This week, Malta will become the first European country to legalize the cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal use.
Consumers can possess up to seven grams. Weed will be legal for those aged 18 and above, and it will be permissible to grow up to four cannabis plants at home, with up to 50 grams of the dried product storable.
The move by Malta, the EU’s smallest member state, is likely to be followed by reform across Europe in 2022. Germany and Switzerland already announced a move to establish a legally regulated market, following announcements of Luxembourg and the Netherlands. A referendum in Italy is planned, while Canada, Mexico, and 18 US states have already enacted similar legislation.
In contrast, Boris Johnson’s UK government has been accused of taking a Richard Nixon-style “war on drugs” approach after maintaining its tough approach to cannabis use and making criminal sanctions for the users of class A narcotics a central plank of its recently published 10-year strategy.
Bonnici said his government did not want to encourage the use of recreational drugs but that there was no evidence for the argument that the use of cannabis was in itself a gateway to harder substances.
He said: “There is a wave of understanding now that the hard-fist approach against cannabis users was disproportionate, unjust, and it was rendering a lot of suffering to people who are leading exemplary lives. But the fact that they make use on a personal basis of cannabis is putting them in the jaws of criminality.
He added: “I’m very glad that Malta will be the first country which will put words in statute in a comprehensive manner with a regulatory authority.”
The change in approach by several European governments follows a decision by the UN last December to remove cannabis from a listing of drugs designated as potentially addictive and dangerous and having little or no therapeutic use.
Bonnici said that the Maltese approach seeks to avoid criminalizing any cannabis use while regulating to ensure harm reduction.
Possession of up to 28 grams will lead to a fine of €50-€100 but with no criminal record. Those under the age of 18 who are found in possession will go before a commission for justice to recommend a care plan rather than face arrest. Those who consume cannabis in front of a child face fines of between €300 and €500.
Beyond allowing people to grow plants at home, albeit out of sight of the public, it will be legal for non-profit cannabis clubs to cultivate the drug for distribution among their members, similar to organizations tolerated in Spain and the Netherlands.
Club membership will be limited to 500 people, and only up to 7 grams a day may be distributed to each person, with a maximum of 50 grams a month. The organizations, which cannot be situated less than 250 meters from a school, a club, or a youth center, may also distribute up to 20 seeds of the plant cannabis to each member every month.
Bonnici said his government had conducted a long debate over whether to put in controls on the strength of cannabis that can be grown and used, measured by the level of the key psychoactive, or mood-altering, ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (TCH).
He said: “We had a huge discussion internally on that. And we concluded that if a limit [can be put] on the strength of the cannabis, the THC levels, you will be creating a new market for the black market. What we need to do is to educate people and inform them day after day.”