The Malta Independent 19 June 2021, Saturday

‘Research on cannabis should take place before legalisation, not after’ – Andrew Azzopardi

Jake Aquilina Sunday, 11 April 2021, 08:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

More research on cannabis consumption should be conducted before the process of legalising it for recreational use, not after, the Dean of the Faculty of Social Wellbeing, Prof. Andrew Azzopardi said.

Legalising cannabis is in the pipeline for Malta after a white paper was presented for consultation; a process which is going to take 6 weeks, after which it would be discussed in parliament.  The Malta Independent caught up with Azzopardi to get further insight on his views regarding this topic.

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Earlier this week, Azzopardi published an article in The Malta Independent questioning the credibility of the white paper. Following Azzopardi’s article, ReLeaf, an NGO in favour of cannabis legalisation, voiced their disappointment towards Azzopardi’s stance.

In his interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Azzopardi reiterated his same concerns regarding the white paper, saying that flaws are prevalent in it. “One of the main points of my argument was that this is a white paper that doesn't serve the people who are either pro-cannabis or against it. This paper is flawed, there are huge gaps in it,” he said.

“There are a lot of inconsistencies in the way it is written, namely that from one side we are saying that it puts you in a position where it increases your wellbeing, and on the other side we are saying that it should not be promulgated.”

Azzopardi also addressed certain vagueness in the white paper in terms of regulation. “When it refers to 7 grams, we don't even know what it is hinting at, because we are speaking about more than 20 joints. In what span of time should people consume them? A day? A month? A year?” Azzopardi questioned.

“This was an opportunity to discuss, but it wasn't done.”

Azzopardi said that another reason why this paper is flawed is that it forgets the human aspect in it. “We have to understand that this white paper – which has already turned yellow for me because it is without any substance – forgets the most essential thing: the human at its centre.”

The dean pointed out that this is his personal opinion, and that it does not reflect his whole faculty’s mode of thinking, as the faculty is “eclectic”, where “some people agree and some disagree with cannabis”.

“I have a problem with cannabis because we don't have clear science about it, so that is one of the things which is an anomaly in this document. They are telling us that they're going to research it ... you're going to conduct the research after the law comes out? You need to conduct research before,” he remarked.  

Questions as to who wrote this document remain for Azzopardi, further arguing that experts in this field within his faculty were not even consulted. “Who are these professionals who wrote this document? I am asking this because we have experts and a number of professors within the faculty – and I am excluding myself – who  have expertise in this field and have been working in this sector for a long time; from psychologist to sociologists and criminologists. These were not consulted. So who were the experts?” he questioned.

Azzopardi clarified that he completely agrees with decriminalisation, but has his doubts on the notion of legalising cannabis.

“A statistic was recently released showing that a lot of people are in jail for drug possession. Without a doubt, I agree that these charades that the police perform when they catch youths in possession of cannabis – or lock them in jail because of the use of cannabis – have to stop,” he said. 

Azzopardi also targeted the judicial system as one of the problems that also needs fixing in this respect. “I don't have faith in the judicial system where jail is involved. For me, the Correctional Facility is one of the biggest problems that we have in terms of institutions in this country.”

Azzopardi was asked whether he believes that legalising cannabis will have a positive impact in terms of mitigating the amount of people who purchase drugs from the black market. “This was one of ReLeaf's arguments, which said that if cannabis is legalised or legitimised, the danger of people dealing with drug traffickers will be reduced, the latter of which may then entice you to try another drug. So, there are reasonable arguments about this,” he remarked.

The government, instead of boasting about the surplus of money which has been made in recent years, should invest it to fund such research, Azzopardi said. “We should invest; we have been boasting for a long time that we have money and surplus ... let’s invest 2 or 3 million in empirical research based on the evidence we have on Malta and then we come up with the theory of whether it is for the better or for the worse.”

“It's okay if the finding show that the positives outweigh the negatives and then we will legalise it; absolutely no problem at all. We spend so much money on other things why not spend on this? This is my argument; Let science speak. Can the politician learn to be quiet for a bit?” Azzopardi mused 

The dean was asked whether he thinks the argument regarding cannabis is being dealt with in binary fashion; whether the country is trying it’s best to label it under the umbrellas of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with no middle ground at all.

“It is a complex question. There is the argument: 'Should we be abolitionists like they were with alcohol and it would have its counter effects?' However, are we going to call white, black, and black as white? So, I'm not saying that we don't help youth or adults that want help, nor that we put them in prisons."

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