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Cannabis smokers publish photos on Facebook

Experts reject arguments for decriminalisation

A group of Maltese people have taken a daring step ahead in their lobbying to legalise cannabis: posting photographs on the social networking website Facebook showing them smoking what they claim is the substance.

Almost 1,000 users have joined the Legalize It, Malta! group and some posted their photos on the site following an appeal by the promoters to do so. Many of the photos have since been removed due to legal implications raised by other members.

Speaking to The Times, the leader of the group, David Caruana, listed a number of reasons for decriminalisation. He argues that cannabis is not lethal and is safer than alcohol and most prescription drugs. He says that if the drug is legalised it can be regulated and taxed and, instead of spending huge amounts of money to arrest and prosecute smokers, such funds can be invested in education and awareness campaigns.

Many experts disagree.

Psychiatrist Peter Muscat says the damaging effects of alcohol and cigarette smoking are reputed to be milder than those of cannabis. However, given that the majority of users also tend to drink and smoke they expose themselves to the compound effects of all three substances.

Mr Caruana insists that prohibition of the drug is failing in all countries, whereas in the Netherlands, where cannabis has been decriminalised, it has been taken away from drug lords and criminals and regulated through a system of shop licences.

Sedqa's operations officer Jean Claude Cardona fears that if access to substances is allowed the demand and use will increase, arguing that in Malta laws should be made harsher rather than more liberal.

Mr Caruana and his friends are aware that campaigning for the decriminalisation of cannabis is no mean feat but they blame resistance on misinformation.

He compares smoking a joint to appreciating a nice glass of Cabernet in the evening and says that cannabis gives "mental relaxation".

As the system stands now, someone wanting to buy cannabis will resort to a drug dealer who will offer much more than cannabis, making it more likely for young people to progress to harder drugs, he says.

Mr Cardona, a spokesman for Sedqa, a non-profit agency funded by the government to spearhead the battle against substance abuse, defines many of the arguments raised by Mr Caruana as flawed.

He argues that there are a number of consequences to prolonged use of the drug, including paranoia, depression, loss of motivation, psychological dependence and a higher risk of respiratory infections and psychosis.

Mr Cardona quoted the British newspaper The Independent, which apologised for a pro-decriminalisation campaign it had launched in 1997. In its editorial of March 18 of last year, the newspaper said new research had found cannabis to be 25 times stronger than that available a decade ago and said that more than 22,000 people in the UK were treated for cannabis addiction in 2006, almost half of whom were under 18.

The article said that at least 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the UK could have avoided the illness had they not used cannabis and that there is now a proven and clear link between cannabis and psychosis.

Admitting that cannabis is easily available in Malta, Mr Caruana says decriminalisation will make it cleaner, safer and "home-grown" rather than processed with additives.

He argues that all form of abuse is harmful and dangerous. Education is the only way to stop abuse, he says. He agrees with Sedqa's own terms that alcohol is the worst drug because it is readily available to young teenagers. He also thinks that there is not enough emphasis on the dangers of alcohol, which he calls "the real root of all evil".

"I am not proposing legalisation by itself but together with a reform to have stricter regulation on alcohol," he says, concluding that, through regulation, enforcement and education everyone will be allowed to make their own choices responsibly so that abuse of all kinds of substances will be reduced.

Dr Muscat, on the other hand, is quick to point out that cannabis has a plethora of harmful physical and mental effects. Although some users can responsibly control and limit their use of cannabis, users can become psychologically addicted to the altered mental state that cannabis induces.

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