ALMOST one year since passing legislation fears are growing the Maltese Government is set to undermine its commitment to create a fully-functioning, adult-use cannabis regime.
In December last year the Maltese President George Vella signed into law proposals that permit adults to possess up to 7gs, cultivate four plants at home and secure cannabis supplies from regulated clubs.
Weeks later it established an Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) with the brief of laying out a comprehensive path for implementing these plans.
However, following the sacking of its first Executive Chairperson Mariella Dimech earlier this month fears are growing the Government will now ‘row back’ on its mandate following the appointment of cannabis sceptic Leonid McKay as the new ARUC head.
Cannabis Row Back
Andrew Bonello, President of pro-cannabis reform group ReLeaf Malta is disheartened with recent events.
Speaking to BusinessCann he said: “The new head of the cannabis authority believes that cannabis is a gateway drug and that users need a spell in rehabilitation, this does not align with the legislative mandate the Government has and leaves us with serious concerns that it will now row back on the plans for cannabis reform.”
Consequently ReLeaf Malta has urged the Government to confirm – by the end of the month – that the ARUC will ‘align with the core principles of legislation by applying a comprehensive harm and risk reduction approach’, whilst establishing a ‘realistic timeline of implementing the licensing programme’.
After being sacked less than one year into her tenure Ms Dimech released the following damning statement: “Over the last 10 months I have worked with no functional office, no staff, no budget and a political strategy and decision strategy I disagreed with.”
Catholic Cannabis Concerns
Ms Dimech had previously worked for Caritas Malta, a Catholic charity focused on supporting minority groups. Mr McKay was a Director at the same organisation, between 2014 and 2018.
In a public statement Mr Bonello described Mr McKay’s appointment as a ‘direct insult’ to the spirit of Malta’s cannabis law and the individuals ‘who have worked so hard to rewrite history’.
It cited its stance on cannabis quoting a position taken in 2017 which read: “Caritas Malta would like to state our serious concern about any form of legislation of the so-called ‘recreational’ use of cannabis.
“We have numerous testimonies, more than thirty years of experience in the field, together with a sound base of scientific arguments and lessons learned from other countries to conclude that facilitating the use or sale of cannabis will have serious detrimental effects on our communities.”
The Maltese parliament passed the legislation for President Vella to sign on December 14 2021 by 36 votes to 27.
At the time the minister driving reform Owen Bonnici said its motivation was ‘harm reduction and allowing people to make healthy choices’, adding: “If a person decides to make use of cannabis they should be given a safe route to obtain it. We’re not perfect, but we’re in politics to change things, and this is the change we’re bringing.”
The Labour Party which introduced the proposals was subsequently re-elected to power in March this year.
However, the ARUC has subsequently been moved out of health and into the Home Affairs department which is also responsible for policing.
The ARUC had been tasked with establishing a not-for-profit cannabis social clubs’ model similar to that prevalent in Spain.
Cannabis – A Vote Winner
Its emerging proposals involve such associations having a maximum membership of 500 with the cannabis being grown by the club itself.
This would effectively lead to a member, or members of the club growing the cannabis in their ‘garage’, explained one of the critics of the Government’s approach.
Further matters for the ARUC to address involve the creation of registered banking and payment systems for the clubs – which will allow members a maximum consumption of 20gm a week.
One island-based cannabis businessman says he is not surprised at the lack of progress, cynically dismissing the Labour Party’s approach as an attempt to score the votes of the 20,000 regular cannabis users on the island which has a population of over half-a-million.
One suggestion being proposed to speed up progress is to allow the island’s medical cannabis producers to supply patients.
The country legalised medical cannabis in March 2018 and one month later introduced legislation permitting production, cultivation, processing and importation for medical and research purposes.
A number of companies have established operations on the island including; Materia, Panaxia Pharmaceutical, ZenPharm, and ASG Pharma.
However, Mr Bonello warned against permitting such a move saying it would negate the island’s efforts to pursue a not-for-profit, adult-use market.
BusinessCann has reached out to Caritas, the Government and Mr McKay for comments on recent developments and is yet to receive any replies.