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Malta wants to keep cannabis users out of jail. For some, it's too late

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By Orlando Crowcroft
An Israeli worker holds medical cannabis, at UNIVO Pharmaceuticals in the coastal city of Ashkelon, Israel, Jan. 16, 2022.
An Israeli worker holds medical cannabis, at UNIVO Pharmaceuticals in the coastal city of Ashkelon, Israel, Jan. 16, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

Kevin Bellotti had just moved his cannabis plants into his new flat in Valletta, Malta, when the drug squad came knocking.

Bellotti was in his mid-30s, with a young family, and had been growing his own cannabis since the mid-1990s, when the price of the drug spiked in Malta. He usually smoked alone, or with friends. He'd never sold weed.

The raid in 2003 was the beginning of a five-year legal nightmare for Bellotti, one that continues to have repercussions today. He spent four years on bail with a strict curfew and had to sign in at a police station daily.

When he finally went to trial, Bellotti was sentenced to ten months in jail. He spent 20 hours a day in a six-by-eight foot cell. With a family to support he was forced to sell his apartment.

“I had everything and then I had nothing,” Bellotti, now 50, said. “Absolutely nothing.”

As of 2022, the act that cost Bellotti so much -- the possession of four cannabis plants -- is no longer illegal in Malta. A new law allows cannabis users to grow a maximum of four plants, carry up to seven grams and store up to 50g for personal use at home. It is no longer illegal to consume the drug at home.

We are normal people. We just prefer weed to alcohol
Kevin Bellotti

Unsurprisingly, the law made headlines across the world when it was passed in December 2021. Malta is a conservative and strictly Catholic nation, the only place in Europe where abortion is completely illegal. And yet, cannabis advocates have achieved in Malta what they have repeatedly failed to do in states such as Germany, France and Luxembourg - all of which have broad public support for legalisation.

In its substance, the law is also unique in that it does not permit commercial production. Eventually, non-profit organisations may be granted licences to facilitate distribution via associations of users or even grow the drug for sale to members, but at present smokers have to grow their own product or get it from someone who has.

That makes the Malta case distinct from certain states in the US, where the cannabis industry -- both medical and recreational -- has been dominated by large companies and is now worth more than $61 billion.

For supporters of the law, Malta has therefore been doubly successful in taking the distribution of cannabis out of the hands of criminals without handing it over to corporations. It will not only keep thousands of users caught with personal amounts of the drug out of jail but keep them away from drug dealers. 

“It completely eliminates the need for the consumer to enter into any criminal circle to obtain cannabis," said Andrew Bonello, the president of advocacy group ReLeaf Malta. “These are exciting times, not only for Malta but for the whole European cannabis reform movement.”

For criminals, the European cannabis industry is worth at least €11.6 billion, the largest drugs market in the EU and even bigger than cocaine and heroin, which are worth €9bn and €7bn respectively according to the latest numbers by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Credit: AP
Packets containing cocaine which was hidden in boxes of bananas are seen at Malta Freeport after it was seized by Customs Malta, late Tuesday, June 8, 2021.Credit: AP

Malta's geographical position between North Africa and Europe -- the island is just 300 miles from Tunisia -- has long made it a transit point for illegal drugs, including cannabis, although Bonello told Euronews the bulk of Malta's cannabis has tended to come via Sicily, 116 miles to the north. Taking cannabis distribution out of the hands of criminal gangs is, therefore, a significant blow to their revenues.

Fearing the reefer

There was a noisy movement within Malta against the law, which was passed by 36 to 27 votes along strict party lines. The opposition Nationalist Party (PN), backed by church groups, voted against the law.

But on February 6, 2022, the PN reversed its position on the cannabis law, with Bernard Grech, its leader, telling local media: “The law is there and we don’t have a problem with it remaining there.”

It came the day before Malta's leader, Robert Abela, was due to announce the date of the 2022 elections, which will pit his Labour party against Grech's nationalists.

The move has surprised some opponents to the cannabis law given that the most recent polling suggests that a large majority of Maltese voters oppose it, with just one-in-five in favour. 

As such, the PN has missed the opportunity to make legalisation a key electoral issue and win support from those who would otherwise have voted Labour.

It has also brought a third political force into the breach, a single-issue political party called ABBA and headed by Ivan Grech Mintoff. 

Launched in the immediate aftermath of the cannabis law, ABBA has pledged to amass 34,000 signatures to a petition to hold a referendum and revoke it. Mintoff would not reveal numbers but said he is 'quietly confident' that the party will get the required numbers to trigger a referendum under Maltese law. 

He told Euronews that he was not against every aspect of the law -- he does not support jailing people for possession of small amounts of marijuana, or for medical reasons -- but was opposed to the legalisation of growing at home and smoking in private premises, the definition of which was not clear enough, he said. 

"You can grow an incredible amount of cannabis. We think it is ridiculous. We also think it is ridiculous that the law says you can smoke it in [a] private place - which could be in my car or my workplace," he said. 

"If I have got a house that's next to a school I can open up my windows and have smoke wafting everywhere. I can be 16-years-old and be smoking it and my 13-year-old brother will be inhaling it."

The law states an individual over the age of 18 that smokes cannabis in the presence of a minor is liable for a €500 fine. The legal age for consumption of cannabis is 18, not 16.

Mintoff says that the yield of a single cannabis plant -- let alone four -- is far greater than an individual would need, and the risk is that the high limit could risk a huge surplus of cannabis in Malta.

Indeed, growers estimate that four marijuana plants grown under perfect conditions can produce 60oz of cannabis per year, allowing users to consume over one ounce per week. 

For Mintoff, the cannabis law may just be the beginning, and ABBA plans to run candidates in every district in elections this year and try to overturn decades of dominance by Malta's two main parties. It is an ambitious goal, given that third party challenges have never received more than 2% of the national vote.

For Bellotti, the unchartered territory that Malta is entering in 2022 is exciting - even if it has come 20 years too late. 

He has never been able to raise enough money to buy another apartment after being forced to sell his when he was inside and has rented ever since. He has a criminal record which -- although it could now be expunged under the law -- has limited his work prospects.

“My case is closed. The harm is done. Nothing can replace that,” said Bellotti, who still smokes every day. “But for everyone else who consumes cannabis, it gives the sense of freedom.”

“We are normal people. We just prefer weed to alcohol.”

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