Cannabis revisited

Perhaps the partial legalization of non-THC products in Malta opens space to dream of more justice and perhaps winning on the war on drugs


Cannabis was first introduced to the Maltese Islands by the Phoenicians in the first millennium BC. The plant was also used extensively by the Knights of Malta during the Crusades. In the 18th century, Malta was a major producer of hemp. In the early 21st century, the Maltese government decriminalised the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

Cannabis has undergone a normalising process given its wide adoption, social tolerance and generally speaking a broader cultural acceptance; going from being branded as a gateway drug to being used as a therapeutic alternative to conventional medicine.

Malta became the first European Union country to legalize the cultivation and personal use of cannabis for adults over the age of 18. The law was passed in December 2021 and allows locals (not tourists), to carry up to 7 grams of cannabis and to grow up to four plants at home for personal use.  The sale of cannabis remains illegal, but the law permits the formation of non-profit cannabis clubs where adults can legally obtain cannabis. 7 grams of cannabis can be carried in public. Four cannabis plants are permitted to be grown per household given that they are not seen by non-residents of that household and 50 grams of cannabis is allowed to be possessed per household.

Given the ever-expanding medicinal capabilities of CBD cannabis, as it is proven to promote a calm mind and a positive mood, it’s become an effective go-to for anxiety and epilepsy treatment. The new law also allows all registered doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to patients, which can be acquired in local pharmacies. The effects of cannabis legalisation in Malta are multifaceted and can be considered from various perspectives, including social, economic, legal, and health-related aspects. Decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis could lead to a reduction in arrests and prosecutions for cannabis-related offences.

This change could alleviate the burden on the criminal justice system and redirect law enforcement resources to more serious crimes. Malta's stance on cannabis could influence its appeal as a tourist destination as the latter are not allowed to buy it.

People wrongly assume Malta is the new Amsterdam, it's far from it, cannabis rules are only for Maltese residents and tourists that come here just to smoke are considered at law as nothing more than a problem that keep on feeding the black market. The government established a regulatory framework to oversee the operation of cannabis clubs, which could present challenges in ensuring compliance and preventing diversion to the illegal market.  The maximum amount of drugs a person can be found with to be judged by a magistrate, rather than a jury, has increased – from 300g to 500g of cannabis, from 300 to 500 ecstasy pills, and from 100g to 200g of heroin or cocaine.

On a positive note, the legalisation for medical cannabis represents an opportunity for licensed producers seeking to position themselves at the forefront of this emerging landscape.  In fact, the legal cannabis industry is attracting more and more investors who want to diversify their portfolios since this industry is considered one of the most promising industries.

Many countries are now realising the potential of this growing industry and have moved to legalise cannabis for medical use. Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalize cannabis, followed by Canada in 2018 and ten US states have authorized recreational cannabis. Looking at the European context, cannabis production has been decriminalised in countries such as Spain, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Malta, Portugal and Czech Republic.

Under the new regulations, cannabis clubs must have a maximum of 500 members and cannot be within 250 metres of a school or youth centre. The association also cannot advertise itself, be non-profit making, with the word cannabis not allowed in the name of the association. Applicants must pay a registration fee of €1,000 and the license fee starts at €8,750 for the first 50 members. Cannabis sold must also include a label discouraging the use and also provide details.

This sector was the brain child of disgraced prime minister Joseph Muscat. He stated that the approved projects are expected to create local capital expenditures of more than €110 million and 700 full-time jobs. For example, an Israeli company TechforCann announced that it will be establishing the first European tech accelerator for the medical cannabis industry.

This project was also supported by Malta Enterprise through funding that will help startups which are selected to participate in the TechforCann EU accelerator programme. It approved a number of startup projects related to Research and Development on cannabinoids, their use in different therapeutic indications, and innovation in industrial processes related to cultivation and extraction. However, the net impact on the number of jobs and output created by this emerging sector is unknown so it needs to be delved deeper over the coming years.

Another social aspect remains in place: the issue concerning the lack of information on the use of medicinal cannabis. Patients often comment on the limited knowledge by medical practitioners, particularly as medical practitioners are sometimes reluctant to prescribe cannabis as a form of treatment. Apart from this, the price for medicinal cannabis so far is quite costly for patients. It is worth exploring the possibility of offering this medicine to patients at a subsidised price.

Furthermore, one cannot separate the use of cannabis from its long history as an illegal THC substance, which is very often abused of. Stigmatisation of the use of this drug is a strong deterrent for many healthcare providers and uncertainty will slow down the use of medicinal cannabis. Indeed, the perception of the public needs to be educated, with perhaps the introduction of frank discussions about the use of CBD cannabis. In addition, continuous educational programmes for medical practitioners are also a must, in order to remove the general stigma concerning its use.

In conclusion, one reflects on how the war on drugs has not relented as more victims are falling prey to its scourge. Perhaps the partial legalization of non-THC products in Malta opens space to dream of more justice and perhaps winning on the war on drugs.

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