The Malta Independent 14 April 2021, Wednesday

The cannabis debate: A ‘live and let live’ approach to life

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 7 April 2021, 07:37 Last update: about 7 days ago

Recently the Government issued a White Paper for consultation: ‘Towards the strengthening of the legal framework on the responsible use of cannabis’, a document which, in my opinion, is flawed.

I will explain further down. 

To start off, this White Paper attempts to confuse people (hopefully not intentionally) by deliberately making reference to the medical benefits of the drug in question (which is not being contested) and the use of cannabis ‘for leisure’.

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My second reaction is that the sub-titling in this White Paper is deceptive, stating that ‘Nothing in this White Paper is intended to encourage, promote, or in any way lead to the consumption of cannabis’ (p.5). Do the people who wrote this document think we’re senseless?  I will just quote from the same document; ‘The consumption of cannabis in one’s own home adds to the users’ wellbeing, giving them a safe, private space to consume cannabis.’ (p.15)

My third reaction, is that if Malta pursues this avenue, that is, of introducing ‘the responsible use of cannabis’, it may well be in breach of a number of UN Conventions it might have ratified.  Let me quote correspondence sent to the Australian Government (2019) which may very well apply to the local scenario:

“On behalf of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and with reference to the responsibilities of the Board as stipulated in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs as amended by the 1972 Protocol, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances…

The Board has noted with concern recent reports regarding the legalization of cannabis possession, use and cultivation in small amounts in the Australian Capital Territory….

The Board wishes to recall that cultivation, production and distribution of cannabis for non-medical purposes is inconsistent with the provisions of the 1961 Convention [my emphasis] as amended, in particular article 4(c), which requires State parties to limit the use of narcotic drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. The Board wishes to reiterate that the legalization and regulation of cannabis of non-medical use, including in small quantities, would be inconsistent with Australia’s international legal obligations.’ (Ref: INCB-CES AUL 109/19 – 3/10/2019)

Could this be applicable to Malta? Will the Government of Malta be breaching its International obligations if it pursues the actions listed in this White Paper?

Now onto the White Paper and my reactions.

Point 1. ‘These proposals are guided by the principles of justice, proportionality, and the individual’s freedom to make responsible choices.’ (p.14)

The State should never abdicate its responsibility. This is the bruising that comes with neo-liberalism and the idea of ‘a live and let live approach’ to life that has permeated our culture. For example, if we had to leave it up to people to decide at what speed they drive, basing it entirely on people’s ‘responsibility’, we could do away with speed-cameras and police officers because, you know, people can take ‘responsibility’.  I  suppose we agree, it’s a big no-no.

Point 2. ‘The 2015 legal amendments on depenalisation were a step in the right direction, and this proposal builds on that framework. It is being proposed that the current limit for adult possession for personal use is increased from 3.5 grams to 7 grams.’  (p.14)

Do we have enough empirical evidence that guarantees that once we open the tap we will still be in control? Do we have enough empirical and scientific evidence on what is the impact of using a maximum of 7 grams and not 8, 9 or 10 grams whilst we’re at it?

Point 3. ‘The full decriminalisation of this amount is being proposed, that is, adults in possession of 7 grams or less for their personal use cannot be subject to any legal proceedings, or the imposition of any fine or punishment.’ (p.14)

In agreement.  Anyways, the prison system practically works for no-one and is not reformative from where I stand.

Point 4. ‘Therefore, adults cannot be subject to arrest, or escorted to the General Headquarters / Police Station for interrogation on the basis of that possession, unless a reasonable suspicion of trafficking, sale, import or export by that person arises.’ (p.14)

So are we admitting here that the black market and traffickers will not vanish as has been stated so many times by the pro-legalization lobby once cannabis is legalized?  And, how are we going to define ‘reasonable suspicion of trafficking’ in a crowd of people or a group of clubbers?  How are we going to choose the chaff from the wheat and locate the illegal traffickers from people sharing a joint because their friends forgot theirs at home?

Point 5. ‘It is also being proposed that the possession of more than 7 grams but less than 28 grams for one’s exclusive personal use should be subject to proceedings before the Commissioner for Justice, as currently contemplated for the possession of less than 3.5 grams.’ (p.14)

I believe wholeheartedly in the role of the Commissioner of Justice. The truth is that, at the moment, consumers of a low amount of cannabis are visible to this Office, a safeguard that helps before the problem gets out of control. Once this Office will take cognizance of only those who consume more than 7 grams, it will lose out on all of these.

Point 6. ‘The regulated growing of cannabis for one’s personal use detracts users from the illicit cannabis market by giving them the right to grow cannabis plants for their own personal use. The consumption of cannabis in one’s own home adds to the users’ wellbeing, giving them a safe, private space to consume cannabis.’

