The Malta Independent 21 May 2022, Saturday

Black market problem cannot be solved if cannabis remains cheaper there, new authority chief says

Sunday, 16 January 2022, 09:00 Last update: about 5 months ago

The Executive Chairperson of the Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis, Mariella Dimech speaks to the The Malta Independent on Sunday about the concerns raised over the new cannabis law as well as about her immediate plans for the authority. Interview by Kevin Schembri Orland

If cannabis is more expensive than it is on the black market, then the black market problem will not be solved, Executive Chairperson of the Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis, Mariella Dimech, told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

In an interview with this newsroom, she fielded questions about the concerns raised over the new cannabis law as well as about her immediate plans for the authority.

Dimech, who worked for over two decades with Caritas before moving into private practice, said that the authority will need to work on multiple issues at once. One of the first items on the agenda is the licensing of the non-profit organisations that will be able to grow cannabis for their members.

“Together with the board, I'm going to start setting up the policies that are necessary in order to create the licenses for the non-profit organisations. Licensing has to go ahead ASAP with the right, safe policies. At the end of the day, I want licensing to be done professionally. At the same time I cannot allow cannabis to be as expensive as it is on the black market, as otherwise we will not solve the black market problem. Through the regulations, applications and everything that goes along with that, we need to ensure that this will not cost people as much as going through the black market.”

During the interview, Dimech was also asked about enforcement. “I’ve already held discussions with the police. I really want to work hand in hand with them and I am very aware about their concerns. We're going to be discussing where our remit reaches and where theirs does.”

She was also asked questions regarding working and driving under the influence of cannabis, and about concerns raised that this law will lead children to believe that it is okay to use this substance.

How will your experience be of benefit to the setting up of this authority?

I spent over two decades working with substance abusers and, in addition to that, I was also the first female staff member at San Blas. Caritas rehabilitation services opened in 1985, I joined in 1988.  Prior to working in this field, I trained in New York for 6 months and when I returned to Malta, I had to follow their approach - which was behavioural - and adapt it to our culture. The approach to treatment is ‘abstinence’ and of course I shall never change my mind and never agree that this is not the best option whenever addressing addiction. 

However, the reality is that, based on my experience and the enormous research that has been conducted locally and internationally, there will always be persons who will take mind altering substances. To deny this is impossible, to promote this, wrong. To create the possibility of harm reduction, education, research, monitoring, openness, no stigma, safety, and support in a serious professional manner is a possibility. I firmly believe that to do this job one needs to be affluent in the subject, have experience in managing, research, working with substance abusers. Knowing most of the key players within this field in order to have a good networking communicative relationship is a plus.  This is an opportunity and a challenge – I have always been drawn to this, if not I doubt that I would have spent so many years working in my previous roles.”

The reason I accepted this position is as I believe there is a lot of good that can be done. A law has been passed and we have an opportunity to create balance and harmony through this law. It is not a situation where we, as an authority, are going to listen to the people who agree with cannabis and not to those against.

I have already spoken to a lot of the people who were opposed to this law, I am in a position to open the channels of communication, because these are the people I know, the people I work with, the people I believe in. I am also in a position now where I can have extremely good communication levels with people who are completely in favour of this law. This is why I took on this challenge. There is this idea out there that we are going to give out cannabis and we're going to have coffee shops for tourists... this is all wrong.

There were a number of organisations who were opposed to the law as is, one of which was Caritas. They had made a number of recommendations, including wanting to raise the minimum age for cannabis consumption to 25. Do you intend to address those issues as these organisations were pretty steadfast in opposing the bill for those reasons?

Yes. The law was passed, and now what it's going to be about is what the concerns are and what we can do about them, while still respecting the law.

You might ask, what's the first thing you're going to do? I thought about that a lot. We don't have the luxury of doing one thing at a time as there are a lot of people who are waiting, there are a lot of people who want information. First of all, I'm going to meet the board and that's already planned. I'm really looking forward to it and there are some excellent people on the board, people who are very experienced in the field of addiction, law, policies. We're a good team.

Together with the board, I'm going to start setting up the policies that are necessary in order to create the licenses for the non-profit organisations. Licensing has to go ahead ASAP with the right, safe policies. At the end of the day, I want licensing to be done in a professional way, but at the same time I cannot allow cannabis to be as expensive as it is on the black market, as otherwise we will not solve the black market problem. Through the regulations, applications and everything that goes along with that, we need to ensure that this will not cost people as much as going through the black market.

Other urgent matters that need to be tackled include monitoring and the training of people who would work in the non-profits.

With regard to the law, is there anything which perhaps you would have done differently?

The law was passed. My experience of working with people who come to my private clinic is that the problem they face is being able to come forward and talk about it, discuss it, and really look at whether it is detrimental to them or not.

So I took a step back when I was seeing all the discussions on social media about the law. When I was offered this job, I began to speak to the people who were involved in research and those involved in fighting for this law, I also spoke to the researchers who are very concerned about the law and don't agree with it, and I began to see a very different picture to what was on social media most of the time.

