You would think that after four years pledging to legalise recreational cannabis, the government of Malta would have proposed a well-crafted law.
Instead, the white paper being offered for consultation is the equivalent of the Nationalist Party proposing a botched civil partnership law when everybody is asking for divorce and gay marriage. Rather than a serious step forward, it delays the inevitable and it risks creating more legal anomalies.
By failing to propose a way to buy cannabis legally, the proposed law misses the crucial point.
Effectively, the government is creating lots of hype around cannabis but then leaving it up to the black market to satisfy the demand that it creates, which is especially worrying considering Malta’s ongoing battle with organised crime.
No wonder the Labour Party launched its own public consultation to propose changes to this white paper. They must have realised it has to be rehashed. Either that, or it was simply a placeholder law while the real beef is prepared for Labour’s next election manifesto instead.
The white paper does include this statement: “A study on safe methods of procuring cannabis is also required, so as to propose models to distance responsible users from the illicit cannabis market.”
But isn’t it crazy that after four years of discussing this – and two junior ministers put on the job – the government is planning to pass a law that calls for another “study” instead of actually proposing the most pivotal point?
The right to grow up to four plants at home does not really count, except for the most dedicated of users.
The vast majority of Malta’s approximately 40,000 cannabis users are not going to grow their own weed, just like the vast majority of drinkers don’t brew their own beer or cultivate vineyards for their own wine.
Even those who have the greenest of fingers will face a series of limitations, like needing to hide indoors a plant that requires sunlight to grow, while also making sure your kids cannot catch a glimpse of it.
The white paper prevents you from storing cannabis around children, which already deprives parents of the right to grow.
Plus, you cannot grow in a way that is visible to the public or in a way that emits smells, which means you can forget growing your Gwardaganja or Weed Il-Għajn on most balconies, terraces, rooftops or gardens.
But beyond the legal limitations, there are also the practicalities. How many people have the internal space at home to grow four plants of weed? How many people even want to have such a pungent plant inside their homes?
And how many people will bother to become expert growers when most of us cannot even keep a basil plant alive? (Or is that just me?)
Then there’s the flipside of the problem. What if you are successful at growing weed? A good plant is likely to yield much more than the weights which the white paper allows as possession. So what if you suddenly have 50 grams of weed at home? Could you be charged with trafficking?
The law seems to have been designed primarily to stop the sort of arrests we saw last Valentine’s Day when police raided a hotel room and arrested two teenagers for smoking weed. Yet it still allows for that possibility.
The white paper places a lot of bold emphasis on phrases like: “adults cannot be subject to arrest, or escorted to the police station for interrogation” on the basis of seven grams possession or less.
But that’s not the case for anything over seven grams. And even the seven-gram limit comes with this disclaimer on police action: “unless a reasonable suspicion of trafficking, sale, import or export by that person arises”.
So Malta’s heavy-handed police force can still use this excuse to arrest and interrogate anyone caught with weed.
In some ways, smokers are worse off. If before they could get €50 for being caught with cannabis, now they can get fined €233 if they’re consuming it anywhere that is not the confines of their own home.
Again, after four years working on ‘groundbreaking’ cannabis reform, the government decided that all cannabis consumption should be strictly prohibited and policed, except if you’re in your own home smoking your own homegrown weed (and only if you emit no smells and there are no children in your household).
What’s worse is that the white paper proposes the setting up of a Cannabis Authority which will be financed by cannabis-related fines, so now the authorities have an added incentive to police Malta’s cannabis users.
The strangest part of the white paper is point VI which talks about under 18-year-olds.
You would think this part of the law would seek to distance minors from the substance since they are particularly vulnerable to its negative effects.
Instead, it states that minors caught in possession of cannabis “should not be subject to proceedings before the Criminal court”, irrespective of the amount they’re caught with, which basically makes them prime candidates to become drug mules.
But then, there’s the same disclaimer which says that police can actually arrest them and interrogate them if there is a reasonable suspicion of trafficking, sale, import and export. So what exactly is changing?
And isn’t it strange that the legal status of a plant we officially recognised as medicinal is going to remain illegal to buy, sell or consume unless within the strict confines of your home?
If the Nationalist Party had any sense, it would take the initiative to propose a whole new law that is much simpler, more responsible, better for cannabis users and actually solves a problem for the public by eliminating cannabis as a source of income for organised crime.
For starters, the new law should include cannabis social clubs like the one Lovin Malta envisioned in our April Fool’s stunt, which we called The Planting Authority.
Cannabis social clubs, which would grow weed on behalf of their members and create a social space for consumption, would solve many problems at once.
They would provide a legal place to procure weed, which would deal a serious blow to the black market.
They would pay taxes and provide government with an income that does not depend on fining people.
They would give users a place to consume weed socially and not locked up in their homes.
And they would also encourage responsible use of a substance that can be dangerous in certain cases.
Clubs can do this by having rules, such as age restrictions, for example. And they can also monitor the consumption of users, which would give them a chance to provide support to those who are using excessively or at their own detriment – something people growing and smoking alone at home will not have.
Most importantly, the law should actually legalise cannabis – not simply attempt to decriminalise the possession of cannabis in higher quantities than it was decriminalised before. It’s only then that our police and judicial resources can actually be put to better use, which is the real issue Malta needs to be dealing with.
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