In the past years, there has been a strong effort to raise more awareness on the negative effects of tobacco.
Campaigns were launched on how smoking cigarettes could cause lung cancer and other physical ailments, some of them fatal. Laws were enacted to prohibit smoking in public places. Children started being taught in schools about how smoking could cut their life short. They were told to tell their parents to stop smoking.
They were all good measures, and it must be said that they did leave a positive impact on society in general. Whereas, for many years, smoking was considered to be an integral part of social behaviour, today smokers are in more ways than one “outcasts”. They are the ones who have to move aside or outside to take a drag or two to satisfy their habit without enforcing it on others.
We have now got used to this practice.
Fast forward a few years, and we are now talking about the legalisation of cannabis.
While, on the one hand, society has made it more difficult for smokers, it is now planning to make it easier for cannabis users.
A white paper published by the government indicates a propensity to allow users to grow their own cannabis plants and carry on their person a limited amount of the drug without fear or prosecution. There is also talk of not only decriminalisation, but also legalisation of cannabis use.
Society has painfully succeeded in cutting down on tobacco use, but is now opening the way for a wider consumption of cannabis. How’s that for a contradiction?
Doctors will tell you that if tobacco were to be discovered today, it would be banned.
But, for centuries, tobacco was considered as providing “benefits” to users. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that links between smoking and health issues were discovered. Until then, there had been no association between tobacco and various cancers that lead to premature deaths. And it was only as late as 2008 that the World Health Organisation named tobacco use as the world’s single greatest preventable cause of death.
By the time it was established that tobacco causes so much physical damage, it was too late to prohibit its use. Cigarette companies had grown too powerful, and governments all over the world were too afraid to attack them. It took many years before the dangers of smoking started to be highlighted, and even more years before governments took measures to, as much as possible, make it difficult for smokers.
We first had the banning of advertising of cigarettes, particularly in sports events. Even here, it took long to realise that there was a huge contradiction – products causing harm to people were sponsoring events where participants needed to be in the best of health.
Later, warnings about health hazards caused by smoking started to be printed on cigarette packets, with the images getting more gruesome as time went by.
Then governments started banning smoking in public places. Older generations remember people smoking in aeroplanes, cinemas, restaurants, bars, clubs, offices and public buildings, including public buildings. There was a time when places were divided into smoking and no-smoking areas, until smoking was completely banned.
This is all a thing of the past now. Smoking in all indoor public places is prohibited, while some public buildings such as airport terminals have rooms where smokers could congregate. There are countries which are moving towards banning smoking even in outdoor public places, while New Zealand is taking a step further by planning to ban sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to people born in 2004 or later.
Over the years, Malta introduced several measures in a bid to discourage smoking. We have now got used to the system, which has meant cleaner air in public places. We even went as far as prohibiting smoking in a car where children are present, imposing a €50 fine for offenders. One can argue whether such laws are enforced and it would be good to know how many fines have been issued, but at least we do have laws in place to safeguard people’s health.
So why is it that, on the one hand, Malta comes out as a country which is so much against smoking, and yet is now aspiring to be among the front-runners on cannabis use for recreational purposes? One can see an argument on medicinal use – and legislation to this effect was enacted in 2018 – but cannabis for recreation is an altogether different ballgame.
In March, the government launched a white paper proposing reforms on laws governing the use of cannabis for recreational purposes.
What was proposed is that adults who are found with seven grammes or less of cannabis for personal use will not be violating laws. Those caught with between seven and 28 grammes will not be tried in court but will be subject to a tribunal hearing. People will be given the right to grow up to four cannabis plants for their own personal consumption which, however, will still not be allowed in public places. People whose conduct sheet is tainted due to cannabis use or possession of small amounts can apply to have the charges removed.
The above are among the main proposals that the government announced in the white paper. The consultation period for organisations and individuals came to an end earlier this week. The government will now finalise its position before presenting a bill before the House of Representatives.
As was to be expected, the reactions varied.
The left side of the political spectrum expressed itself in favour of such moves, saying the changes were long overdue and hinting that they should be even bolder. The Labour Party, for example, is speaking about legalisation of cannabis use for recreational purposes, instead of just decriminalising it.
The more conservative factions were not happy about the government’s plans. Organisations who work with drug users highlighted their concerns that this will open the way for more drug abuse, while insisting that very often young people start with cannabis to then move on to harder drugs.
One may argue that cannabis and tobacco are two different products and should not be placed in the same basket. But parallels can be drawn as both can have a negative effect on users’ health. For one thing, they are both addictive and, as we all know, all addictions can be harmful. They both have a calming effect on users, but they both also cause physical damage.
What is sure is that, in places where recreational use of cannabis was legalised, the effects on society in general have not been good. Take Colorado, in the United States, as an example. In this state, cannabis for medical use was allowed in 2000, and this was followed in 2012 by the legalisation of cannabis use for recreation. Notice the 12-year gap (not three, as is happening in Malta) and the fact that a referendum took place in 2012 (no referendum is planned for Malta).
Aside from this, since cannabis use for recreational purposes was introduced, there was an increase in peripheral related incidents such as driving under the influence of cannabis, accidental indigestion by minors, and expulsions from schools. There was also an increase in hospital visits related to cannabis as well as increased illegal cultivation of cannabis on public land. Colorado also registered an increase in contraband of cannabis to other states and violent crime surged by 20 per cent between 2012 and 2017.
Colorado also saw a huge rise in cannabis-related tourism. As we all know, tourism is one of the pillars of Malta’s economy. But would we be happy to turn Malta into an attraction for cannabis users? Are we seeking to bring over high-end tourists or drug users?
More to come?
What is feared is that what the government has proposed would be just the first step. This is what governments normally do. They test the waters with the minimum of measures, see what the public reaction is, go ahead if the response is not too bad and then wait for a few more years before upping the tempo.
Once cannabis use for medicinal purposes was introduced in Malta in 2018, it was only a matter of time before this was expanded to recreational use. So it is pertinent to ask what will happen next after the cannabis reform goes through all the legal stages. The government needs to come clean on this matter.
This delicate subject is also gathering momentum at a time when the country will soon be heading into an election. Nothing happens by coincidence, and it is likely that the Labour Party is intentionally doing this to deflect attention away from other, more important issues such as corruption and all that is going on in the law courts, while at the same time trying to attract the younger voters.
But it would be wrong to turn the issue into a political football. It is much more than that.