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Malta Becomes First European Country to Legalize Cannabis

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Malta Becomes First European Country to Legalize Cannabis

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta has become the first European Union member state to legalize cannabis. It’s a seemingly unlikely candidate, and the country’s powerful conservative bloc is still trying last-minute maneuvers to prevent the law from taking effect. But if Malta can pull it off, is the rest of Europe far behind?

Malta’s parliament on Dec. 14 voted 36-to-27 to approve a measure legalizing possession, cultivation and regulated sale of cannabis. Malta has been a European Union in 2004, which puts this deeply conservative archipelago ahead of continental leaders like the Netherlands as the first in the EU to legalize. 

The law allows people to hold up to seven grams on their person, and to grow up to four plants and keep up to 50 grams of dried cannabis at home. It also establishes a framework for regulated sales, and for expungement of past convictions.

“It’s groundbreaking,” Equality Minister Owen Bonnici, who introduced the bill, told the New York Times. “Malta can be a model for harm reduction.” 

Conservative Opposition Outmaneuvered

This is indeed a counterintuitive development. The overwhelmingly Catholic archipelago had notoriously been under the rule of a Crusader military order, the Knights of Malta, for more than two-and-a-half centuries starting in the late Middle Ages, and this cultural stamp is still very much in evidence. Divorce was only legalized in Malta in 2011.

The cannabis legalization bill was carefully crafted to reassure the conservative opposition, and portrayed as strategy to undercut criminal networks. “We are going to curb drug trafficking by making sure that people who make use of cannabis now have a safe and regularized way from where they can obtain cannabis,” Bonnici told Reuters

Retail outlets will be confined to nonprofit associations, to be registered with an Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis. These association will be able to sell no more than seven grams a day to their members, for a maximum of 50 grams a month. Public smoking will remain illegal, and fines of up to €500 are imposed for smoking in the presence of a minor. Those found to be holding in excess of the modest seven grams but still below 28 grams (about an ounce) are slapped with a fine of €100. Above 28 grams, the criminal penalties remain intact.

But Malta’s conservative bloc was not appeased. The bill was the work of the leftist Labor Party, which has ruled since 2013.  And the vote was on party lines, with the opposition Nationalist Party voting against. Nationalist leader Bernard Grech charged that the bill would “only lead to the strengthening of the illegal market, with organized crime taking advantage,” BBC News notes.

President George Vella signed the bill into law on Dec. 18, which was a mere formality—under the Maltese system, the presidency is a largely ceremonial post. Real power lies with parliament and the prime minister. Nonetheless, Vella had to resist demands from the opposition that he not sign the bill, Malta Today reports. He forthrightly refused this demand, saying he had no power to withhold his signature from legislation passed by parliament. He even went on TV to scold the opposition: “The head of state cannot capriciously create a constitutional crisis.”

As the law took effect, the Nationalist Party issued a statement pledging to “take the necessary measures in the parliament to repeal it,” and accusing Prime Minister Robert Abela of “normalizing drug use.” However, as Malta Today notes, if they didn’t have enough votes to block the legislation, they probably don’t have enough to repeal it.

A Changing Malta

Malta has been opening up considerably over the past years of Labor Party rule. In March 2018, the government legalized medical marijuana, allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis for chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and side effects of chemotherapy. This replaced an earlier law that only recognized prescriptions from medical specialists, and was so restrictive that not a single Maltese had yet been treated legally with any cannabis-based product. 

Today there are 40,000 enrolled members in the medical marijuana program, and the list of qualifying ailments has greatly increased. However, with domestic cultivation barred, supply was dependent on imports from companies such as Bedrocan of the Netherlands. Given the global supply-chain crisis, this has led to severe shortages in the archipelago, as LovinMalta website reported last year.

This is set to change now. And Malta’s loosening up is in part a response to the global crisis. The Ministry for Equality, Research & Innovation, Bonnici’s post, was just created this year to coordinate post-COVID strategy, as the Times of Malta reported in July. 

On the day the legalization measure was passed, Malta Today ran an angry opinion piece by Andrew Bonello, president of the reform lobby Releaf Malta, and Robert Fenech of the progressive youth organization Moviment Graffitt. Noting the continued high level of cannabis arrests on the island, the editorial accused the opposition of “exhibiting arguments borne out of a medieval mindset.” 

Wrote Bonello and Fenech: “Calls for zero-tolerance and witch-hunts…are reflective of a society rooted in vindictive moralistic stances, instead of a society geared towards education and sound scientific and empirical research on social and health issues, such as the widespread consumption of cannabis.”

The First Domino of European Prohibition? 

Malta is on the very fringe of Europe—it is south of Sicily and much closer to Tunisia than to Rome. And it is a relative new-comer to the EU. But while several European countries—most notoriously the Netherlands—have adopted very tolerant cannabis policies, Malta is now the first to actually legalize.  

“Malta has formally legislated what exists in other European countries in a weird gray area,” Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, an advocacy group in the UK, told the New York Times.

There is a sense that the European tide may finally be turning, however. Continental leader Germany is said to be considering legalization since a new coalition government including the Greens took over this month. A legalization bill introduced in October is currently pending before parliament in Luxembourg—like Malta a mini-state, but in the very heart of Europe. 

Malta may seem a paradoxical vanguard for cannabis reform, but there is a sense that if it can happen there, Europe’s leading powers may be feeling the pressure to catch up.

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