The Malta Independent 17 May 2022, Tuesday

Labour’s cannabis law paves the way for generations of junkies

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 23 January 2022, 09:30 Last update: about 5 months ago

Excuse the crude headline, but one has to say it as it is.

Or as it will be, given that the negative impact of the law that Malta’s Parliament passed just before it rose for the Christmas recess will be known not today, but in the years to come.

In spite of all the protestations and opposition from experts and, most of all, from a long list of NGOs, many of which have worked with people who fell victim to the drug plague, the government pushed on to enact a law that legalises the use of cannabis.

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Users can now carry up to seven grammes of the substance without fear of prosecution. They can also grow four plants at home, so long as they cannot be seen from public areas.

The Labour Party was elected to government saying it wants to listen to what the people were saying. In this case, it did not listen at all.

It wanted to enact the law fast, and did not even bother to discuss a petition against it. What’s the point of having a petitions committee as part of the parliamentary structure when, then, this does not meet up when one comes up before it?

And then, the law came immediately into force when the President signed it a few days later. How many laws come to be within a week of Parliament’s approval? It’s clear that the government wanted to give a huge Christmas present to drug users, knowing well that consumption of cannabis goes high – excuse the pun – during the festive period.

Such was the hurry that the law came into force even before the setting up of what will be a regulatory authority which will have the duty to oversee what will be known as cannabis associations, where registered users will be able buy a limited amount of cannabis buds and seeds. The authority was established in the New Year, weeks after the law came to be.

Responsibility

The government is hiding behind the use of the word “responsible” when it speaks about the law. But this only means that the use of cannabis has been “normalised”. And when something bad becomes normal, one cannot really describe it as being responsible.

There are people who argue that if tobacco were to be discovered today, its use would be illegal. The same can be said about alcohol and sugar too, given the negative effects they have on health. By the time that their ill-effects were scientifically established, it was too late to reverse the trend. And so the world reacted by continuing to allow their legal sale, but at the same time mounted campaigns to make them unattractive.

Cigarette packs, for example, carry photos of the physical effects of smoking, in the hope that people who buy them realise the harm caused by tobacco. Each time Christmas is approaching – yes, Christmas, not the holidays, dear Helena – we get campaigns to warn people about the effects of alcohol, and for no-one to drive if under the influence.

Smoking cannabis and growing weed was prohibited until the Labour government, in its wisdom, wanted to open the door wide to use and abuse. To please the liberals, and probably gain a few more votes, the Labour government has made it much easier to smoke weed.

Minister Owen Bonnici was greeted with handshakes as he left Parliament on the day the vote was passed, with the opposition voting against. He says that he is proud of what the government has achieved, and that he made the cannabis law his priority when given responsibility of the portfolio. He speaks of a government making history. Maybe one day he will regret it.

Children

There will be fines, we’re told, to anyone who exposes children to cannabis.

So now are we to expect police officers to turn up unexpected at everyone’s doorstep to check whether cannabis plants are being grown (remember, they cannot be seen from the outside of the home, according to the law)? And whether children are too close for comfort?

A few clicks on the internet will lead anyone who cares to check about the many incidents that have occurred in the United States when children inadvertently ingest cannabis. We will soon be hearing about such happenings in Malta, too. But the government does not care. What matters to Robert Abela and Co. is that Malta was the first country in Europe to enact such a law. We always seem to win gold in the wrong sport.

It did not even listen to what the Commissioner for Children had to say about the matter. Pauline Miceli made it clear that the cannabis law will give children an easier access to drugs, while passively smoking the drug may also cause them harm. Let us remember, she said, that young people are more inclined to experiment.

Now, instead of looking for ways to clandestinely obtain a joint to have a first try, many will be finding it readily available. And with adults using cannabis in the home, it will instil in them the sense that cannabis is ok to use. If mum, dad or both are using, why can’t we?

It was not only the Children’s Commissioner who spoke up against the law. There were nearly 60 organisations who have worked closely with addicts, some for decades, who warned the government that it was doing the wrong thing.

One wonders what the likes of Dun Victor Grech think. The priest made it his mission to work with drug addicts and users in the hope that they can be returned to society as reformed individuals. With one stroke of a pen, all his hard work was thrown down the drain.

President

Speaking of signatures, there were many who hoped that President George Vella would stop the enactment of the law by refusing to sign it.

But they were disappointed that this last hurdle was overcome too.

A day before it was announced that he had scrawled his signature on the law, the President said that he does not have the power to ignore legislation that was passed democratically by Parliament, whether he agrees with it or not.

But here comes the crux of it – “unless he has such a serious moral objection that he prefers to pack up and go home rather than sign the law”, he added.

By signing it, the President made it clear that he has no moral objection against the cannabis law. He is the same President who, in June 2019, had expressed his concern about the recreational use of cannabis. “Both as a doctor and a father, I have major reservations on how wise it is to extend the legislation of cannabis that goes beyond its medical usage,” he had told a conference in 2019. He may have had a change of heart in two years, or else his reservations are not that strong.

A few months ago, he had said that he would rather resign than sign a law legalising abortion. Vella does not have the same misgivings about cannabis use.  We will see whether he sticks to his word if and when abortion is on the agenda.

Health issues

Doctors and psychiatrists have both expressed opposition to the law.

As professionals in the sector, their voice should have been heard.

So when psychiatrists say that they have been “cheated” by the government because their suggestions were ignored, it adds to the notion that the government simply wanted to get the law through as quickly as possible, without giving due consideration to the experts.

For one thing, the mental health issues that are set to increase with more cannabis users were not addressed, the Malta Association of Psychiatrists said. For some, smoking weed causes no problems, but for others it could have “devastating consequences, such as anxiety, depression and psychotic disorders”.

For the government this is not a problem worth considering.

The doctors also expressed their concern on the health of cannabis users.

There is no such thing as “responsible cannabis use”, they charged, accusing the government of not holding the good health of the people at heart.

Cannabis is a drug which produces short-term artificial highs followed by very serious and long-term pains.

Again, for the government this meant nothing.

Hard drugs

It is known that many people who start using drugs with cannabis move on to hard drugs. Cannabis is aptly described as a gateway drug, as many users then proceed to take more harmful drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise if some years down the line the number of hard drug users in Malta will have sky-rocketed. We will have more victims, and certainly more strain on those services which provide assistance to addicts.

But there are other concerns which have been ignored by the government.

For example, the law falls short of addressing situations concerning employers and how to tackle situations of employees who turn up “high” at the workplace. The law, the Malta Employers Association said, provides no assurances to employers about the effect of cannabis consumption at the workplace. The government disregarded appeals for the law to be postponed until after the election for it to be discussed in greater depth.

Most of all, the MEA said, the law has “omissions, inconsistencies and hidden motives… it is more oriented towards normalising, rather than decriminalising the substance, which creates issues for employers”.

But the government doesn’t care, does it?

 

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