Cannabis marchers on campaign for reform
Some 300 young people, mostly dressed in green, marched the streets of Valletta yesterday calling for the decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis.
Chanting “marijuana is not a drug” and “we are not criminals”, the demonstrators stopped in front of the law courts and Parliament, as they called for a national discussion on drug law reform.
The protesters handed out information leaflets to passers-by which they claim dispel some of the misconceptions about the substance, while others played instruments to liven up the crowd.
Some held banners with phrases such as: ‘Cannabis cures cancer’ and ‘God made marijuana’ but one unimpressed passer-by was heard saying the protesters should get a job rather than grow the illegal plant.
Meanwhile, a plainclothes policeman was seen taking close-up photos of the demonstrators, causing some to remain cautiously at the sidelines.
“We should have decriminalised cannabis and created a system of classification 10 years ago,” organiser David Caruana told those present through a megaphone.
Mr Caruana is facing charges over growing the plant in his balcony for his own consumption. Cultivation, even if for personal use, is considered to be trafficking, which translates into a definite jail term of between six months and life imprisonment.
“Now many of us want legalisation and regulation,” he added to loud cheers of “legalise it”.
Some 800 people had confirmed their attendance on Facebook, where the protest was promoted. But Mr Caruana said the brave participants who actually showed up would encourage more to attend in the future.
“This is the just the beginning of a long road ahead of us,” he said.
Mr Caruana extolled the potential benefits of cannabis as a medicinal product and a potential source of “bioenergy”. “The real crime is denying this plant to the people who need it for medical reasons,” he said.
He lashed out at the Nationalist Party for saying the plant should be turned into artificial medicine rather than using it in its cheapest natural form. Only pharmaceutical companies stood to benefit from this, he said.
Through regulation, he argued, the government could ensure control over cannabis and take it out of the hands of children and criminals, who do not ask for ID when selling.
Adults, on the other hand, should have the right over their mind and body and should have the right to buy, grow and consume the substance without committing a crime.
TV presenter Peppi Azzopardi, who joined the protest, told The Sunday Times he attended a similar manifestation some 20 years ago, though only 30 people had showed up.
He said no drug users – including those who sell drugs to sustain their habit – should ever be imprisoned. Instead, the government should focus its energy on education and prevention.
Pointing out that he never took drugs or consumed alcohol, Mr Azzopardi said he had no personal interest, but always believed the current system had failed.
“President Emeritus Guido de Marco had said once on Xarabank that no drug user should end up in prison,” he said, adding that the country should be ashamed of itself for imprisoning Josette Bickle for operating a small drug empire from her jail cell.
“It was the state’s duty to prevent this crime,” he said, adding that the country had failed Ms Bickle from the age of 13 when she was charged with prostitution.
Another protester, Ramon Casha, 41, said he never consumed the drug but had carried out a lot of research which showed it is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.
“The laws are not based on fact,” he said, adding that it was unfair to send people to jail because of unfounded laws.
Amber Degiorgio, 21, said she believed in freedom of individual choice, even though she accepted that it could have harmful effects if abused, like alcohol and tobacco. No one from any of the three main political parties attended the protest. Alternattiva Demokratika recently said it agreed with decriminalisation of all drugs, but not that cannabis should be sold in shops. Yesterday, AD welcomed the appeal of President George Abela and Caritas to reconsider drug legislation so that drug users are helped rather than sent to jail.
One of the reasons behind the protest was the recent 11-year jail term handed to Welshman Daniel Holmes who admitted to cultivating cannabis but said it was for personal use.
A number of attendees told The Sunday Times they would soon face court proceedings for marijuana possession.
When asked if they were planning to use the photos of protesters for drug investigations, the police said it was standard practice for a police photographer to be present at public manifestations in case of any incident.
“Once incidents do not arise, photographs are not retained.”
Protesters’ 12 demands
• Formally withdraw Malta from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to ensure autonomy in drafting drug laws.
• Classification of all substances, including tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs, based on scientifically proven harm.
• Legalisation of cannabis possession of up to 15 grams from age 21. Decriminalisation for under-21s but obligatory rehabilitation courses for under-18s.
• Legislation of cultivation of up to four cannabis plants from age 21. Decriminalisation for under-21s with obligatory rehabilitation courses for under-18s.
• Legalisation, regulation and taxation of cannabis sale from licensed outlets. Harsh penalties, including closure of premises, for those who breach regulations and sell to under-21s.
• Harsher penalties to anyone caught selling any substance, including cannabis to under-21s.
• Government-commissioned research on industrial use of hemp, including bio-fuel, and licensing of industrial cultivation or industrial production of hemp products.
• Government-commissioned research on marijuana’s medical use and licences for medical professionals to research or prescribe marijuana for medical reasons.
• Increase legal drinking age to 18 for beverages below 22 per cent volume and 20 for beverages above 22 per cent volume. Stricter controls and harsher penalties for breaches, including outlet closure.
• Increase legal smoking age to 18 and total ban of cigarette vending machines to avoid abuse. Harsher penalties for breaches.
• Life skills courses as part of national curriculum in all primary and secondary schools.
• Increase spending on police drug squad, rehabilitation programmes and awareness, from funds of cannabis sales.