Announcing harm reduction associations - a novelty in Malta

Protesters in Malta against the law stressed that regulations are vague where it concerns the variety of the Cannabis plant allowed for cultivation


A newly-appointed Acting President signed the law to set up an authority  regularising cannabis use on 18th December 2021, while President George Vella was temporarily absent on official business in UK. The law concerning legalisation of cannabis use (under certain conditions) makes it possible for those who use cannabis to legally grow up to four plants and purchase buds and seeds for personal use.  It is also allowing users to carry up to 7g of cannabis in public without fear of arrest, though smoking it in public remains prohibited.

The law did not create public dispensaries, but non-profit organizations can grow cannabis and distribute it among members.  Malta allows these social clubs to have up to 500 members and give out seven grams per member per day, up to 50 grams each month.

The clubs can also give members up to 20 seeds every month.  Fun clubs - dubbed Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations - can apply to sell home-grown marijuana and pay a modest registration fee of €1,000 and the license fee starts at €8,750 for the first 50 members.  The Authority recently replaced its initial chairperson and appointed as CEO Leonid McKay.

He said it was important that cannabis is not commercialised "because as soon as we do that the intentions and aims change completely”.  McKay said that the aim of Authority is not to promote cannabis but to create a safe and regulated market for people to avoid “gangsters of the black market”.  It caps THC to  not more than zero point two (0.2) percent content.

Now what does this mean to the man in the street?  What are the fears that need to be debunked and what evils lurk in the shadows?  The major benefit of this law is that personal users with controlled quantities are not criminalized yet since the issue of a White Paper there has been no educational campaigns to warn the public about abuse of this substance.  A chorus of NGO’s and about 5000 protested against parts of the law but their objections were ignored.  It also allows anyone with a criminal record for cannabis possession to apply to have it struck off.

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.  The law proposes the setting up of a Cannabis Authority (manned by appointees by the minister) which will be financed by cannabis-related fines, so now the authorities have a financial incentive to police Malta’s cannabis users.

This new authority would have the power to commission studies, propose improvements to the system, propose guidelines, and manage funds emanating from the imposition of administrative fines related to the breach of legal provisions related to cannabis.

The salubrious news is that Malta now joins the league of happy “coffee shop” brigade that charms tourists in their thousands along the shady canal streets of Amsterdam. These hordes of cheap tourists now can flock to Malta’s beaches and lidos. All happy to choose from a bevy of low-cost airlines. One may ask what makes the plant (the glory of the hippy revolution in the 60’s) so topical.

The answer is loaded with many scientific and social studies which in brief defines the composition of the plant whether it is pure CBD oils or leached with a percentage of the THC. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a well-known cannabinoid, and the main composite responsible for the plant’s psychoactive effect. It can be derived from hemp or from marijuana.  Hemp-derived CBD still contains trace amounts of THC, while marijuana-derived CBD may contain more.

The benign qualities of CBC based oil is advertised as providing relief for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  It is also marketed to promote sleep. Part of CBD’s popularity is that it purports to be “nonpsychoactive” and that consumers can reap health benefits from the plant without the high. Research showed that cannabis is of course more likely to be used by persons who also consume hard drugs.

Protesters in Malta against the law stressed that regulations are vague where it concerns the variety of the Cannabis plant allowed for cultivation. The essential distinction is merely that the product should possess a THC level of less than 0.2%. The Malta Medical Council proposes inter alia that the government would allow re-visiting of the law and eventually modify it based on evidence-based principles as directed by the ‘Kannavape case’. In the Kanavape case (C-663/18) ruling, the EU Court considered that CBD, as a cannabis sativa extract, did not constitute a narcotic drug, and therefore, the principle of free movement of goods between Member State applies.

This preliminary ruling impacts Malta in the sense that Malta Enterprise heavily promotes producers to set up locally. They are encouraged to manufacture, sale, or import of CBD products. Detractors suggest that local studies are necessary to analyse safe methods of procuring cannabis with levels not exceeding 0.2% THC but the law as it stands today, is silent on this issue.

What is the legal position on this matter in other countries? Typically, we read how in 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of CBD under the brand name Epidiolex to treat seizures resulting from two rare forms of epilepsy. Another study found that Sativex, a CBD-based botanical drug approved in the United Kingdom in 2010, promoted statistically significant improvements in quality of sleep, pain during movement and pain at rest in patients with rheumatoid arthritis when compared to a placebo.

It was the first controlled trial of Sativex as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, involving 58 patients. CBD was found to have a pain-relieving effect, as well as an ability to suppress disease activity. The trust of pro-CBD users points towards the benefits of the THC free product when used for medical purposes. Pure CBD lacks the cannabis-like intoxicating properties of THC.

Caritas Malta rejects the popular parlance that labels cannabis as a soft drug. It warns the effect of cannabis is highly influenced by the concentration of THC, the quantity used and the frequency. As more “Harm reduction clubs” spring to action this month, one may notice a new posse of enriched CBD dancers welcoming King Carnival in his triumphant march through the Baroque city of Valletta.

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