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In Malta, confusion over cannabis law after doctor arrested for drug dealing

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By Matthew Agius
Cannabis plants growing at an indoor True North Collective facility are shown in Jackson, Mich., Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Malta legalised cannabis in small amounts last year.
Cannabis plants growing at an indoor True North Collective facility are shown in Jackson, Mich., Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Malta legalised cannabis in small amounts last year.   -   Copyright  Paul Sancya/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Malta has been rocked by the arrest of a local doctor, Andrew Agius, for distributing cannabis mere months after the island became the first in Europe to legalise the drug.

Agius, 43, was arrested on March 10 and charged with drug trafficking for importing cannabis and selling it to his patients to relieve back pain.

His lawyers have argued that the product contains a small amount of THC, the active content in cannabis, and is not a prohibited drug.

The arrest has thrown into confusion Malta’s much-vaunted legalisation of cannabis, with NGOs and police unsure about what is illegal and what isn’t.

On 14 December 2021, the Maltese parliament passed the controversial “Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis” Bill, with 36 votes in favour and 27 against.

The bill was signed into law by Malta’s President George Vella four days later, Vella having rejected calls by its opponents for him to refuse to do so.

Under the new legislation the possession of up to seven grams of cannabis is completely decriminalised for adults aged 18 and over. It also allows them to cultivate up to four plants at home for personal use.

But there is a current problem with supply. The so-called “cannabis clubs,” which the new law permits to grow and distribute limited amounts of cannabis among their members, have not yet been set up, nearly four months after the law came into force.

We remain baffled, saddened, yet not broken.
Andrew Bonello

This means that unless users are willing and able to grow their own cannabis from seeds using costly home setups, they will still need to resort to the black market for their cannabis.

This has led to an increase in drug dealing, police say.

One senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, observed that the police had seen a surge in demand for the drug since the introduction of the new law, even though there are currently no authorised sellers.

ReLeaf Malta, a pro-legalisation NGO, said that Agius’ arrest was an “appalling and worrying” development.

“It clearly reflects a disjointed approach between what the law aims to achieve and realities on the ground,” Andrew Bonello, the head of ReLeaf Malta, said.

“This is especially important when considering that the law, for the first time, established that it is the cannabinoid THC which is under restriction, whereas other cannabinoids, such as CBD, are outside the objectives of the law, hence outside police jurisdiction.”

The NGO added that in 2020, the European Court of Justice had declared cannabis products in the form of flowers, oil or hash, with a THC content of less than 0.2% were outside the scope of the control conventions.

“We remain baffled, saddened, yet not broken by these heinous and draconian tactics,” Bonello said.

Earlier this week, ReLeaf Malta, together with a local NGO, presented a research policy document to the chairperson of the authority, discussing the importance of including strong considerations for social equity and sustainable environmental practices when developing the legal framework on cannabis use.

But meetings between the chairperson of the Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis and various stakeholders, including foreign experts on drug policy and cannabis regulation are taking place, a fact that Bonello described as “very encouraging.”

 “One hopes these discussions will translate into a fair and inclusive regulatory framework,” he said.