One year ago, Malta legalised medical cannabis, becoming the first country in Europe to do so.
Since then, over 100 patients have applied for the medicine, with many complaining about the lack of availability (very few pharmacies stock the medicine, and those that do, do not stock much) and the high price to obtain a prescription. However, the system has been relatively successful without the country collapsing into chaos, leaving one question on the mind of the tens of thousands of cannabis users in Malta: is Malta actually going to legalise cannabis and end decades of criminal injustice?
Lovin Malta sat down with the Chairman for the Open Debate on Cannabis Legalisation, John Ellul, to find out more
“The government has separated the issues of medical and recreational and each are given their own importance and seen as reforms” – John Ellul
A former forensic expert now working on this major reform, Ellul has been central to the public consultation taking place on the island that looks at tackling cannabis legalisation – and whether they are going to tackle it, at all.
Having met everyone from pro-legalisation group ReLeaf to anti-legalisation groups like OASI, aside from a laundry list of Maltese organisations and interests, he is part of the core team supporting Parliamentary Secretary for Reforms Julia Farrugia Portelli ahead of this legal change.
However, he makes it clear from the get-go what the government’s official line is in 2019.
“When it comes to recreational use, we have explicitly positioned ourselves as being against the use of any illicit substance. However this cannot be compared to medical use and we are looking at various options that are built around harm reduction strategies,” Ellul says.
“In 2019 we intend to reach out with educational programmes in order to create awareness, inform and address drug-related problems at their core while at the same time continuing with our research and meeting with stakeholders,” he says.
However, he doesn’t downplay one of the main reasons to legalise cannabis – hurting the black market.
“This is one of our main targets in our reform, as we know for a fact that traffickers have no mercy toward the wellbeing of the users, so much that drug traffickers add dangerous substance to their drugs which present extreme high risks,” he says.
“Regulating the situation will provide a safe environment with certified substances and bring down the trafficking,” he explains.
However, before you get your hopes up, Ellul is quick to point out a myriad of hurdles to Maltese legalisation
Though multiple countries have moved forward with legalising cannabis – Canada, Uruguay, and multiple states in the USA – Ellul cites a 58-year old UN convention as a serious hurdle to legalisation.
“It is our intention to respect the international conventions and treaties, in particular the UN, to which we are signatory. It is not our intention to legislate and put out fires or implement a half-baked cake. We are taking the longest route based on research, being both scientific and socio-political. This entails a bottom-up approach, while building a solid case for the UN in order to deal with our situation in the most advantageous way and to the best interest of our society and nation,” Ellul said.
Last February, the World Health Organisation also called for the reclassification of cannabis in the UN’s scheduling, which, along with the countries that have already legalised, may indicate the beginning of an avalanche of change.
“At this stage nothing is cast in stone and the registry is still a work-in-progress” – John Ellul
Ellul also spoke about the infamous registry that would require all cannabis users in Malta to input their name into a state-controlled registry, effectively creating a list of everyone in Malta who ever wants to consume cannabis legally.
“This idea stems from stakeholders meetings in the sense of a harm reduction approach,” Ellul explains of the policy’s origins.
“Indeed, this Government is the champion for fundamental rights and freedoms and will always strive to maintain this position. Privacy is a fundamental right and will be respected, protected and secured and the government will take all the necessary measures to keep it this way,” he said.
“At the same time,” he continued, “we need to respect the law and the conventions and treaties, and therefore a harm reduction approach requires a control mechanism. At this stage nothing is cast in stone and it is still a work-in-progress and we are confident that at the end common sense will prevail.”
Many cannabis users feel that the government’s focus on harm reduction implies that all cannabis users become dependent
However, Ellul responded to this as well.
“The Maltese government rests on scientific research and evidence. So far our research does not point in this direction and we have never, neither implicitly nor explicitly expressed ourselves or positioned ourselves in this way,” he clarifies.
And when faced point black with the million dollar question – would Malta be legalising anytime soon – he had his answer.
“Discussions are ongoing,” he said. “As previously mentioned, we are taking everything into consideration and we will not make shortcuts on this matter. The culmination of our work will result in a National Strategy and a complimenting Public Consultation Document.”