Volteface Interview: Decriminalising cannabis in Malta, with Owen Bonnici

by Ella Walsh

The long-awaited parliamentary debate on the Cannabis Reform Bill, which hopes to see cannabis decriminalised in Malta, kicked off on Tuesday.

Earlier this year Volteface covered the public consultation and white paper outlining cannabis reforms set to take place in Malta. We recently caught up with Malta’s Labour MP Owen Bonnici to see how these reform proposals have since developed, how close to decriminalisation Malta is, and what decriminalisation may entail for the island.

What has led up to these proposed reforms in Malta?

Last March we issued a white paper asking for people to give us feedback on a number of reforms which we wanted to make in the present cannabis law. And in fact, almost 350 people, or entities, submitted their feedback. Most of the feedback was centred about the need to provide a route through which users of cannabis can obtain cannabis through regularised means, which would ensure that they are not offending the law, and that they are obtaining cannabis which is of high quality. Since the consultation process closed, we have spent the summer working on a draft bill, which we published in October.

What is the current status with legislating these reforms?

We have this whole parliamentary process in Malta. Right now it’s in the phase where we can start the second reading, where the actual debate goes on. The first reading was made when the bill was published in October. I gave all the details about the bill, and now the bill will be debated.

Following the white paper and public consultation earlier this year what were the main concerns of the public? 

There were a minority of concerns related to cannabis in general, suggesting cracking down more with harsher laws, rather than trying to find a harm reduction approach for people who use cannabis. However, the vast majority were either in favour or wanting to go one step further with a model of reform. We are not merely decriminalising simple possession of cannabis. There’s a whole setup which has provided a regularised route where users can grow up to 4 plants at home, and obtain cannabis from outlets which would be run by non-profit associations.

Would this be like the social clubs model?

With the difference that you can’t hang in there and have a smoke in the outlet. You just pick your cannabis and go home. There are limits, you can get 7 grams every day, up to a maximum of 50 grams. There are also rules against minors entering the outlet. But that’s pretty much the idea, and I think that’s a very positive harm reduction measure.

How has the bill changed since the white paper and public consultation earlier in the year?

The main addition was with regards to the outlets run by non-profit associations, but we also made some efforts to be more precise as to the decriminalised nature of possession of cannabis up to 7 grams. Then between 7 and 28 grams you’ll be fined. If you possess more than 28 grams, the criminal law kicks in. I think we made a very robust system, but then you come to translate ideas into law, and that’s where you have to take great care. You have to be quite sure about what you’re doing.

What restrictions does the bill place on consumption?

We said that the outlets cannot be opened in the vicinity of schools, and near to youth clubs. You cannot consume cannabis in public. So of course you have to consume it at home.

Is there an expungement element for people who’ve already got existing cannabis convictions?

Yeah that’s very important. We made this a very simple procedure, where you don’t even need to file an application in court, all you need is to send the letter to the respective authority. Once the crime has been decriminalised then it gets expunged from your [criminal record].

What has been the biggest barrier in getting this bill through parliament?

To be honest the opposition did not participate in the consultation process. It didn’t send any feedback or any observations, not at all, radio silence. But once we issued the details, the leader of the opposition came out in favour of the proposals, which is positive. So we have almost total unanimity in the house because the government, and the opposition, have almost all the members of the House, except for a small number of independent MPs. I’m looking forward to a mature debate. [In the meantime the Leader of the Opposition has changed his position and declared to be against the bill.]

What was the biggest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge was explaining what harm reduction means. That’s crucial, you have to explain to people that this is an effort of harm reduction. Secondly, of course, there are international treaties, which were signed long ago, that merit in my view a revisit. Of course we have to make sure that whatever we do is done in respect of those international treaties.

How did you untangle obligations under international treaties with these cannabis reforms? 

So that’s definitely a difficult one, because I have people asking me ‘Why are you saying that this should be run by non-profit associations?’ ‘Why shouldn’t companies be involved in all this?’. It is because you can’t do that- The international treaties are very clear, we cannot commercialise the sale of cannabis. What we are doing here is providing an outlet where non-profit NGOs can grow cannabis for their members, and there is a membership scheme. I’m very confident that it will work.

Is there anything unique about this decriminalisation bill?

Unique to our bill is that we were very upfront and honest all along. I’ve seen the laws of other countries, they kind of use a tolerance principle. So they don’t try to write down that associations can provide cannabis, it’s kind of tolerated. We actually wrote it down, there are no grey areas. We were upfront and honest about it. We took this route because we believe that it’s a concrete harm reduction measure which is in line with international principles.

