Cannabis Reform in Malta with Andrew Bonello

by Ella Walsh

This year the Maltese government announced that reforms would take place to permit the personal cultivation of up to 4 cannabis plants. This Thursday (22nd of April) ECAN are holding an event with reLeaf to discuss human rights, cannabis consumption and cultivation, and this exciting prospect of national policy reform in Malta. 

“The publication of the Cannabis White Paper is an important step – but it’s just one step of many we need to take in this sector. There are many areas we need to address and many debates we need to have. Personally, I believe the Government should ensure that any proposed regulatory model is informed by the need to protect the user’s health and human rights first and foremost. This will require a paradigm shift in the way we treat cannabis, its users, and regulation itself. Malta should distance itself from profit-based models and focus on strong frameworks that steer users away from the illegal market, and allow for responsible recreational use in the context of educated, informed choice. I am hopeful that the Government will take this approach.” 

Dr Désirée Attard, Human Rights Advisor and Human Rights Directorate

Ahead of this week’s event Andrew Bonello, President of reLeaf, has helped get Volteface up to speed with the current state of cannabis reform in Malta. 

How is cannabis currently controlled?

As it stands personal possession of up to 3.5 grams of cannabis has been de-penalised, though it still remains punishable with a fine of €50 to €100. In 2015 reforms were brought in under the Drug Dependence Act, which meant that a person found in possession of a small amount of cannabis (less than 3.5 grams) would be required to attend court to determine whether they are guilty, and whether they have to pay a fine. Where offenders re-offend as a result of drug dependency they may be referred to the Drug Offender Rehabilitation Board. 

Though the cultivation of a single cannabis plant is not punishable with prison, cultivation of cannabis also remains illegal in Malta; and cultivation of more than one plant may be legally determined as a drug trafficking offence.

Supply offences can be dealt with in the lower courts, which can serve between 6 month and 10 year prison sentences. Moreover, where certain offences take place within a hundred metre perimeter of a school, youth club or centre or other place where young people habitually meet, the normal punishment is increased. 

How policed is cannabis in Malta? 

“People are still arrested and interrogated by the police for small amounts.”

Andrew Bonello President of reLeaf. 

In 2016 Drug possession offences made up the majority of cases in the courts; with cannabis offences accounting for a large proportion of these cases. Furthermore, in 2017 the Malta Police Force released data indicating that most drug law offences were also related to the possession of cannabis. 

Between 2016 and 2019 the total number of cases heard amounted to 2710, of which 57% were for simple possession of cannabis.

The most commonly seized drug in Malta is cannabis, in 2017 there were: 

  • 109 seizures of cannabis resin
  • 175 seizures of cannabis flower 
  • 73 seizures of rolled cannabis 
  • 5 seizures of cannabis plants 
  • 3 seizures of cannabis seeds

Is cannabis legal for medical uses, and how accessable is it for patients? 

In 2018 reforms took place to permit the prescription of medicinal cannabis. Although difficult to be certain, it is estimated that there are over 500 medicinal cannabis patients in Malta. Since reforms took place in 2018 access has improved, however there remains some structural barriers to access. For example: 

  • Patients who have previously been determined as being dependent on drugs are immediately disqualified from obtaining a permit
  • The price of medical cannabis is expensive (€16.50 per gram) 
  • There are only 4 type of strains available for prescription 

How prevalent is the stigma associated with cannabis in Malta?

“The stigma associated with cannabis is difficult to quantify, but easy to see. People, especially those in good jobs and with a professional career still feel unsafe to speak about their cannabis consumption. Only recently the Dean of the Faculty for Social Well Being at the University of Malta implied that parents who consume cannabis are irresponsible, and said that it was difficult to trust that they would not use cannabis in front of minors once it becomes decriminalised.” 

Is there an appetite for reform, both politically and publicly?

“This is a matter of correcting past and ongoing injustices, especially for people still suffering the negative psychological effects of having to deal with the police, court and potentially jail term. The decriminalisation of cannabis should not be viewed from an appetite perspective, but from a human rights one. It seems that politicians are finally recognising that criminalising a private non violent matter of consuming / cultivating cannabis is counter productive and fails to address consumption levels. The most conservative voices, coming from the rehabilitation field, seem split between not wanting people in prison, and not providing a solution. For example the necessary tools and legal safeguards to ensure people who consume cannabis do so without risking nasty police encounters or dangerous encounters with the criminal world.” 

What does the current state of reform look like?

“The contents of the white paper are very encouraging, especially the right to private cultivation and the expungement of criminal record. One needs to better understand the new role of the police, especially to ensure no more innocent non violent persons end up traumatised by a draconian system and mentality.”  

Is there anything unique or important to raise about cannabis reform in Malta?

“The expungement of criminal records, is a strong message recognising the mistakes of the past and introducing initial amendments (clearing of police conduct for what is proposed by new law only) to remedy, in part, the damage caused. ReLeaf has also spoken about the introduction of a social equity program, further providing those most negatively affected by the draconian laws with the tools to develop their full potential and be active participants in society.” 

What can we expect to see in terms of cannabis reform in the next 5 to 10 years?

“I look forward to a more just and balanced approach, not only nationally but also regionally. Particularly important is the assurance that no big corporation will take over this new niche and that farmers in the global south are provided with the necessary tools and legal safeguards to participate in this global redemption of the cannabis plant and its consumers. I hope to also see issues related to sustainable development and protection, instead of criminalisation, of the cannabis seed at international level, thus together with other psychotropic plants, be considered as forming part of the common heritage of mankind, and therefore in need of protection against commercial interests.” 

It seems to be a potentially momentous time for cannabis reform in Malta, and here at Volteface we are excited to follow these reforms and see what happens next. We look forward to hearing more from Andrew, and the rest of the panelists, at this week’s event. Full details for the event can be found here


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