Malta on Tuesday became the first country in the European Union to agree to officially legalize the recreational use and cultivation of marijuana, the latest sign of a more liberal approach to the substance taken in the bloc in recent years.
“It’s revolutionary,” said Owen Bonnici, the Maltese Minister for Equality, Research and Innovation who introduced the bill, in a telephone interview. The new law would end the criminalization of people who smoke marijuana and reduce criminal trafficking in the substance, he said.
“Malta can be a model for harm reduction,” he added.
The law, passed by parliament and only waiting for the president’s signature, which is considered a formality, to come into force, allows people to carry up to seven grams of marijuana, grow up to four plants in their apartments and keep up to 50 grams of dried cannabis at home.
Similar forms of decriminalization exist in other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, but in these cases possession of a small amount of cannabis can still be a tort and cafes or cannabis social clubs are “tolerated” or only banned. de facto authorized by court decisions.
“Malta has officially legislated on what exists in other European countries in a strange gray area,” said Steve Rolles, analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a rights group in Britain.
Maltese law had a wide range of supporters.
“It’s a great day,” said Kevin Bellotti, 50, who was jailed for 10 months after being caught with four marijuana plants in his apartment in 2003. Mr. Bellotti said he lost his As a result, was forced to sell his apartment and, for four years, suffered a 10:30 p.m. curfew and daily reporting to a local police station.
“I was a victim of the system,” he said. “Now, for the new generation, people who smoke cannabis will no longer be considered criminals. “
Under the new law, Mr. Bellotti can also request that his conviction be erased from his criminal record, which had prevented him from finding a job.
However, not everyone was in favor.
Marica Cassar, spokesperson for the Catholic charity Caritas in Malta, said the law would serve to popularize and normalize marijuana, a “mind-altering substance that will cause a problem in our society”. She said 25% of people seeking drug addiction help from her organization were addicted to marijuana, adding that she now expected that number to increase.
The Maltese government has said the new law will not encourage drug use, but will protect those who choose to use it. Mr Bonnici said cannabis use in the Netherlands, which has tolerated the sale and consumption of marijuana in coffee shops for decades, is similar to the European average.
The Maltese government has also created a body called the Responsible Use of Cannabis Authority which will regulate the recreational use of the substance.
Consumers will be able to purchase marijuana at outlets located more than 250 meters from schools or youth centers and run by non-profit groups. These nonprofits will be allowed to grow the drug and sell it to members who will have the right to buy up to seven grams per day, up to a maximum of 50 grams per month.
In December 2020, the United Nations removed marijuana from the list of the most dangerous drugs, and several countries are now moving towards a more liberal approach.
This year, Italians have passed the 500,000 signatures needed to hold a referendum to legalize marijuana, and the governments of Luxembourg and Germany have announced their intention to pass laws decriminalizing the substance.
“Now there is a clear plan,” said Mr Bonnici, who added that he does not smoke marijuana because he has asthma. “We have paved the way.
Consumption of marijuana in public remains prohibited under the new law, with higher fines for offenses involving minors, and people carrying between seven and 28 grams of marijuana can be fined as much as € 50 to 100 euros, or about 56 to 112 dollars.
Ms Cassar of Caritas said she thought the fine was too low.
“If you are caught in the street walking without a mask, you are fined € 100,” she said.
But Andrew Bonello, chairman of the Releaf group, an advocate for the new legislation, said the elimination or reduction of penalties was a significant change from what he called Malta’s previous “draconian” law. He added that the new law would ensure better quality of marijuana and also reduce criminal involvement in the drug trade.
Most of the marijuana currently sold in Malta, he said, came from Albania via Sicily, raising concerns that the trade money could support criminal activities such as human trafficking.
Mr Bonello said that many people he knew bought pipes, as well as lamps and other equipment for cultivating and processing drugs. He said he planned to have a rotation of four plants growing in his apartment.
Mr Bellotti, who had previously been jailed for his marijuana plants, said he was going to grow some too.
“Now I can grow mine,” he said, “but I have a scar that will never heal. “