Cannabis – To Legalise or to Criminalise, that is the Question!

Recently the Richmond Foundation announced that more research needs to be carried out about legalising cannabis. As the University of Malta’s research magazine, we wholeheartedly agree on the importance of research! That’s why we’ve decided to take a look at some of the research that’s already been conducted.

Various efforts have been made to inform the public and the government about drug usage, for example the ‘Beyond the Influence’ campaign by The Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU). This movement has been recognised by the Maltese government, who have recently written a White Paper titled ‘Towards the Strengthening of the Legal Framework on the Responsible Use of Cannabis’ around the legalisation of cannabis and have listed eight potential proposals for the future to tackle this issue. The proposals are as follows:

  1. ‘The current limit for adult possession for personal use is increased from 3.5 grams to 7 grams’ as well as ‘the full decriminalisation of this amount.’
  1. ‘Every residential habitation (household) can grow up to 4 plants, in a space which is not visible to the public, and which does not emit smells.’ This cannabis ‘cannot be sold […] and cannot be consumed before minors,’ and must remain inaccessible to minors. This is to move users away from the illicit drug market.
  1. ‘Crimes which are no longer considered as such at law should be removed from one’s conduct certificate.’
  1. ‘In line with the European Court of Justice’s preliminary ruling, a clear legal distinction between CBD and THC is being proposed. While the former cannabinoid is not psychoactive and enjoys free movement in EU Member States, the latter, THC, is a psychoactive cannabinoid, and is therefore an illegal substance.’
  1. ‘The consumption of cannabis in public should not be allowed’ and would come with a penalty of ‘€233.33.’
  1. ‘Minors in possession of cannabis for their personal use should not be subject to proceedings before the Courts of Criminal Jurisdiction’ and thus ‘penalties should be of an administrative nature, not criminal, and should assist minors in moving away from cannabis use.’
  1. The proposal of a dedicated ‘governmental authority responsible for all matters relating to the responsible use of cannabis (excluding medicinal or scientific purposes).’
  1. The proposal of ‘a more effective, holistic educational campaign on cannabis, one which is based on scientific fact and the concept of harm reduction.’

It has been widely acknowledged that a White Paper on this issue was needed; however, its reception has been mixed for a number of reasons. As noted in a recent Times of Malta article, ‘while NGOs such as Releaf and Moviment Graffitti have expressed support for the proposal, organisations such as Caritas, OASI, Sedqa and the Malta Psychiatry Association warned of a possible increase in consumption and dependency patterns among users’. KSU also released a statement ‘welcoming the government’s publishing of a White Paper’; however, they also argued that the ‘White Paper fails to make clear reference to scientific research carried out by experts in the field or to peer-reviewed journals’. 

So what research and journals are out there on the topic of cannabis usage and its implications, we hear you ask! Here at the University of Malta there is plentiful research into many aspects of this area, such as looking at the public perceptions of cannabis both recreationally and medically, research into whether the use of cannabis can lead to an earlier onset of psychotic illnesses, as well as research looking into the policies as well as social and economic impact of legalisation

Looking further afield, there are numerous academic journals aiding the research into cannabis that could be useful in helping shape Malta’s own policy. Such examples include the Journal of Cannabis Research, which explores all aspects to do with the use of cannabis, and the Journal of Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids, which takes a closer look at research involved around the medicinal use of cannabis. There is even a collection of works from Oxford Journals that explore the impacts of cannabis on areas such as economics, sleep, public health, and the brain to name just a few. 

It is also important to learn from other countries such as the USA, where studies have taken place examining the differences between states that have legalised or criminalised cannabis. Research papers such as ‘Evaluating the impacts of Cannabis legalization: The International Cannabis Policy Study‘ and ‘Assessing the public health impacts of legalising recreational Cannabis use: the US experience‘, can provide great insight and education into the possible future in Malta if legalisation occurs.

Educating audiences about drug usage is exactly what the ‘Beyond the Influence’ campaign by KSU was all about. As one of three pillars of the YourFuturEU Campaign, it targeted raising awareness around topics such as ‘illicit drug activity such as drug trafficking, the effects of drug abuse on the body and mind, the effectiveness of treatment and rehabilitation, and the National and European impact of drug use’. The campaign held four online panel discussions exploring the different aspects of the issue: ‘the legal perspective, the health perspective, the psychosocial perspective, and the Maltese and European impact perspective’. This provided an excellent opportunity for experts in these areas to spark conversations, give in-depth knowledge, and debate with students to help raise awareness. If you would like to watch any of these discussions or videos, then please visit KSU’s Facebook page.

KSU’s choice of drug usage as a pillar of their campaign was ‘because as youths and the future of Europe, we feel that it is necessary to raise awareness about the realities surrounding drug use and abuse, and for young adults to become knowledgeable enough to be able to make safe decisions for themselves’. This was echoed in their own survey around drug usage. It was found that out of 976 respondents from a mainly student audience, 67% have made use of recreational drugs, with 59% still using them. On the type of drugs being used, it was found that of the 658 respondents who had made use of recreational drugs, 98% had tried cannabis. These findings highlight just how important education on the topic of drug use really is. To read more about the findings of the survey by KSU, take a look at their report here

The difference between a well-thought out policy and one that’s half-baked (pardon the pun) is research. After all, what’s the point of research if no one is using it?

Further Reading:

Clark, M., Gritsenko, V., Bonnici, J., Marinova, T., Reznik, A., & Isralowitz, R. (2020). Psychology Student Attitudes and Beliefs Toward Cannabis for Mental Health Purposes: a Cross National Comparison. International Journal Of Mental Health And Addiction. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-020-00280-6

Fenech, G. (2017). Current drug laws may be doing more harm than good : a case for legalising cannabis. Um.edu.mt. Retrieved 11 May 2021, from https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/handle/123456789/28931

Mamo, J. (2019). Cannabis in Malta—big business or laxing restrictions?. European Journal Of Public Health, 29(3), 390-391. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckz061

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