Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) When exactly ten years ago, I joined the protests in Valletta over the more than ten-year sentence Daniel Holmes had received over the cultivation of five plants, little did I think that we were going to revolutionize conservative Malta’s laws to become Europe’s benchmark.
Not seeing other politicians from mainstream parties at the protest, it was not fathomable that a few years later, I would be working bang in the heart of all these changes nationally, and also push Europe to move forward, from my seat in the European Parliament.
The cannabis topic was nothing but a taboo in the only European directly elected institution. Some movement started being made on medicinal use but most were not keen on uttering any word on personal use, until together with my team, we decided to hold the first Europe-wide online (Covid Times) conference, right from my tiny office in the European Parliament in Brussels, bringing together experts, activists, scientists, judges, police officers, and politicians to discuss a scientific-human rights approach to cannabis.
Since the Maltese Government had launched a consultation process to forge the way forward, we used the conference to submit our proposal for legalization, and hey presto, our submission ended up being the basis of the law proposed by Minister Owen Bonnici some months later. What I never expected was to attend the Cannabis Europa conference in London and listen to one speaker after another declaring that in Europe, within the current international and European law context, Malta’s law is what all others should be based on, at least for the time being.
The reality of the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, the European Union’s Schengen Agreement of 1990, and the Union Law Framework Decision of 2004 put Member States in a tight spot. Many say that these legal texts do not allow cross-border trade of such substances even when they are no longer “illicit” in the two Member States seeking to trade. This could obviously be tried in front of the European Court of Justice, but it seems that no State wanting to legalize cannabis use wants to take the risk of having to halt any step forward.
We got the cross-border debate going by daring what had never been dared before. We founded the interest group on cannabis in the European Parliament. Named “Legalise It”, we immediately started discussing possible ways in which we could change Europe’s laws in order to allow Member States to be able to legalize cannabis for personal use and be able to trade.
When contacted by a number of German representatives in the Bundestag to go through the current legislation at the European level and explain the Maltese model, I was always astonished at how Germany was keen on the cross-border trade of cannabis, citing the adverse climate in Germany for cultivation as one of the main reasons.
When proposing the Maltese model we always held back from trade. My office’s belief was to curtail big Pharma and others from taking over the market and controlling it. We wanted those who wanted to make use of cannabis to be able to grow their own strains, as we believe is their human right. For those who do not have the space or the green fingers to grow their own plants, we envisaged the ability to pool resources together with others and be able to grow the plant together in not-for-profit associations.
Symbolically, following Daniel Holmes’s unjust sentence ten years earlier, we pushed for five plants to be the limit allowed per household, the law passed by parliament set the limit at four. Malta is the first European law to legalize the cultivation of cannabis for personal use in households, where adults can also carry up to seven grams with them in public.
It is for these reasons, and also for bypassing the trade challenge, that the Maltese model is seen by many as the one that fits in well with the current European legal framework. Hence, that was the reason why one speaker after the next at the Cannabis Europa conference in London, made reference to the Maltese law as the current best one and also why Germany has moved on to propose a law based on the same model.
As I stated during the conference in the panel discussing EU legislation, I believe that while being the model referenced by all, it is one that still needs to be strengthened and improved. When we proposed our “leftist” or “progressive” model, we did not take into account a number of realities that became apparent once the law was enacted – What happens to those traveling to Malta on holiday that is not registered as residents?
Should they still be constrained to purchase buds through the black market? Given Malta’s optimal climate, shouldn’t it take advantage of its geographic location and be able to export to countries like Germany, where the climate is unfavorable?
These questions and others need to be studied well and while remaining firm in the belief that a science-based human-rights approach to cannabis is ideal, this needs to at some point be amended to ensure better legislation. To do so, we must first work on changing European laws.
It is in this context that our interest group in the European Parliament will continue lobbying for change. Our core values of freedom of movement, of our single market, and of liberty and human rights must lead to the changes needed. What sense does it make to live in Czechia and when crossing the border to Slovakia to visit your family, you’re suddenly a criminal ten minutes by car away from your home?
The time for change is now. The smallest Member State has so far taken the first big step forward. It’s time for Europe to hold a serious discussion on the way forward, staying true to our values, and being guided by science, while safeguarding people’s human rights.