By José Ramos-Horta
Malta’s pragmatic cannabis control reform will inspire other countries
Cannabis is the most widely used illegal substance around the world, accounting for an estimated 192 million consumers out of the 269 million people reported to have used drugs in 2018. In Malta, this trend proves true as well, with a prevalence of cannabis use of 4.3 per cent among adults.
These figures, in Malta and abroad, are reported by governments and based on data of people arrested or on those who sought emergency care and are conservative and partial as people with unreported occasional cannabis use or personal production of small quantities might be much more numerous.
These figures, nevertheless, highlight that current drug policies, based on repression and aimed at eliminating drug use and trafficking, have clearly failed to achieve any of their objectives: in Malta as elsewhere, use, consumption and trafficking are increasing steadily. In addition, over-incarceration, budgetary displacements towards law enforcement rather than health and social services as well as social stigma are just few of the harms aggravated by repressive drug control.
In the face of the failures of drug control – while the ‘war on drugs’ continuously rages on – the consumption of cannabis has increased globally from 147 million to 192 million consumers in two decades, requiring a new response to cannabis control globally. This needed response must combine the decriminalisation of the possession and of consumption of cannabis on one hand and the decriminalisation of the production of quantities needed for one’s own needs on the other.
This policy, which is not the full legalisation of recreational cannabis unlike in Canada or US states, is concerned first with protecting the rights of consumers. It allows people to grow their own plants at home for their sole use, which means it does not include any commercial or financial incentives but also lifts the risks related to resorting to the illegal market for one’s supply.
It also allows people not to face arrest or prosecution for the simple act of using an illegal substance, which needs a more proportionate response such as psychosocial support when the use is problematic.
Such a policy carries two main benefits that are pivotal and that allow for its immediate implementation: it does not, quite the contrary, weaken the response against organised crime and cannabis trafficking. It frees law enforcement human and financial resources, currently wasted on small-scale nonviolent acts such as consumption and that can better focus on trafficking, smuggling and neighbourhood safety.
This policy would also allow countries to remain within the flexibilities of international law, as the personal non-commercial production and use of cannabis in the private space does not infringe on its broader control measures.
It is with delight that we, the members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, have learned that this is the road the Maltese government is suggesting to its people, in order to address the cannabis control problem. Putting people’s health and safety first is pivotal to any effective drug policy.
The twofold approach by the government, with first the launch of the initiative The Achievers 2020 to prevent drug use among youth and then of a public consultation to reform current drug laws and to introduce thresholds of consumption and of production for adults, is an inspirational novelty among drug laws globally. It has the potential to reduce the social issues related to cannabis, from street dealing to adulterated substances, to problematic drug use to stigma.
Malta is embarking, among the very first passengers, in a train of cannabis law reform that will experience many changes in the near future. Other European nations are launching their cannabis policy reform, from the Netherlands, to Luxembourg, to Switzerland. They are looking for ways to be efficient in cannabis control while protecting its youth and its people.
Prohibition does not deter use. Smarter prevention and control, based on people’s ownership of novel policies that do not criminalise them, have the potential to deter use. I have little doubt Malta’s cautious, pragmatic and implementable cannabis control reform will inspire many around Europe and the Mediterranean.