Newly proposed amendments to Malta’s cannabis cultivation laws may mean that people growing cannabis for themselves may not have to face a mandatory prison sentence.
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici recently proposed the amendments, which will be discussed after Parliament’s recess over the holiday season. The proposed amendments would give more discretion to courts to decide how to punish people who want to grow their own plants instead of buying from the black market.
Speaking to Lovin Malta, Bonnici said he had proposed the amendments after “the government took on board the suggestions of the various members of the judiciary through their judgments on this point”.
The changes come after a Maltese woman was sentenced to six months in prison after police found her with six tiny immature saplings, young plants that had yet to produce any flowers or buds.
The draconian sentence was criticised widely, not least by Magistrate Natasha Sciberras, the presiding magistrate who handed the sentence down herself, who said the law “fails to suitably distinguish between who truly deserves effective imprisonment”.
The woman herself, Marie Claire Camilleri, told MaltaToday that: “It has been a surreal experience that has thrown my life off-kilter. I cannot understand how such a dreadful prison sentence is possible in a country which decriminalised personal cannabis and is now building a new industry infrastructure for medical cannabis businesses.”
Another judge has also criticised the current law, saying the judiciary’s “hands are tied” when giving sentences under the current law.
If the amendments pass, people sentenced to jail time for cultivating cannabis for personal use may be able to receive a more lenient sentence.
“If the proposals pass, then magistrates can, if they wish, apply their discretion not to apply the mandatory sentence,” Dr Joe Giglio told Lovin Malta.
This would be in accordance with the rule of lenity, which is the principle of applying the law that is most favourable to the accused, he explained.
Giglio, who is representing the aforementioned Maltese woman sentenced to six months, has appealed her sentence and is hopeful that these proposed amendments may give a new lease of life to his client, whose life has been thrown upside down after being dragged through court.
“If the Court of Appeals gives me a hearing before these amendments are passed, I am going to ask to put off the appeal until when the law is passed,” Giglio said. “And when the law is passed, I will make a submission asking the judge if they are convinced that the cultivation was for personal use.”
Malta had already removed a mandatory prison sentence for people found cultivating one plant for personal use in the 2015 Drug Dependency (Treatment) Act.
However, limiting it to just one plant has led to people being sent to jail, even when they have two or more immature saplings.
Indeed, leading lawyer Franco Debono had said back in 2015 “that a person cultivating a two-metre cannabis plant would benefit from recent amendments and receive a mere small fine, while another person caught cultivating two two-centimetre plants would be liable to the mandatory minimum six-month jail term”.
He had argued that it was important for the courts to determine whether the cultivation was meant for the personal use of the offender, or to be trafficked, as that was the crux of the matter.
In Camilleri’s case, Giglio pointed out that since his client has filed an appeal, the prison judgement is not final, and his client is currently out and not imprisoned.
However, Giglio said that seeing that the magistrate herself did not want to send Camilleri to prison, he welcomed the proposed amendments that would provide the “tools to rectify” some issues with the current law that is sending people to prison for cultivating cannabis for personal use.
“We already have a declaration by the magistrate that she didn’t want to imprison her, and now they will have the tools to rectify it,” he said.
When it comes to the 2015 law, Giglio was clear: “It introduced important amendments to Maltese cannabis law, but it has had to be tweaked three times already.”