The Malta Independent 15 April 2021, Thursday

Releaf

Owen Bonnici Friday, 2 April 2021, 09:47 Last update: about 12 days ago

The white paper on further relaxation of Cannabis legislation is a step in the right direction.  This reform is much needed; it is just and fair and at the end of the day makes sure that the resources of the police are focused where it matters most - that is combatting drug trafficking and drug traffickers.

I am a bit averse to the notion of "recreational cannabis".  For me recreation has more to do with a nice walk in the park, or attending a concert, or playing a game of football with friends.  I do not see anything "recreational" with smoking weed.  But I do see the need that a person who smokes cannabis for personal use and cultivates a plant or two, again for personal use, is left in peace to do what he or she wants at home without the authorities making such a fuss about it.

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On the matter I am as objective as can be.  Having suffered from asthma quite severely as a young boy, I have grown very averse to the notion of voluntarily inhaling anything from tobacco to weed.  But that is me.  Other people have the right to smoke a joint at home without fearing getting into trouble for being caught in the act.

Reading the press reports about the launching of the white paper by Prime Minister Abela, I could not help thinking how much we as a country have progressed on the subject in a matter of a few years.

I remember days in my youth when both political parties spoke about the war on drugs and zero tolerance to drug barons.  Of course I am all in favour of combatting drug trafficking and drug traffickers with all the resources possible.  The problem with the political discourse and action at the time was that in their quest of increase penalties and impose mandatory imprisonments on all cases they ended up using the same yardstick on everyone, little distinguishing between hardened drug traffickers, genuine victims of crime and people who all they wanted was to be able to grow a plant for personal use and smoke some good weed at home in peace after a long day at the office.

Of course the Nationalist Party had a lot to do at the time to limit damage following the inexplicable Presidential Pardon issued to a Brazilian drug trafficker by the name of Francesco de Assis Queiroz. That one bad decision led to severe consequences.  The Fenech Adami Government wanted to show that it was not in the pocket of drug lords.  Labour, on the other hand, upped the game and kept adopting a zero tolerance policy with anything that has to do with drugs.  In fact a leading and well-respected Minister had to resign during a subsequent Labour administration (1996-1998) for pardoning some days from the prison sentence of a young drug victim without Cabinet approval.

This was the situation that was left going on for almost two decades.  In the meantime I graduated as a lawyer and started practicing in the law Courts. I could then see first-hand the cruel effects of this legislation with regards to genuine victims of drug abuse or other people who are not victims but simply smoke cannabis at home.

So I started witnessing stories of couples who were undergoing personal separation and wanted to get back at each other unfortunately reporting to the police that - horror horror - the husband or wife once smoked a joint at home.  This had very serious consequences particularly for those who were employed with the public sector or services and matters would complicate further if accusations of growing of a plant or more than one plant were involved.

This was just one example.  There were many others.

When I became Parliamentary Secretary for Justice in 2013 and later Minister, I wanted to change things and put some much-needed order and clarity.  In 2014 I immediately issued a white paper which was proposing to do a lot of things to curb back and rationalize the legal situation while still being hard against drug trafficking and drug traffickers.

The white paper purported to do what was badly needed to be done.  It made distinctions in with regards to quantities of drugs and, perhaps more importantly, whether the person caught with the drug was a victim or a drug-trafficker whose only interest was profit.  It suggested to decriminalize simple possession while proposing the setting up of a Drug Offender Rehabilitation Board to help victims kick the habit.

More importantly for the discussion we are having today, it also proposed to make a distinction with regards to Cannabis, proposing to relax the laws further compared to other drugs, both in situations of simple possession and the cultivation of the plant. 

This was a radical shift in the approach from anything that we had before.  I wanted to make sure that this proposal sees the light of day and worked overnight to bring the support of my own party first and then the support of the Nationalist Party.

I approached the consultation period with an open mind for the sake of the bigger cause.  I am pleased to say that the process was a very positive one and had also attended a consultation exercise at the Nationalist Party Headquarters on the subject!

That is how much I desperately did not want to politicize the issue because I wanted to see this reform through.  It was not all rosy.  The Church pronounced itself against the reform, while a lot of people from own party were genuinely worried that this white paper would be turned into a political controversy by the Nationalist Opposition.

That luckily did not happen: merit also to both sides of the House.  I am sure, also, that my choice of former ECHR Judge Giovanni Bonello to head the Drug Offender Rehabilitation Board helped greatly to send the message that we want to achieve a cross-party consensus on the matter.  Dr Bonello, I would like to add, was impeccable in the service he gave to the cause and in his leadership of the Board.

People who for want of a better term "smoke cannabis recreationally" looked at the white paper with suspicion.  They knew that it was a step forward and applauded that fact but still they knew that the police had retained the right to detain anyone who had simple possession cannabis for the purpose not of arraigning them to Court as before, but of obtaining information which would lead them to the person who sold the cannabis.

I knew that this step could not be achieved back in 2014/15, it was too early then, but it would be the natural next step in further legislative reforms.  The New Drug Law (Treatment not Imprisonment) was unanimously approved in the House and entered into force in April 2015.  In the 2017 electoral manifesto we then included a pledge to the effect that we would embark on a national debate with a view to further reform cannabis use and cultivation.  That was another important step forward.

And now we are here with Prime Minister Robert Abela unveiling a much needed white paper which is proposing further relaxation of cannabis laws.  I agree with the proposal from start to finish and I complement Dr Abela for moving it forward with determination.

I urge interested parties to contribute in the consultation exercise.  Let's all keep changing Malta for the better! 


 

 


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