Andrew Bonello, President of Releaf Malta, speaks to MCN about policy, accessibility, human rights, and medical cannabis in Malta and the issues patients still face.
Community-based nonprofit NGO ReLeaf Malta aims to promote safe and sensible regulation of cannabis, working to establish evidence-based policy in Malta through a combination of education and sustained campaigning. Andrew Bonello, President of Releaf Malta, takes MCN publication through the organisation’s work and the issues patients still face, covering policy, accessibility, and human rights in Malta.
How did ReLeaf Malta come to be founded? What are your main objectives?
ReLeaf Malta was founded in 2017 by a group of Maltese citizens, calling on the government to change the draconian laws criminalising people who use cannabis and to push forward more legislative changes to the initial amendments enacted in 2015: these included the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs.
The main goals of Releaf Malta are threefold: legalise; educate; regulate. The year 2019 was particularly special for us, because ReLeaf published Malta‘s first proposal for a regulated and legalised cannabis market – for the first time, Maltese citizens were provided with an idea how a regulated market would look like. We focused our proposal on eight key points, all revolving around three cardinal principles:
- The right to health, privacy and accessibility for people who use cannabis;
- The importance to ensure social equity and expungement of criminal records; and
- Sustainability and protection of local resources.
In April we also released a 4/20 Resolution urging the government to allow Maltese adult citizens to grow a limited number of cannabis plants for personal use in the privacy of their homes. In May we released a second 4/20 Resolution, calling on the government to release from prison and expunge criminal records for people who were arrested – even those arrested before 2015, when the law was stricter – for consuming, sharing or cultivating the cannabis plant for personal use; thereby ensuring a clean criminal record.
What is the current legal status of medical cannabis in Malta?
The use of medicinal cannabis is legal in Malta; any person can apply for medicinal cannabis through a local doctor. However, news stories have reported that people who have a history of heroin addiction and have therefore attended a detoxification facility might not be allowed to access medicinal cannabis.
Do Maltese patients face any significant challenges in accessing medical cannabis?
Back in 2015 when the law was first enacted, accessibility to medicinal cannabis was very limited. In fact, the law had to be amended later in 2018 to allow general practice clinicians to prescribe medicinal cannabis – initially the law only permitted specialist doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis. Furthermore, in the early days, but also now in 2020, some cannabis-based medicinal products have been out of stock for relatively long periods of time. The current medicinal cannabis products available in Malta are as follows:
- Bedrocan – 22% THC;
- Bediol – 6.3% THC and 8% CBD;
- Pedanios – 22% THC; and
- Pedanios – 20% THC.
CBD oil remains unavailable in pharmacies; and although most patients can still obtain it online or from other sources, it is very difficult for them to ensure they are obtaining a good product.
A further challenge is price. Medicinal cannabis in Malta costs €16 per gram. This is a very high price when considering both average wages and the fact that some patients require more than 1g per day. To our knowledge there are no government grants or discounts for medicinal cannabis patients; therefore, patients who are from a working class background, or who are currently out of work due to their ailment, find it very hard to keep up with these expenses. ReLeaf Malta has on numerous occasions raised this issue with the government and advocated for the right of medicinal cannabis patients to grow cannabis or find a ‘compassionate’ grower. This would greatly reduce the cost whilst providing patients with a better choice and strain diversity: it is now possible to test cannabis in Malta, thanks to a new service offered by the leading local expert Dr Andrew Agius and his team at the Pain Clinic.
What are the human rights implications of Malta’s current cannabis laws?
The human rights of people in Malta who use cannabis have been constantly breached; and unfortunately, although the entry into law in 2015 of Chapter 537, Drug Dependence (Treatment Not Imprisonment) was instrumental to reduce the number of people prosecuted for minor and personal cannabis consumption, the law continues to negatively impinge on a number of basic human rights, including the right to health and the right to privacy.
The current law decriminalises the possession of cannabis flowers in amounts up to 3.5g. Therefore, anyone caught with less than 3.5g will be arrested, interrogated by the police, released and then receive a civil fine rather than a prison sentence. In the case of cannabis plants, the law continues to criminalise all cultivation; however recent legal amendments placed the onus on the presiding judge to decide if the case in question merits consideration as personal use or intended for trafficking. This continues to place people who use cannabis in the criminal bracket, with intrinsic negative impacts on their economic, psychological and social wellbeing.
ReLeaf Malta meets regularly with various local cannabis consumers and from time to time hears very disturbing stories of people caught with a few grams or plants, who go on to encounter traumas and hurdles later in life due to a criminal conviction and harassment by the police.
Should nonviolent cannabis offenders have their convictions expunged?
We believe nonviolent cannabis convictions should be expunged. Prisoners currently incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis offences should be released from prison, and through a social equity programme provided with the necessary assistance to re-enter the labour and social market.
Is education the key to forming evidence-based cannabis policy based around harm reduction?
ReLeaf Malta has always advocated for the importance to promote education and ensure this is delivered in a non-judgmental environment. In our proposal for a regulated cannabis market in 2020 we highlighted the importance of holistic education: one which is not limited to prevention and treatment, but includes also a strong harm reduction component and therefore information on how to use cannabis and mitigate potential risks. ReLeaf Malta has on numerous occasions referred to the very informative and evidence-based harm reduction website Drugs and Me (https://www.drugsand.me/en/); and has also invited the government to consider this UK-based NGO as a key partner when developing a local educational campaign on cannabis.
Are you optimistic that Maltese cannabis policy will become more lenient in the future?
We are determined to push forward legislative changes which aim to restore the negative and detrimental effects caused by draconian and discriminatory laws; and to ensure that the rights of people who use cannabis are at the forefront of every policy decision pertaining to the cultivation, consumption and sharing of the cannabis plant and its derivatives.
This article is from issue 13 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.