The questions being asked on social media indicate that information is not clear. For example, some people say we're going to be another Amsterdam. I mean, this whole idea of this sense of delinquency and sense of morbidity... it's not going to happen.

If somebody registers with an organisation and are going to buy cannabis, they are going to know exactly what they are buying, the exact level of THC, and they are going to be sold cannabis by people who are trained.

Do I agree with an 18 year-old taking such a substance? No. Who would go to an 18-year-old and promote substance abuse? But, if an 18 year-old goes to buy cannabis from the black market, does he know what he's buying? Is the dealer going to care if he is buying too much or not? Is the dealer going to be aware of what he is selling? No, the dealer just wants to make money and the dealer is going to sell him cannabis that is laced with pharmaceuticals, that might be laced with other chemicals that will induce problems, serious problems.

But if an 18-year-old had to join a licensed organisation that is growing cannabis, we are going to ensure that these things (lacing of cannabis with pharmaceuticals etc) are not going to happen.

One of the concerns raised is that through this law we are going to be leading children to believe that it is okay to use this substance. What’s your take on it?

This is another reason why I took on this role. One of the main aims of the authority is to provide education. Education on this issue already exists and I have great respect and fully support the prevention programmes that are already being run by the various organisations. The education we will provide will compliment what is already being done.

Let me make it clear, we are not going to be promoting, motivating or leading children to abuse of substances.  It all boils down to perception, because a parent allows their 17-year-old adolescent to go to Paceville, this does not mean that the parent is promoting her to abuse alcohol or drugs. A parent will provide that adolescent with the necessary tools to make the right decisions. We as an authority will work hard to help provide these tools alongside many other entities. Furthermore, we will conduct research to assess objectively and scientifically, the impact of this.   

Looking at statistics in Malta, it's very clear that the highest incidence of substance abuse registered is cannabis. Control is not always the only way to support young people in not taking a substance, not to abuse of substances. It is a good way, and parents need to be very aware of this more than ever, so do educational institutions. 

Prevention is based on many factors, and therefore as an Authority we will not work alone. We shall work on providing information to the public and providing training and support to both Governmental and non-Governmental institutions. Whether this will increase use shall be seen based on objective, scientific research which we will conduct from baseline. However, in terms of what exactly we will be doing, I have only been Chairperson for the past few days.  Obviously more details will be brought forward soon. 

Moving on to the non-profit organisations, have you received any applications yet?

Well, to file applications people need to know what applications they need to file first. And this is why this is a priority.

Do you envisage there being any controls for these non-profits? For example, would the people running them need to have clean criminal records or anything of the sort?

Yes, but these are things I don’t have details about yet as I would want to discuss them with the board first. I’d be able to answer this in a few weeks’ time.

With regard to enforcement of these non-profits, do you think the authority is going to have an enforcement arm? Or would you be relying more on the police?

I’ve already held discussions with the police. I really want to work hand in hand with them and I am very aware about their concerns. We're going to be discussing where our remit reaches and where theirs does.

All these organisations are going to have to be reporting to the authority, and the authority will be responsible for ensuring that everything is in order. People who know me, know that I am very correct in these things and that I observe detail.  We will ensure that they follow the details. If, for example, an organisation has to follow certain policies, it is our responsibility to ensure that they follow those policies and they will report on everything to the authority.

There is one aspect that results from the legislation that has people worried and this has to do with driving and work. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's nothing like an alcohol test for cannabis which could tell you that right now, you are under the influence of the substance.

There are tests, but the problem with cannabis is that if a person smokes cannabis, and the test is conducted in three weeks’ time, that test could show positive signs.

But this becomes a problem with regards to driving or while working for example…

Let me explain. Whether the law was passed or not, the high incidence of cannabis exists. The most common drug that is taken in Malta is cannabis. This is our baseline. There already are people smoking prior to going to work. Like there are persons who have alcohol problems, there are persons who have substance abuse problems. This existed before the law was passed. My first question is, so how did managers and owners of businesses deal with this situation before the law was passed? If somebody is under the influence of a substance, they will not be able to function.

They could have been able to conduct a simple drug test…

Yes, but hold on a minute, if there was a problem with somebody who's drinking or drunk or getting high, why would they conduct the test in the first place? Because that person is not functioning well at work.

If someone is drunk you can conduct a breathalyzer test, but if you are high, and you show positive on the drug test, you still have the argument that you weren’t high at the time but had taken the drug days prior…

These are things that we can all discuss. These are things that we are ready as an authority to meet with organisations over.

I've many times gone to organisations, companies, banks, gaming companies and delivered talks about how to work with people who have issues. These problems have existed since before the law was passed.

Even before the law was passed, you couldn’t just call a person and make them take a drug test. You’d have to have it in the contract. So, if in the contract there is a clause about the employee not functioning well at work, I am sure that there are steps a person can take. They would tell them that they are not performing well or not functioning well, and to address their behaviour. This already existed before the law was passed.

Do you know what the difference is now? The difference is that legally if someone is checked and the result would be positive, one cannot call the police to arrest that person. That is the difference. But you can still sit down with a person and hold a discussion on how they are performing at work. You can still sit down with the person and have a discussion to see if they are going through problems.

 

 

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