Has cannabis become safe now? Cannabis has been deemed unsafe by psychiatrists, ex-users, all three organizations specialized in working in this area and a host of other experts – that’s a fact!  Another fact, the ‘illicit cannabis market’  will always be with us!

Point 7. ‘It is being proposed that every residential habitation (household) can grow up to 4 plants, in a space which is not visible to the public, and which does not emit smells. The cultivated cannabis cannot be sold, and can only be consumed in the same habitation. Cannabis cannot be consumed before minors, and residents are to ensure that it is stored in places which are inaccessible to minors residing in the same habitation.’ (p.15) (p.15)

Why not? So, is it socially acceptable or not to consume cannabis? And what if there are minors in that household? And why is the smell an issue if there is nothing wrong with cannabis? And how big can the pots be. And from where are we going to purchase the seeds?  What about child protection issues? 

Point 8. ‘Government believes that past errors should not lead to present stigmatisation and lost opportunities. It is being proposed that crimes which are no longer considered as such at law should be removed from one’s conduct certificate by means of a simple procedure.’ (p.15)

I agree and hope that this notion of ‘Expungement’ starts to apply to other menial crimes.

Point 9. ‘It is being proposed that the consumption of cannabis in public should not be allowed in any case. The relative punishment for this breach should be identical to the one imposed for the smoking of tobacco in prohibited spaces, and therefore, an administrative fine of €233.33.’ (p.15)

One moment its ok and contributes ‘to one’s wellbeing’, the next moment it’s the opposite - contradictions galore!

Point 11. ‘Minors, that is, persons under the age of eighteen, should be distanced from the criminal justice system as much as possible. Equally important is distancing minors from cannabis and its potential effects at such a tender age, and discouraging its use.’ (p.16)

I agree that making a show with young people is ridiculous, but this White Paper is doing anything but discouraging the use of cannabis. It is abundantly clear that the Government has one foot here and one foot there and this document oozes a lack of conviction. At one point the White Paper claims that, ‘[we] should assist minors in moving away from cannabis use’ (p.16) in another moment we are saying ‘the consumption of cannabis in one’s own home adds to the users’ wellbeing’ (p.15) – so does cannabis have a negative effect or not?

Point 12. ‘In this case, minors are not to be subject to arrest, or escorted to the General Headquarters / Police Station for interrogation on the basis of that possession, unless a reasonable suspicion of trafficking, sale, import or export by that person arises.’ (p.16)

Agreed.

Point 13. ‘This Authority should have the power to commission studies, propose improvements to the system, propose guidelines, and manage funds emanating from the imposition of administrative fines related to the breach of legal provisions related to cannabis.’ (p.17) 

Commissioning of research should be done before this White Paper is enacted and not after – that is basic common sense I suppose – it’s called informed choice.

Point 14. ‘The success of any reform hinges upon the prioritisation of education on the matter at hand. It is clear that a more effective, holistic educational campaign on cannabis is required, one which is based on scientific fact and the concept of harm reduction. Educational campaigns should give clear information on the risks and benefits of cannabis use, by means of age appropriate content, and should aim to eradicate the stigma surrounding cannabis by instead promoting research and open dialogue on the cannabis plant.’ (p.17)

So, this White Paper is stating that we need an educational campaign. But what is the focus of this campaign going to be? To inform us that it would be best to steer away from cannabis maybe? But isn’t it contradictory that we introduce an educational strategy to question the problem when we already know there are so many risks?  Once we are claiming ‘harm reduction’ it is immediately clear that there is a problem to contend with. 

So I ask: Why not wait for the outcomes of research instead of all this rush? What are the benefits of consuming cannabis? Maybe to forget, to be alienated and this when we are constantly advocating with children and young people to be self-aware and address the issues rather than resort to disowning methods which are simply intended to make us forget!

Sorry, but this White Paper is all so muddled up.

It seems that the Government forgot to mention who is to gain from this economically. The Government will surely secure some brownie points in the form of votes in the coming election assuming this White Paper is enacted - but what about the dire consequences, who is going to carry the culpability? 

It saddens me that the Faculty for Social Wellbeing and other entities, both within Government and VOs, closely linked with the welfare of young people have not been consulted (or else consulted insincerely) and their recommendations sidelined. 

I suppose ‘congratulations’ are due here; the cannabis lobby will come out victorious.

My appeal is simple. Postpone all of this. Let’s see what the science and research is telling us. Let’s commit a couple of millions of euros to empirical research, that is, if we are genuinely interested in our community’s welfare. Let’s create a national research task force which is not based on entrepreneurial interests or personal motivations or political grandiose, but scientific knowledge coming from the social and medical field. Let’s see what this tells us before we take the big step. 

It surely isn’t a lot that I’m asking for.

 

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