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MaltaToday 24 November 2021 MIDWEEK

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OPINION 10 maltatoday | WEDNESDAY • 24 NOVEMBER 2021 LET'S try a little experiment, shall we? As you probably know, there is a parlia- mentary debate going on right now, about whether or not to (once again) reform the legislation regulating cannabis in Malta. Yes indeed, folks. It seems that – for some funny reason – our legislators didn't quite get it right, the first time they at- tempted to 'decriminalize' that particular drug… all the way back in 2015. For let's face it: six years later, the situ- ation appears not to have changed in any detail at all. People are still being arrested, even for tiny quantities of cannabis - as amply demonstrated by last February's 'Valentine's Day Massacre' in St Julian's – and as recently as October 2019, mag- istrates were still complaining that they were left with "no other choice than to sentence [a user] to six months in prison and a €700 fine" (over cultivation for per- sonal use). Looking back, it is actually hard to iden- tify even a single, solitary area where that 2015 'reform' has had any sort of impact whatsoever. It is, however, somewhat eas- ier to see why it has so manifestly failed. Just a cursory glance at the bill currently being debated – and which the Opposi- tion has only just voted against, at sec- ond-reading stage (more of this later) – will reveal that it is pretty much the same as the one originally proposed in 2015… … only it was mutilated to such a degree, that by the time it came round to being enacted… almost every single one of its original objectives had mysteriously van- ished in a puff of smoke…. For instance: the 2015 reform ushered in no 'legal pathways' to acquire 'cannabis buds and seeds' – thus sparing users the necessity of having to approach criminals instead – and, very evidently, there was no decriminalization of 'home-growing for personal consumption', either… still less, the 'expungement of criminal records [for prior cannabis-related offences]'. Quite the contrary: more people have actually ended up with criminal records over cannabis – including at least 11 in- carcerations – since 2015… i.e., when the drug itself was supposed to have been 'de- criminalised', once and for all. What can I say? It is as though the entire point of the 2015 reform has, quite literal- ly, gone 'Up in Smoke'. Not only that: but we even ended up taking the clean oppo- site direction, from the one we originally started out in… Seriously though: who's in the driv- er's seat, anyway? Cheech and Chong? Because let's face it: not even those two would probably have screwed things up more totally than that: not even if they spent an entire lifetime smoking pot for that very purpose… But no matter: for one thing, there's al- ways a 'second time' for everything in life – well, almost everything, anyway – so… well, here's hoping that our House of Rep- resentatives actually nails it slightly bet- ter, this time round… And for another… well, we still haven't conducted our experiment, have we? So without further ado: I will throw three random quotes at you – all spoken by the same person, at one point or other in the entire history of this debate – and all you have to do is guess 'who said it'… (and, for an extra bonus point: 'when'…. because – big hint - the timing is actually quite significant.) Ready? Here is 'Exhibit A': "From a political point of view, I could make the argument – which a lot of peo- ple have made – that this is a smoke- screen, to distract us from other things which are happening […] but all that be- ing said, there are good things; [including that] here we are, discussing a subject which I think deserves to be discussed." Exhibit B: "I think – and everybody seems to agree on this – that the most important aspect is education. We are in 2021; and scaremongering is definitely not an option. […] we really need to speak the truth about drugs. Not just canna- bis… but all drugs." And lastly, Exhibit C: "We cannot have a user – somebody smoking a joint, for God's sake – taken to prison, or being treated like a criminal. This is totally un- acceptable for anybody. […] What good would it do to our society? Absolutely nothing. Will it be a deterrent? […] Ab- solutely not. […] Telling kids that, 'if you smoke a joint, you will end up in prison': that's not a deterrent at all. It might ac- tually increase the message of, you know, 'adventure'… of 'challenging the status quo'..." OK, I'll stop there, because – even if you haven't yet identified the speaker – you've probably already guessed where all this is ultimately heading. Despite the fact that all three of those arguments conform, in no uncertain terms, with the general idea behind this latest 'cannabis reform' bill… they do not come from the mouth of any government speaker during the current Parliamentary debate. Or at least: not in those