The Severely Ill Man at the Centre of Malta’s Medical Cannabis Debate

Christopher Bartolo and his two sons

The imprisonment of a severely ill man for self-medicating with cannabis in Malta has ignited controversy in the country, where the regulation of medical cannabis has recently risen into national debate.

Christopher Bartolo is a 36 year-old Maltese national from the island of Gozo, described by his partner as a hard-working individual dedicated to the well-being of his children. His life took a stumble in 2012; his two kidneys failed and his health began to quickly deteriorate. Between the use of a plethora of prescribed pills, and a frantic search for a matching kidney, Christopher’s life was in a constant state of flux between pain, hope, and despair.

As the prescribed medications had limited effects in controlling Christopher’s pain, he soon turned to cannabis to self-medicate. Cannabis significantly reduced his pain and allowed him to sleep and get some rest – although his medical conditions persisted. He eventually had to give up his job and start using a wheelchair to move about. Self-medication through the use of cannabis helped Christopher retain some form of human dignity and enjoy quality time with his children. Between 2013 and 2014, the dark clouds overshadowing Christopher’s life made way for momentary rays of sunshine: a compatible kidney donor was found, and the surgical intervention was carried out. This was a life-changing event for Christopher and his children. Christopher managed to partially regain his health, and to once more become gainfully occupied. Hope for a better and normal future was restored.

But Christopher’s torment was not over – in fact, the worst was yet to come.

In the midst of chaotic hospital visits and the sensitive kidney transplant, the police carried out a search of his home and found 167 grams of cannabis. At this time, Christopher was going through 6-hour dialysis sessions at the hospital and was in a very vulnerable and fragile state. Nonetheless, the police subjected him to intense questioning, and - during a second interrogation session - managed to obtain a confession for “trafficking”.

In April 2017, Christopher was charged with drug trafficking and possession of cannabis not intended for personal use. He received a 5-year prison sentence and was fined EUR 15,000. On April 27, he entered prison.

Christopher Bartolo and his son, Zac

Two months later, Christopher’s medical condition was deteriorating at an alarming rate. His transplanted kidney failed, and he began having to make three hospital trips each week for dialysis treatment. During an emergency Appeal Court meeting in August, testimonies from the prison’s warden manager highlighted that prison staff had limited knowledge of Christopher’s medical and dietary requirements. Meanwhile, unhygienic sanitary conditions in the prison continued to negatively impinge on Christopher’s health. To add insult to injury, during the same Appeal Court session, the Chief Judge reprimanded Christopher for failing to undergo a rehabilitation programme because of his so-called drug-addiction problem.

Christopher continued to suffer and languish in a small and hot cell through the summer of 2017, with his health condition deteriorating even further. In November, a constitutional court ruled that Christopher’s rights had been violated because he had been denied access to a lawyer. A month later his lawyers made an unusual attempt to, in vain, call on Malta’s President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca to intervene.

On January 4, the Minister for Justice Owen Bonnici spoke on the matter, saying that the Ministry is closely monitoring the case, and called for patience in the wait for the Attorney General’s decision on the possibility to grant Christopher bail as his appeal is pending.  His hearing, which was scheduled for January 10 was deferred to February 5.

This case has highlighted the hypocrisy in Malta’s current conversation on cannabis. On one hand, we have the archaic, conservative, and harsh criminal approach that Christopher is enduring, yet this is taking place within the context of a national debate to legalise and regulate medicinal cannabis. This is undoubtedly sending out mixed messages on the use, benefits, and dangers of the plant. Malta has already accepted that cannabis-based medicines can provide health benefits, yet authorities are caging a severely ill man for using the drug for medical purposes.

Christopher Bartolo’s harrowing story should act as a wake-up call for the police, the judiciary, the political class and - most importantly - Maltese society. When it comes to cannabis, the harms perpetuated by the law greatly outweigh the dangers and harm caused by the use of cannabis for medical purposes. The law continues to oppress a person who is sick and desperate for professional medical assistance and family ties. The law is directly and negatively impinging on the basic fundamental rights it should be defending: the right to life and the right to a family.

It is high time the Maltese society considers an uncomfortable yet indispensable question: what are the financial, political, and social benefits of incarcerating a person who uses cannabis? Until this question is answered, Christopher’s hope to be reunited with his family remains bleak… and his children will continue to be robbed of one of the most basic of needs: the love of their father.

 

A petition has been launched to grant bail to Christopher as he awaits the results of his appeal.

*Karen is a Maltese citizen, with a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and Mediterranean Security and a keen interest in drug policy reform.