In December 2021, Malta made history as the first European country to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes. While the system is still being implemented, its focus on social justice and public health concerns has been refreshing for cannabis control, and sets out a model that could be copied anywhere in the world.
A recent report by Augur Associates explored different models for cannabis regulation in Europe, examining some of the challenges that the continent has faced when seeking to legalise cannabis consumption. They focused on Malta as a successful case-study of “self-restrained” legalisation, and one that could be internationally copied whilst still in accordance with international drug control treaties.
TalkingDrugs spoke with Andrew Bonello, the President of ReLeaf, a Maltese cannabis non-governmental organisation representing the voice of people who use cannabis, as well as Mariella Dimech, the Chair of the Association for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC), to understand why such a system was pursued, and what sort of benefits it may bring.
The (non)profit cannabis model
Malta, a small European nation with a population of around half a million, had already removed criminal penalties for the possession of certain quantities of cannabis in 2015, legalising non-smokable medical cannabis in 2018.
The Maltese government announced in late 2021 its intention to legalise the adult consumption of cannabis. Uniquely, the sale of cannabis is restricted to non-profit organisations (NPOs), which act as cannabis growing associations that cultivate cannabis on the behalf of individuals.
|New Maltese cannabis law
Dimech described the government’s approach as a “harm and risk reduction approach”: it respects the human rights of people that want to use cannabis, while reducing the harms that come from its consumption as well as criminalisation.
“If anyone decides to use cannabis, they’ll have the opportunity to be a member of a non-profit organisation and have cannabis that is first of all at a price that isn’t the same as the illegal market; it will be available at a much lower price. And they’re going to have cannabis that has been tested at various levels to ensure there aren’t dangerous chemicals in it,” she added.
NPOs were given an opportunity to make their case early on in the national cannabis plans. ReLeaf pushed in 2019 for the right to cultivation, and the development of harm reduction tools for societal use, as well as the expungement of non-violent cannabis convictions.
“If one looks at data related to problematic alcohol and tobacco use, one of the main identified problems is the profit and commercially driven approach tolerated for the past decades. This is the reality faced also by consumers of gaming and other highly commercialised recreational activities,” Bonello told TalkingDrugs. “The associations, being themselves also part of the cannabis consuming community, enter into a commitment to promote responsible use, and to organise educational talks with its members.”
Dimech agreed on the importance of the NPO’s role in reducing harms: “people who are dispensing will be trained not just to explain everything there is to know about cannabis, but also to recognise red flags: if somebody is not okay, if somebody has changed their habits, if somebody wants extra high THC…”
This emphasis on non-profit driven models, cannabis education and early interventions, neuters any business models that focus on customer expansion or profit maximisation, ensuring that those that wish to consume the drug will use it in an informed, educated, and responsible manner. Undercutting illegal market prices also creates incentives for consumers to switch into the legal market. This has been a challenge in other legal cannabis markets like the US, where high taxes on cannabis have meant that the illegal market maintains a strong hold in some states like California.
Personal cannabis cultivation, an effective tactic to ensure an equitable market, was supported by Bonello: “we explained to the legislator that by decriminalising possession only, they would be missing an opportunity to safeguard people’s health and well-being.”
Dimech also believed that home cultivation was an important choice to give consumers, particularly to distance individuals from illegal market consumption, although it did raise issues around the safe cultivation of cannabis at home.
Cannabis education for all
A particularly prominent aspect of the Maltese model was its focus on public education around cannabis. Not only is it important to provide information to those that consume the plant, but to those around them.
“There needs to be a good working relationship with authorities, not just to regulate, monitor and catch people, but also to support them, and offer them tools and skills on how to deal with this new law, this opportunity of growing at home or becoming a member of NPO,” explained Dimech.
Some new situations require education around best practices: families growing cannabis with teenagers or young adults at home, or having a partner that doesn’t consume cannabis. Cannabis’ legalisation creates new social situations that must be identified early on and responsibly navigated to avoid creating any unnecessary social harms. “We don’t want to create problems, we want to lessen problems,” as Dimech put it.
That is why ARUC will create educational material available across media channels to educate the public on cannabis, especially for those very concerned about the plant’s legalisation. “I believe that sometimes when people don’t have enough information, change is very frightening. So the best support whenever there is any form of change, is information.”
Dimech believes that public education is the key to address social perceptions of cannabis, and “believing that cannabis users are actually as intelligent, as well versed, as capable of making the right decisions, as the next person… This is de-stigmatisation.”
What’s in the future for Malta?
For such a progressive system, there is still space for organisations to ensure that drug policies remain people-centred and reflecting wider societal goals. ReLeaf, alongside left-wing organisation Moviment Graffitti launched in 2022 a policy paper outlining how the Maltese cannabis model could further integrate a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable approach.
The paper outlines the historical damage that the prohibition of cannabis, focusing on the racial and social damage that its criminalisation has created, recommending the expansion of dispensing NPOs to provide more education around health and social aspects of cannabis’ consumption, as well as the inclusion of people who use and farm cannabis in policymaking processes.
Dimech recognises that the past 50 years of prohibition have failed to control the harms of drugs: “All across Europe and the world we’re realising that stringent laws don’t stop people from trying out drugs. But when you regulate something you have the opportunity to educate and support.”
While Malta is indeed a progressive example of cannabis policymaking, it was surprising to see how few considerations were made to transition members of the illegal market into the legal one. Firstly, the fact that cannabis possession offences were not automatically expunged. Secondly, there was no mention of bringing in current cultivators into NPOs. These are key aspects of reducing the criminal harms of cannabis’ prohibition. Limiting policy changes to decriminalisation of possession may prevent this transition, but also means that there will continue to be an illegal industry for the plant in Malta.
Ultimately, Malta is set to be an example for the world on how cannabis can be regulated in a non-commercial fashion. While regulatory details are still being ironed out, Malta will be scrutinised by the international community, as they are a global pilot on how cannabis could come to be regulated across the globe, while still respecting the harms of the plant, as well as the rights of the people that use it.