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Europe’s first cannabis country

Europe’s first cannabis country

This week Malta became the first European country to legalise the cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal use. Will this be a trend across the rest of Europe?


Transcript
Claudia williams:

Hello, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, could cannabis soon become legal across Europe?

***

“The physical effects of marijuana. The first effects may be felt instantly or an hour after having eaten it”

Weed, cannabis, marijuana, or grass – whatever people call it –  we all know it’s illegal.

Or at least it is in the UK. Cannabis is assigned as a Class B drug. 

The police may choose to issue a warning for people caught with very small amounts of the drug… you could get up to 5 years in prison for possession, or 14 years for supply and production (along with an unlimited fine).  

But – outside the UK – countries are rethinking whether cannabis should still be so restricted and criminalised. 

This week Malta has become the first European country to legalise the cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal use.

“What we did here in parliament it is historical because its the first time that we have managed to push forward the legislation which will do a number of good things – first of all it will stop once and for all the criminalisation of people who for a lot of time have been criminalised when they are not criminals…”

Owen Bonnici, Minister for Equality, Research and Innovation 

After a vote passed on Tuesday it will soon be legal for Maltese citizens over 18 to possess up to seven grams of cannabis, grow up to four plants at home, and store up to 50g of it dried. 

So are we seeing a wave of change across Europe to legalise cannabis?

After 16 years of Angela Merkel running Germany as the head of the conservative Christian Democrat party, everything changed last week when Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats became chancellor.  

He is leading the country in a coalition with the Free Democrats and Green Party – and that means more liberal policies are on the agenda – including legalising cannabis in licensed stores. 

And the Germans aren’t alone – Malta only just beat Luxembourg to become the first country in Europe to legalise the drug. 

There are similar moves in Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. 

And the Netherlands – where previously the government adopted  a “tolerance“ approach – is now considering a legalised and regulated market. 

So why the change in tack on cannabis?

***

Most of the proposed legislation centres around cannabis being legal for personal use only – or through licensed stores. The idea is that regulation takes trade away from the black market. 

So, there are some caveats. 

In Malta, dealing and selling large volumes of cannabis will still be illegal. And you can’t smoke in front of children or when you are driving. 

That’s important because although some countries are moving towards legalisation – cannabis isn’t risk- or danger-free  

Still, it does seem like politicians are being swayed towards younger, liberal voters.

Maybe because the numbers are in their favour. 

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction estimates that 87.7 million 18 to 64 year olds in Europe – that’s about 26.3 % of the age group – have experimented with cannabis at some time in their lives.

And more than 600,000 people signed a petition in Italy asking for a referendum on the personal use of cannabis – a referendum that is now set to happen next year. 

There could be financial benefits to legalising cannabis too. 

Although Malta isn’t taking the commercial route… Canada is. 

Recreational use was legalised there in 2018.  

“One. Two. Three. Here we go you do it – here is your receipt the first legal weed in Canada.”

Last year, sales to adults were worth 2.6 billion dollars. 

According to a study from the University of Düsseldorf, legalising cannabis in Germany could mean more than 4.7 billion euros in additional annual revenue. 

Of course – not everyone agrees that weed should be legalised. 

53 organisations and individuals petitioned parliament in Malta to amend parts of the bill on the grounds that it would increase drug usage and that organised crime would prosper. 

And there is evidence that regular cannabis use can affect our health.  It is smoking, after all.  And it also carries the risk of  developing psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia. 

So could we see similar legislation to legalise cannabis in the UK?

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has been clear about that…

“But we are the party that is finally getting tough on the drug gangs that blight the lives of children and communities up and down this country and we wont tolerate middle class drugs use anymore than any other kind of drugs use”

Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister

If anything, drug users could face new criminal sanctions. 

The Labour party leader Keir Starmer has also voiced his opinion that cannabis should not be legalised. 

But broadly the parties do back the medical use and research for cannabis – which was actually made legal in 2018. 

The active ingredients in cannabis – THC and CBD – can be used to treat muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis, relieve sickness for chemotherapy and research is being done into a treatment for children in epilepsy. 

***

For now, the Maltese groups who advocated for the bill legalising weed are pretty happy…

[group of advocates cheer outside parliament]

It’s not hard to imagine how they’ll be celebrating.

And it looks like the rest of Europe may not have to wait too long to join them. 

Today’s story was written by Phoebe Davis and produced by Ella Hill.