Legal cannabis distribution in Malta by non-profit associations

An interview with Andrew Bonnello

by Moritz Förster

Malta aimed to legalize adult-use cannabis – at the end the result was decriminalization similar to Luxembourg. Would this model be a promising plan B for Germany? And what kind of legal cannabis distribution is possible in Malta? And what role do non-profit associations play? An interview with Andrew Bonnello, President of Releaf Malta, who is involved in setting up a community based cannabis NGO in Malta. Andrew, in Germany everyone is wondering what happens in case the European Commission rejects the German law to legalize adult-use cannabis. Would the Maltese Social-Club-Model be a good alternative?

Andrew Bonello: The Maltese law did not adhere completely to a social club model, and therefore your question is difficult to answer however Releaf Malta was the only organisation advancing a Cannabis Social Club Model founded on a peer-led bottom-up approach and a not-for-profit basis. Together with a social equity program, therefore one designed to benefit and advance the rights of those most negatively impacted by prohibition and criminalisation, a not for profit approach is the most sensible approach to reach the overarching goals of protecting and promoting the well-being of society, and one which adheres to Malta’s international human rights obligations and commitments taken under the UN Drug Control Conventions. A major goal is youth protection and protection of consumers. How do you guarantee that products are not sold to minors and that products are not contaminated?

Andrew Bonello: Minors will not be allowed to become members of the NPOs. Furthermore, the introduction of diversion from criminal consequences to education for minors caught with amounts prescribed by law (under 28 grams). These are very important developments shielding young persons from the negative consequences of a tainted criminal record. By having testing and labelling, consumers will have greater confidence that their product is free from heavy metals, pesticide, and other microbiological organisms which are usually found in cannabis grown by illicit organisations. Nonetheless, one needs to point out that most professional cannabis growers (even if operating in an illicit environment for years) take pride in their product and therefore take good care that their cannabis is safe and free from contaminants. This is very important to emphasize as there might be the wrong impression that all illicit cannabis is not safe. This is incorrect and there are many respectable growers who provide a good quality product. Also, the authority for the responsible use of cannabis (ARUC) stated that founding members, administrators, designated persons, and employees must attend training on harm reduction measures and associations must adopt harm reduction mechanisms to promote impartial safe use according to one’s age, health, and well-being. Is the value chain regulated? Do the social clubs produce their own cannabis or are they also allowed to get it elsewhere?

Andrew Bonello: (ARUC) has stated that Associations will be non-profit making, and their sole purpose will be to cultivate and distribute cannabis for their adult members only. Also, the associations will carry out the entire process from seed to distribution. They may not procure or transfer cannabis plants, dried cannabis, or finished or semi-finished products to or from other individuals, associations, or entities. What kind of businesses participate in the current model from seed to sale in the social club?

Andrew Bonello: Applications to run a cannabis association will be open to Maltese citizens as of the 28th of February 2023 where the Authority for the responsible use of cannabis (ARUC) stated that prospective Associations must submit projections of their operations for the first three years together with their application. However, ARUC also stated that they reserve the right to withdraw, update or amend their requirements in the light of further developments including the publication of new regulations. The aim of the NPOs will not be to establish new businesses or to facilitate the creation of cannabis franchises. On the contrary, the NPOs need to operate similarly to an NGO. ARUC has already indicated that wages and remuneration will be monitored In case the EC will allow Germany to go ahead with the complete legalization of cannabis for adult-use – will Malta follow the “German-way”?

Andrew Bonello: Unfortunately, it is impossible to answer that question as the ‘German way’ has yet to be released to the public. However, what we do know is that the Cannabis reform in Malta still reflects discriminatory practices of the past and replicates injustices and suffering for people who consume cannabis. Particularly worrying is the fact that sharing and gifting cannabis continues to amount to trafficking charges, whilst many more continue to face jail time or lengthy court cases for their possession and small scale dealing. As an organisation, we hope that the EC recognises the wrongdoings of the past by advancing a fully decriminalised and regulated framework built on strong human rights and social equity principles (thus leaving no one behind). It would be a grave mistake to allow big pharma or other business minded players to take the lead and directly manipulate regional developments for their own interests and profit.

Andrew Bonello, President Releaf Malta, will be speaking at ICBC Berlin in a panel together with the lawyers Kai-Friedrich Niermann, Carla Pareja Paris, Joe Rogoway – moderated by Lisa Haag. Topic: “Evolving Cannabis Policy Within The European Union” 9th of March, 10.45am. 

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