specific words. At the risk of giving the whole game away… pretty much ALL government speakers have, at one point or other, made those exact same arguments in re- cent weeks. Prime Minister Robert Abe- la, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, Parlia- mentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar… … all of those, without exception, could very easily be top contenders for our mys- tery speaker. But by now, you will surely have earned that extra bonus half-point, by correctly guessing that the above quotes actually came from an Opposition speaker – in other words, a representa- tive of the party that has only just voted AGAINST the bill. And just in case you haven't yet claimed all the 'douze points' for also guessing precisely who… Oh, Ok: I'll grant your (ahem) desire… That's right, folks: it was Claudette Butt- igieg, the Nationalist Party spokesperson on Social Policy and Family… only she wasn't speaking during any recent Parlia- mentary debate. Those quotes are all lift- ed from a webinar discussion, hosted by 'The European Cannabis Advocacy Net- work' (and in which, as it happens, I was also a speaker myself) on 30 April 2021. That is to say, when the public consul- tation period for the second Cannabis White Paper had only just concluded - without, it must be said, any input by the Nationalist party itself – and just before the second bill (i.e., the one we are debat- ing today) was tabled for discussion in the House. Now: to be fair to Claudette herself – and also, to avoid any accusations of 'selectively quoting out of context' – she also said a lot of other things during that discussion: including some rather scath- ing – and I would say, entirely justified – criticism of the White Paper itself. It follows, then, that while the above quotes do seem to directly contradict Claudette Buttigieg's more recent state- ments on the same subject… she has also been very consistent, when it comes to pointing out other (mostly procedural) flaws within the discussion itself. Nonetheless, we remain confronted with a puzzling conundrum. If the above rep- resented Claudette Buttigieg's own per- sonal opinion, on April 30, 2021… what has changed, in the meantime, to justify what can only be described (in purely Piz- zul terms) as a total 'capovolgimente di fronte' since then? Today, for instance, the same Claudette Buttigieg is once again resorting to the same old 'scaremongering' tactics – 'Is this the Malta we want for our children?' – she so recently denounced herself; Once again, she (or at least her party) is accusing government of using this issue as a 'smokescreen'; And while she may not be openly argu- ing against decriminalisation itself – par- adoxically, on the grounds that 'cannabis has already been decriminalised' (when it very emphatically hasn't) – her position, and that of the PN as a whole, is still ulti- mately just a defence of the present status quo. That is to say, the same 'status quo' that she herself argued had 'failed', seven short months ago… and which, by her own for- mer arguments, 'needed to be changed'… But tell you what: let's cut Claudette herself a little slack, at this point… if nothing else, because the purpose of this experiment was not just to illustrate how politicians tend to (inevitably) contradict themselves, every once in a while…. (leav- ing aside that – when the chips are down – I know her well enough to understand that her original position was probably a lot more 'heart-felt', than her present, po- litically-induced one…) No, it was also to draw the Opposition's attention to the point that – by Claudette Buttigieg's own, earlier reasoning – we really do need to 'speak the truth about drugs', you know. And you can't exactly do that, if you're also going to insist on (in no particular order): > Pretending that the issue itself 'does not exist'; or is not 'important enough' to even be discussed; > Overlooking the existence of the esti- mated 40,000, non-criminal people who use that drug… not to mention all their family, friends and relatives who would also be unduly affected by their sudden, unexpected arrest (and, quite possibly in- carceration); > and above all, simply repeating the same old, tired political cliches: which – let's face it - do nothing at all, but take the Opposition all the way back to the same old, failed drug policies of the 1980s and 1990s… In a nutshell: you cannot logically reach the conclusion that current drug legisla- tion 'needs to change'… whilst simultane- ously doing everything in your power to keep that change from actually happen- ing. Or at least: you can't realistically do that, without smoking a heck of a lot of weed first. (Even though, like I said before… come on, it's really not that difficult, you know. Even Cheech and Chong would probably get there, in the end…) Who's advising the PN on cannabis reform: Cheech and Chong? Raphael Vassallo

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