The Malta Independent 19 June 2021, Saturday

Caritas concerned over Cannabis White Paper, but says users should not be jailed

Friday, 14 May 2021, 17:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

Caritas Malta has come out in support of the position that persons who use cannabis or are dependent on cannabis (or any other drugs) should not be jailed, however has serious concerns with the Cannabis White Paper

In a statement, Caritas said that it maintains the general position that as a society we need to contain the use of cannabis (and other drugs) as much as possible, prevent its popularisation and work hard toward discouraging use and, alternatively, encourage healthy lifestyles and healthy recreational activity.

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"The two proposals of greatest concern include the inconsequential possession of up to 7 grams (that can amount to approximately 21 joints) and the inconsequential possession of up to 4 cannabis plants (whose yield can go up to 500 grams per plant). The possibility of having plants at home and the lifting of any sanction for possession of up to 7 grams may facilitate use, give the impression that cannabis effects are not as serious and may lead to more use. The larger the segment of the population using cannabis, the larger the segment of people suffering ill effects will be."

Caritas said that long term cannabis exposure of the brain "increases risk of Alzheimer's later on in life. The lifting of any sanctions for up to 7 grams and possession of four plants may inadvertently reinforce the use also for social users."

The normalisation of drug use is "particularly dangerous for the younger generations.", it said. "Cannabis consumption in the adolescent brain is devastating. This is especially worrying since cannabis could damage adolescents' learning capacity and brain development. Furthermore 1 in 6 adolescents who use cannabis can develop further dependency on the substance."

Caritas is also concerned that problematic drug users will suffer. "While we acknowledge that not all persons who use cannabis will eventually develop a dependence on cannabis or other substances, our experience has shown that almost all persons with serious drug dependencies started off their drug using careers with cannabis. It is estimated that around 1 in 10 who cannabis in their adulthood will go on to develop a full-blown dependency/addiction on cannabis. Persons struggling with problem use of cannabis and other substances will have less reason to curtail their use in a permissive legal environment, making it more difficult for them to quit."

Caritas said that families who struggle with a relative who is dependent on cannabis or any other substance undergo enormous strain in trying to motivate their loved ones to seek support.

It said that persons in recovery for whom recovery from drug dependence is a life-long journey will be placed at increased risk of relapse when faced with a more permissive approach and possibly more exposure to plants and substances in the homes.

"Those predisposed to mental health problems will suffer: A portion of the population that is genetically predisposed to develop psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia are at increased risk to having this serious disease when using cannabis. These numbers will increase proportionally with more use."

"Pro-liberalisation movements have argued that forbidden fruits are more attractive and instigate youngsters to use the drug out of a thrill. The normalisation of the consumption of cannabis will not end this dynamic and other drugs will take the role of forbidden fruit prompting ever more use of these drugs. The lifting of any sanctions for up to 7grams may also push the black market to use runners to distribute cannabis in 7 gram individual packets so if caught with one packet no consequence will be suffered. This is an inadvertent effect of the proposed changes in the White paper. Any long-term impact of these proposals on increased use, will also continue to fuel the black-market."

"The attempt to contain the use of cannabis use in-front of minors in homes where parents use cannabis is sensical however this appears impractical. Social learning theory supports the idea that behaviours are learned through role models. There is a proportion of users who are parents who will go on to smoke or use cannabis in front of their kids. This will not only serve as negative role modelling but also pose child protection risks. Enforcement of this proposal appears to prove very difficult. What is positive is the maintenance of the tribunal system for minors. This needs to continue its focus on referral to support services."

A positive assertion of the white paper that public use needs to be contained, discouraged and controlled is very valid, Caritas added. "The increase of the administrative fine supports the idea that sanctions can have an impact on behaviour and potential consequences to be absorbed (administrative fine) influence behaviour. This sanction can have desired impact only if enforced. From the field we have several reports of public cannabis use that also happens in plain sight with no consequence. If readiness for enforcement is not there this will lead to failed regulation."

While Caritas does not recommend the inconsequential possession of Cannabis plants or 7grams, in the context of decriminalisation, THC level thresholds for decriminalisation need to be established.

Caritas said that no reference is made regarding the prevention and control of driving under the influence of cannabis. Likewise no reference is made with regard to the relative health and safety responsibilities of employers with regards to employees who use cannabis.

Caritas made a number of recommendations. Firstly, to establish a Commission specifically set up to carry out impact assessment. "Research is needed to know the exact current trends - who is using, how much, what potency, where are people using etc. This information is crucial to make an impact assessment of any policy change."

Secondly, it recommends that, after a sound impact assessment, a move from depenalisation to decriminalisation can be considered.

"decriminalisation can be considered for small amounts, however the sanction of an administrative fine and citation to the tribunal to remain for any small amount. With regards to the amounts to be decriminalised, this is be studied well according the current data on perons arraigned with cannabis possession, and its impact evaluated. The increase from 3.5 to 7grams as simple possession can be considered. The ceiling of 28grams to be as the amount for simple personal possession appears excessive and needs to be studied and reduced. While for some persons, being arrested as part of the investigation related to a first time use offence can be a turning point, Caritas understands that this may be experienced as heavy handed by users. With decriminalisation this practice can cease to exist in cases of persons in possession of small amounts."

They recommend that the Commissioner for Justice is granted powers to refer to the DORB cases that appear to involve problematic use of cannabis and or other drugs even when they face the tribunal the first time.

"Minors caught with cannabis for personal who face a citation to the Tribunal need to be channeled for an assessment of their use or help right away. The commissioner given powers to not only recommend but impose such an assessment. "

Caritas also said that Malta has a very comprehensive range of services for substance use and dependence. It said that more resources are required within mental health services, especially with regard to inpatient treatment.

Lastly, Caritas proposes the updating of a comprehensive drug policy that goes beyond cannabis. "Such policy should set the direction for supply and demand reduction policies across public and private entities and the general public at large. Such policy should be informed by research on what keeps young people away from drugs and what are risk factors for use."


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