What are the key drivers behind this policy reform?  

The number one priority was to stop the prosecution of people who have an impeccable track record in their own lives, and within their careers, and want to use cannabis. They used to be humiliated by getting arrested, sometimes they were being taken to court because of small amounts of cannabis in their possession. There is no fundamental right to smoke cannabis, of course, but the fact that the law was so harsh on responsible use of cannabis led them to lose other rights, which are important, like the right to work, and the right to enjoy family life. Being arrested is a very, very, very ugly thing. There are perfectly nice people with good careers, they end up being arrested and brought to court sometimes for having 5 grams of cannabis on their person. We had to stop that. We also want to curb the illegal cannabis trade, and people in the criminal world who are enriching their pockets and are also sometimes selling synthetic cannabis; and that is not good. We wanted to change things.

Is there hope for legalisation in Malta?

I think there should be a European debate on this because I think the European Union says a lot of things about a lot of things. But on cannabis I think we should, as a European bloc, speak and ask whether we want harm reduction, where cannabis is concerned, to be the order of the day. There is a whole debate in Germany right now about this, I’ve been following it with immense interest, and I think if the European bloc would express itself clearly on harm reduction, that would make a whole difference.

Do you think the narrative within the European bloc is changing towards cannabis?

Oh, definitely I’ve seen Italy, I’ve seen Luxembourg, they’re both either changing their laws or they are very near to changing their laws. Germany’s in this whole debate, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, of course, they have a whole debate going on there. I’m pretty sure that there is this ‘appetite’ to discuss this issue. I believe it’s time that as a European bloc, not only a single member state, harm reduction, with regards to cannabis, needs to be brought to the forum. If we rewrite it I think we can make a difference on an international plane. Those treaties, I think, need to be looked at again with a fresh outlook.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I look forward to a healthy debate that will become a trailblazer in this area. That is the level of ambition we have.

The Cannabis Reform Bill Updates 

It’s such an exciting and prosperous time for cannabis reform, not only in Malta, but also as Owen Boccini highlighted, across Europe. The Cannabis Reform Bill proposes a progressive and innovative model of decriminalisation, unique to any other we have seen so far. 

This non-profit dispensary model, where onsite consumption is not permitted, seems to quintessentially reject the commercialised dispensary model prominent in the legal and regulated markets. It will be interesting to see how these reforms will translate, and how this particular model will help to reduce harms, prevent the criminalisation of cannabis users, and help to address other trafficking and drug related crimes in Malta.


As exciting and prosperous as these reforms seem, as well as the level of optimism from Owen Bonnici, it’s  important to remember the nature of the democratic policy making process. The Cannabis Reform Bill is currently being debated in Malta’s parliament, and has already attracted opposition, criticism and concern. 

Prior to the debate on Tuesday Malta Employers Association expressed concern that the proposed bill fails to address a number of issues relating to the consumption of cannabis. 

During the debate Claudette Buttigieg, of the Nationalist Party, told members of the house that she feared the reforms would “reflect badly on” the reputation of Malta. The views of Buttigieg are somewhat reflective of the official Nationalist Party stance, who have collectively expressed that they intend to vote against the  legislation of the Cannabis Reform Bill, raising concern over the normalisation of drug use in society. 

Although quite contradictory, the leader of the Nationalist Party, Bernard Grech, has stated that he agrees that people who consume cannabis shouldn’t be criminalised, and that those who chose to consume cannabis should be able to legally buy cannabis. 

Times Malta has also reported that a group of 20 church organisations and 2 NGOs have come together to express collective concern over the proposed Bill. Their main stance being that this process of decimalisation should be paused, until there is an independent review. 

The backlash which the Cannabis Reform Bill has received since Tuesday is reminiscent of Malta’s prior attempt to decriminalise cannabis in 2015. The level of opposition to the previous proposals meant that the over goal to decriminalise cannabis was compromised, and instead a depenalised model was subsequently legislated.

To some extent the ongoing parliamentary debates around the Cannabis Reform Bill are somewhat reflective of the wider complexities of cannabis reform. At this point it’s not clear whether the bill will pass, moreover, it’s also unclear whether if passed the legislation which follows will look the same as the Cannabis Reform Bill which is currently being presented.

This piece was written by Content Officer Ella Walsh, Tweets @Snoop_ella. 

Lead Image Credit: https://www.piqsels.com/en/public-domain-photo-omcfx

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