The Malta Independent 24 January 2022, Monday

TMIS Editorial: Cannabis law must go back to the drawing board

Sunday, 5 December 2021, 11:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

The Labour government prides itself in being one “that listens” (gvern li jisma), but when it came to the introduction of new laws on cannabis use, it only listened to its own ambition to consolidate its youth voter base.

The Cannabis reform Bill, which has now reached its third reading stage and will soon only require the touch of a pen by President George Vella, is a half-baked law that leaves so much to be desired, and so many unanswered questions.

The main aim of the reform is a positive one. It aims to further decriminalise the use and cultivation of recreational cannabis, making a bigger distinction between what is considered as personal use and what is considered as trafficking.

But government’s rush to usher in the reform, coupled with its insatiable desire to look cool with youth voters, has resulted in a Bill that left out pretty much all of the amendments proposed by the Opposition and, more importantly NGOs and experts in the field. The law is ambiguous in various aspects and could lead to potential serious consequences in the near future.

It was no surprise that a number of NGOs who work with drug addicts have expressed their disappointment at the fact that no real impact assessments were carried out.

Earlier this week, a number of NGOs and Church organisations pointed out the many flaws in this reform Bill and complained that all of their suggestions had been ignored.

Government refused to consider suggested amendments on raising the minimum age for cannabis smoking from 18 to 25; increase the distance of cannabis clubs from schools, youth centres and post-secondary institutions from a mere 250 metres to 1 kilometre; double the fines for smoking cannabis in front of children and in public; remove the possibility allowed in the law for cannabis to be grown in residences adjacent to schools and regulate the amount of THC allowed in cannabis.

The organisations have now urged the Prime Minister to allow Labour MPs a free vote, with MPs being allowed to vote according to their conscience and not according to Party policy.

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, the Commissioner for Children, Pauline Miceli also expressed concern on the exposure of children to cannabis use. She says that the fact that cannabis plants can be grown at home will give children easier access to drugs and they could be exposed to passive smoking, citing also young people’s natural urge to experiment.

Speaking about the law back in October, reforms minister Owen Bonnici had said that smoking cannabis in front of minors would lead to proceedings before the Commissioner for Justice, punishable by a fine of up to €500. But one wonders how such a thing can be enforced in private residences, if the authorities are up to the task (experience would lead us to say no), and whether a fine is enough of a deterrent when it comes to protecting our children.

The Malta Union of Nurses and Midwives also said that complications arise in the form of doctors or nurses who could be under the influence of cannabis at work, with no real safeguards in place to protect patients and elderly people. It called on President Vella not to endorse the Bill before it is amended to include such safeguards.

The Opposition also said its proposals were ignored and raised a number of pertinent points. These include the fact that no impact assessment was carried out, that the level of THC will not be controlled, that the 800% increase in the amount of permissible drugs is exaggerated and that experts have suggested that the minimum age for smoking cannabis should be increased to 25.

While the Opposition took its sweet time in coming up with these arguments and had also failed to participate in the public consultation process, the fact remains that these are very valid points which the government, and the law it has put forward, fails to address.

We are of the opinion that government moved too fast to implement these changes and, as has happened with other laws, not much consideration was given to some far-reaching implications. The Bill, as presented, is short-sighted and is heavily imbalanced in favour of cannabis smokers, with not much thought given to the possible impacts on society as a whole.

While reforms should be carried out in this field, one cannot ignore the questions that have arisen, and any fine-tuning must be carried out now, not after the Bill becomes law. The Bill must be taken back to the drawing board and these shortcomings must be fixed. Only then should it be approved by Parliament.


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