As reported by Cannabis Health
The roll-out of cannabis reform in Malta is said to have brought a ‘significant transformation’ in the health and wellbeing of consumers, despite some concerns from opposition groups that cannabis is becoming ‘normalised’.
In December 2021, Malta became the first country in Europe to give the green light to cannabis for recreational use. Under the Cannabis Reform Act, consumers are now permitted to carry up to 7g of cannabis in public and grow four plants at home, without risk of prosecution.
As part of its roadmap to reform, Malta opted to implement a social club model as opposed to establishing a commercial market, with consumers required to purchase cannabis through non-profit associations.
Reflecting on the developments over the last 18 months, Andrew Bonello, president of Releaf Malta, the country’s main advocacy group, says the bill has been hugely beneficial for consumers, offering some protection from criminalisation and social stigma, while also fostering a sense of community.
“In early 2022, Malta’s Cannabis reform bill brought about a significant transformation in the health and wellbeing of local consumers. Previously, the criminalisation of cannabis consumption, possession, and cultivation posed substantial risks. However, with the introduction of partial decriminalisation, some level of protection has been afforded to consumers,” he tells Cannabis Health.
“This shift marks a change in Malta’s cannabis policy, with the government and ARUC [the Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis] emphasising that consumers should not be treated as criminals. Their approach centres on social justice and human rights.”
But he added: “Despite this progressive stance, conservative factions continue to propagate misinformation and fear-mongering about the reform.”
Fears that cannabis has become ‘normalised’
Two of Malta’s largest NGOs working in the field of substance misuse have recently reported a significant fall in the number of calls for help from cannabis users in 2022.
OASI Foundation and Caritas Malta – who were both opposed to the policy change – have expressed fears that this decline is down to cannabis use becoming ‘normalised’ over the last year.
Earlier this month, Caritas director Anthony Gatt, was quoted by local media as saying: “We acknowledge that a large percentage of those who use cannabis do not become dependent on it, but in paving the way for those who want to smoke recreationally, we will also have to deal with a higher percentage of people who will have to pay the price of dependency.”
But Bonello remains ‘unconvinced’ that the change in law has led to an increase in problematic use of cannabis among Maltese citizens.
“The normalisation hypothesis suggests that the increased use of a substance could occur, rather than deterring individuals from seeking services. Conversely, legal changes without commercialisation have demonstrated their ability to protect people as they tackle social stigma,” he says.
“It is important to note that, for these organisations, any consumption beyond 3.5g is considered addiction. People may have also come to realise that there are alternative rehab and treatment options beyond the traditional approach advocated by religious organisations, such as abstinence.”
Instead, Bonello would like to see resources channelled towards areas of greater concern, such as tackling the increasing use of synthetic drugs among young people.
He adds: “Of significant concern is the lack of attention to the rising trend of synthetic drug use among adolescents. Health services and rehab centres, funded by taxpayers, should be focusing on this issue rather than raising unfounded alarms.”
A sense of community and freedom
Rather than increasing consumption, the bill is thought to have brought about a wider sense of ‘community’ and ‘freedom’ among consumers and home-cultivators who are more likely to speak openly about their activities.
“While concrete data may not support this claim, we remain unconvinced that cannabis use has escalated,” Bonello continues.
“Instead, we observe a sense of community cohesion, particularly facilitated by social media platforms. Numerous grow shops have emerged, and home growers proudly share pictures of their horticultural achievements, with peers actively exchanging advice on optimal techniques.
“This shift is significant, especially considering the harsh punishments previously imposed for cultivation. Although the freedom experienced by the community is somewhat restricted, it still holds crucial importance.”
The long-awaited Cannabis Associations
Releaf considers the current possession limits, set at 7g in public and 50g (dried cannabis) at home, to be ‘unreasonably low’, particularly given the decriminalisation of cultivating up to four plants.
Meanwhile consumers are still restricted in where they can access cannabis legally with the long-awaited Cannabis Associations yet to be operational.
In June 2023, it was reported that 26 applications for Cannabis Associations had been submitted, but so far the country is yet to see its first club up and running.
The ARUC only published its requirements earlier this year, and the applications process, which opened in February, has been described as ‘excessively bureaucratic’. Bonello also expressed concern that the requirements for associations have excluded many legacy growers, missing an opportunity to ‘address past injustices’.
As consumers are not permitted to share or gift cannabis to anyone, those who are not able to grow their own are still reliant on the illegal market, leading to police reports of a rise in illegal cannabis sales and cases of ‘drug trafficking’.
“The restriction on sharing and gifting, categorised as trafficking, can needlessly entangle community members in legal issues, leading to prolonged court cases, expensive lawyers’ fees, and a negative impact on mental well-being,” says Bonello.
“We eagerly await the possibility of on-site consumption once the associations are operational, as this will enable the implementation of genuine harm reduction initiatives by these organisations.”
A harm-reduction approach
All Cannabis Associations must meet certain requirements set out by the ARUC, designed to reduce harm. For example, clubs must not be located at least 250 metres away from schools and youth centres, and the advertising of them is not permitted.
While there is no price cap or THC limit, the guidelines state that associations should strive to sell their cannabis at a lower price than the illegal market, with sales of pre-rolled joints and alcohol prohibited.
Teething issues aside, Bonello remains hopeful that this harm-reduction approach will lead to healthier consumption habits and an evidence base to help inform future policies.
“The inception of Cannabis Associations holds great promise in providing a safe and inclusive environment for the community to engage in open discussions about positive initiatives. These include selecting more suitable cultivars and adopting healthier consumption practices,” he adds.
“With the associations embracing harm reduction training, we anticipate positive developments for the community. The gathering of essential data will further aid in formulating future policies grounded in human rights and evidence, moving away from the moralistic principles of the past.”