(Photo above was taken in Vancouver, Canada which has many public demonstrations and rallies in favour of medical and/or recreational cannabis use.)
Ramon Casha has something to say about cannabis
Dear oh dear, who ever thought that agriculture carried such risks.
A Welshman living in Gozo was recently sentenced to over ten years in jail for having two potted plants in his balcony. Admittedly these were not your typical sardinella. They were cannabis – ħaxixa.
It seems that this surprisingly harsh sentence galvanised people into calling for the legal situation to be revised. Most, it seems, are calling for decriminalisation. Some are aiming for legalisation, while politicians seem to be seeking a new word that means decriminalisation without actually being decriminalisation. Inevitably, there were others who, in website comments and blogs, were calling for harsher sentences, with some even wistfully describing how in certain countries, those found guilty face beheading.
Ah, such compassion! It warms the heart. People posted and blogged and twittered and liked and shared, giving not only diametrically opposed opinions, but even contradictory “facts”.
Fortunately, in this internet-connected day and age, information is just a few mouse clicks away. Here is a summary of salient points, but I do encourage everyone to do their own searching.
To begin with there seems to be some confusion about decriminalisation and legalisation. With decriminalisation, an act remains illegal but is no longer a crime. Thus, if possession or cultivation for personal use is decriminalised, anyone caught with a joint or growing a small number of plants will no longer face jail time and get branded with a criminal record to boot, though they may still face fines, confiscation etc. This is seen by many to be a bare minimum in the reforms that the country needs. If we’re trying to protect youths from the detrimental effects of drugs, the last thing they need is a scholarship at Corradino Crime University or to seek a job with a certificate that forever marks them as criminals.
Legalisation on the other hand renders the substance legal. This does not mean a free-for-all. Alcohol is legal but can only be sold at licensed venues and to people above a certain age. Medicines are legal but can only be sold at pharmacies, and some require a doctor’s prescription.
Cannabis is a hardy plant which grows well in the Mediterranean climate and has been cultivated for many millennia. When used industrially, cannabis is better known as hemp (qanneb). Many of the ordinary coarse brown ropes and sackcloth we are familiar with are made from hemp fibres, known as bast, which run the entire length of the plant’s long stems. Hemp fibres are also used in the production of paper since they grow much faster than trees. Hemp is favoured industrially because it grows very tall very fast, and is naturally pest-resistant. Hemp leaves and seeds are used in the production of food, edible oil, biodiesel and biodegradable plastic.
The Semitic word khanab gives us the modern words canvas, since sails used to be made from it, as well as the words cannabis, hemp and the Maltese word qanneb. It is primarily the flower of the same species – cannabis sativa – which is used as a drug. In this form it is often referred to as marijuana or ħaxixa. Over the millennia, varieties of the plant with longer stems were bred for industrial use, while varieties with more flowers and a stronger concentration of its psychotropic chemical, THC, were bred for use as a medicine or recreational drug.
The law in Malta lumps cannabis together with most other “drugs” including cocaine and heroin, treating them as if they were merely different words that mean the same thing. Reality is quite different. Research in the UK found that cannabis is less addictive and less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol. This is not to say that there are no risks involved, which is why legalisation must be accompanied by regulation. In many ways the effects are comparable to alcohol, which is why people under the influence of either should not drive or operate heavy machinery, and pregnant women should avoid it just as they should avoid alcohol and tobacco, while the use of all drugs including alcohol and tobacco by the young needs to be controlled.
However, while alcohol can cause an overdose (as happened to singer Amy Winehouse), and tends to make people aggressive and violent, cannabis cannot result in an overdose in any quantity, and tends to make people relaxed and calm. The main negative side-effects of cannabis use seem to be linked with people who suffer from schizophrenia, where people with this condition can have their symptoms worsened by the use of cannabis. Some researchers claim that cannabis use can actually trigger the onset of schizophrenia, while other studies have noted that an increase in use of cannabis coincided with a decrease in the incidence of schizophrenia, leading to a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
Another problem described is that, although cannabis is relatively harmless, its use can lead one to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Ironically, it is the harsh drug laws that are most likely to lead to this situation. As has already been mentioned, cannabis grows quite easily in our climate, but since Maltese law assumes that anybody cultivating any quantity of the plant is a trafficker, which means even harsher penalties, very few users risk growing their own plants, and prefer instead to buy it from drug dealers. These pushers face the same penalties if they deal in cannabis as they do if they deal in heroin or cocaine, but the latter are more profitable and much more addictive, so they have a strong incentive to wean their customers from cannabis to the stronger drugs.
If cannabis cultivation is decriminalised, many would prefer to grow their own plants, which works out cheaper and allows them to control the quality, rather than buy them at a very expensive price as well as helping to finance other activities that most of them have no desire to help. Legalisation and regulation would moreover allow licensed outlets to sell – which means more possibility of control by the authorities to ensure it is not sold to minors, and to restrict the more potent strains that are beginning to emerge. Decriminalisation or legalisation in other countries has successfully broken the link between cannabis users and drug traffickers.
So far we have described industrial uses as well as the use of the plant as a recreational drug. However, research is also revealing this plant’s medical uses, and in many countries, the use of cannabis by prescription is permitted even while other uses are prohibited. The two main areas of use are in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, and in the treatment of cancer. In the case of cancer, cannabis has a dual use in that it acts against certain types of cancer cells directly, while lessening the negative side effects of chemotherapy. Cannabis oil is used topically to treat eczema. Other medically-validated uses of cannabis include the treatment of asthma, insomnia, and conditions causing nausea or lack of appetite, with “promising results” shown in treatment of other conditions including glaucoma, alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. Unfortunately, research into the medical uses of cannabis has been hindered by its legal status in many countries, but more governments are nowadays allowing medical research to take place.
Many people assume that the most liberal place for drugs in Europe is the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam. It isn’t. Surprisingly, this honour goes to Portugal which, in 2001, legalised possession of all drugs – even the more powerful ones like cocaine and heroin. The results were counter-intuitive at first glance. Drug use and drug-related crime dropped. More people sought help to overcome addiction. HIV infections caused by shared needles dropped. In the ten years since the legalisation of drugs, Portugal now has the lowest drug statistics in Europe. Most of these effects stem from the fact that legalisation took business away from the pushers who have an interest in weaning people onto more addictive substances, while reassuring people who wish to kick a habit that they will not be incriminating themselves by seeking help.
For many decades, Malta was following the example set by the United States and other countries in mounting an all-out war against all kinds of drugs with the exception of tobacco and alcohol. Misinformation was deliberately spread in the hope that it would dissuade people, especially youths, from experimenting with drugs. The intentions were good but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This war produced mainly collateral damage, in the form of prisons overflowing with harmless teenagers and creating a legal regime that became more harmful both to the individual and to society than the drugs themselves. As former US president Jimmy Carter said in 1977, “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”
I am pleased to note that politicians from both sides of the house are hesitantly looking at the matter – perhaps we can avoid turning this into a partisan issue. I am asking members of parliament to tackle this issue rationally. Make use of the research that has been done by hundreds of scientists and medical and legal experts worldwide. Remember that people are having their lives ruined by the laws in place today.
The longer we wait, the greater the harm.
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