yet, but that’s what we are aiming for.”

“Now I’m hearing a lot of people saying the clubs are happening because of the upcoming general election, or because of the money, to get tourists to Malta – tourists can’t even buy when they come, and the clubs are non-profit – where’s the money going to come from then? People know how disciplined I am on these things.”

“We are not going to start with coffeeshops, there are not going to be coffeeshops in Malta. We are going to start with a system that is sound with organisations that are cultivating and selling cannabis themselves.”

4. How did she end up as Malta’s cannabis chief?

“There were no plans for it; Prime Minister Robert Abela approached me and he knew about my experience, and I received a phone call to come in for a meeting, The first conversation was very frank and open, I was very appreciative that the Prime Minister and Minister Owen Bonnici acknowledged my experience and trusted me to take on such a role.

“I had to think about the law, my position my beliefs… I’ve appeared on TV speaking against cannabis before… I don’t think we were ready yet at that time, but now we’ve advanced in so many areas that I think that we are ready for it – the timing is good.”

5. From black market to legalisation

“We somehow need to ensure that cannabis is not as expensive as it is in the black market. And I would not like to have a situation where the organisations are run in a similar way to the way dealers currently sell cannabis – it is going to be a totally different approach.”

“It’s a different experience – a person who decides they are going to buy cannabis is no longer going to feel like a criminal, or that they have to hide. As a member of a social association, they will be well-informed and have the support of the people who are selling.”

6. Addiction in cannabis users

“There is a small number of cannabis users that have an addiction problem – there is a much larger number that live a normal life, that are tax-paying, well-adjusted to society, and every now and then they smoke cannabis. That’s the reality.”

“And when you look at research, you’ll find immense research on the risk factors that lead to people addicted to drugs – what is it that makes someone smoke a joint, then smoke again in a month, yet for me, I smoke and I need it again immediately?

“Can a person who has an addictive personality start by drinking, taking cannabis and move on to stronger substances? Does everyone who uses cannabis end up on other substances? Not necessarily, no.”

“And to be clear, I don’t think heroin users are bad  – let alone cannabis users.”

7. The right timing for a new approach

“I spent 12 years with my private clinic – but I had to close it for the authority, I loved my clients, but we had to close it off, and so I referred them to my colleagues.”

“It made sense because a lot has changed – globally, we’re not ostracised on this topic, we are part of the European Union, and I believe there are many people more that have become educated on the topic and conducted their own research – and I believe that when you have the right information, that’s supportive to you to make the right decision.”

“If the authority is capable of passing on that information, I can trust more in Maltese society to weigh things out and understand that information better.”

“I’ve already had many meetings with researchers in Spain, Uruguay, researchers doing work all over Europe – lovely people who are so ready and willing to share their information. We are going to be working together, and I need to start devising ways on how we are going to have a regular two way system, especially in the field.”

“But they are very interested in what’s happening in Malta, and they want to be involved.”

8. Main priorities and key vision for this role 

“The first thing I want to address is communication – with people in favour of the law and the people who are not. People I know well came out strongly against the new cannabis law, but they were also among the first to call me and speak to me in my new role, and I look forward to continuously meeting these people.

“But the law is there, it’s not going anywhere. Now, we will be setting up a website where people find out who is on the Cannabis Authority board, how to apply for a social association license, what the prices are, what risk factors are… everything.”

“I want parents to be able to go onto this website and be able to give the right tools to their children – nowadays, young people are not afraid, but neither are they stupid.”

“My daughter is 18, my son is 16, but when I send them to Paceville, I don’t tell them what they can or can’t do because I’ve spent my life giving them the tools so they know what to do in that environment, and we are going to give society the tools now – not just the youth, but to parents and to the man in the street.”

9. A financial cap on social clubs

“I think two types of people will be opening associations – the first will be a bit more personal, with people the owners know who want to obtain their cannabis in a safe environment, and then those that want an enterprise. There are people who are thinking of making money out of this, but the organisation will be non-profit, so we need to make it clear – there’s a cap here.”

“But that doesn’t mean they can’t reinvest into their business.”

“The organisations will be able to sell the cannabis in environmentally-friendly and clear packaging, and will not be too expensive because associations are non-profit.”

10. A new era in understanding

“I want to create an environment where these organisations can grow and society can feel safe, where they know something bad isn’t happening – I don’t want a delinquent, morbid picture to be painted here.”

“I want to give back to society and give back to the community – when you get to 57, you start focusing on giving meaning in life.”

Dimech is a psychotherapist by profession. She worked with Caritas for 21 years, 10 years of which she was the coordinator of all “Tama Ġdida” programs and services, with the aim of providing support to drug victims and their families.

As coordinator, she was responsible, among other things, for the creation of clinical programs for all services.

Will you be joining a social association when they open in Malta this year? Sound off in the comments below

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Johnathan is an award-winning Maltese journalist interested in social justice, politics, minority issues, music and food. Follow him at @supreofficialmt on Instagram, and send him news, food and music stories at [email protected]

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