A History Of Activism In Malta

Cannabis activists in Valletta, Malta. Photo: Shutterstock

Malta is on the cusp of legalising recreational cannabis, which, up until a few years ago, was unimaginable to think. As a co-founder of lobby group ReLeaf and a cannabis activist working for more just laws over the last decade, here are some of the key moments I saw both publicly and behind the scenes that led Malta to this historic threshold.

It is ironic, but if Malta does end up legalising recreational cannabis, one quiet man from Wales may be the one to thank for it.

Prior to 2011, there were passionate activists fighting for better cannabis laws on the island – but I, like many others of my generation, only got involved in organising and lobbying for legalisation after the brutal imprisonment of Daniel Holmes in Malta.

After his story sent shockwaves throughout the cannabis community, making many of us believe the island was moving towards an ultra-conservative USA-style police state where people could face serious jail time for growing plants at home, a number of people began organising.

Around this time, David Caruana, who I didn’t personally know but soon found out was a passionate activist who was also dealing with his own court-related issues, put out a call to any activists who wanted to protest against Holmes imprisonment.

The first meeting, held in a room within the Moviment Graffitti premises in Strait Street, Valletta, showed the variety of people affected by cannabis prohibition.

There were veteran activists, university students, lecturers, government workers, philosophers and even people from abroad, all brought together over the injustice shown to Daniel Holmes.

Now, Malta was a different place back then – it was the final year of the conservative Nationalist Party’s near quarter century reign, and there was very little softening from Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s end as far as cannabis goes.

The community was scared; scared of speaking out, scared of being fired from their jobs, scared of their families finding out they use cannabis.

The shame was real. It was hard trying to convince people to show up to public rallies and demonstration, with many cannabis users not ready to reveal themselves in public, preferring to stay hidden in the shadows.

But the sheer injustice Holmes faced led many to overcome that.

During one of the first meetings, we needed to decide what position we wanted to take on various points – was the group for decriminalisation, or legalisation? How did we feel about other drugs? What about dealers; were they businessmen being treated unjustly, or criminals taking advantage of prohibition? Did the group even have a name?

After much discussion, Legalise It Malta! was founded, and held two public rallies in Valletta, calling for justice for Daniel Holmes and Malta’s cannabis community.

Various people and speakers attended these rallies, including Xarabank’s Peppi Azzopardi and Ramon Casha, the late great founder of the Malta Humanist Association even though they didn’t use cannabis themselves. But they understood that this wasn’t just about the right to smoke a joint in one’s home – this was about a fair and equal society, where one can be accepted and not judged, ostracised or jailed for their own adult choices.

In 2013, the Labour Party were voted into power. However, prior to Joseph Muscat’s rise to leadership, with the PN’s tenure coming to an end, I, together with Moviment Graffitti activist Robert Louis Fenech, held a meeting with then-Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat.

We met Muscat as Opposition Leader at the Labour Party HQ in Ħamrun in 2012, and shared a number of studies with him showing the benefits of cannabis – therapeutically, socially and economically – and emphasised how many thousands of people needed a reform to the law, and needed it desperately.

Muscat was receptive to our arguments – but he was clear that civil unions and increased LGBT+ rights were his priority during his first tenure as Prime Minister, and that if cannabis did make it onto the national agenda in a big way, it would be during his second term in power.

He mentioned how former Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici had proposed legalising all drugs back in the early 1990s – only for him to be ridiculed and become a target for conservative forces.

Overall, it was not exactly what we wanted to hear, but at least he was honest about the timeline – a timeline which, in hindsight, ended up being quite accurate.

The meeting went well, despite being brutally attacked for it by some online after the fact. However, at this point, cannabis activists were beginning to sense that change was coming – abroad, more and more US states were beginning to legalise medically and recreationally, and there was a growing global consensus that the War on Drugs had failed.

In 2015, Malta decriminalised the possession of 3.5g of cannabis for personal use.

This may pale in comparison to the sweeping changes happening abroad, but it was a step in the right direction – a small step, but an essential one.

After the 2015 change in law, many felt like enough had changed that we could rest on our laurels a bit… the government had changed, you could now be found with a small amount of cannabis and not face jail time, and the stigma associated with the plant had definitely lessened.

However, people were still being hauled to court, facing drug tribunals and spending years fighting charges that, in all honesty, were nothing more than an absolute waste of everyone’s time.

Imagine hearing of a country that spent years churning cigarette smokers through the justice system, with endless sittings where the ciggy smoker would need to prostrate themselves in front of a tribunal, submit to regular drug tests, promising that they’re a changed person, that they’ll never do this again, that it wasn’t theirs, that it was all a huge mistake… we would laugh.

But this is what we did – and still do – with cannabis smokers in Malta.

By 2017, some prominent cannabis activists could tell the law just wasn’t enough. As countries like Canada and Uruguay fully legalised cannabis, using totally different models, it became clearer and clearer that Malta also needed to update its laws and take them into the modern age.

Once again, at the Moviment Graffitti premises in Strait Street, a meeting was held calling all prominent activists and others who cared for the cause.

At the time, there was a core group of activists and organisers working towards setting up an official lobby group; myself, Eric Castillo and Graziella Calleja. Eric, a web developer, was able to handle setting up a website and email; I was able to write a first draft for our eventual manifesto, and Graziella was able to handle overall operations as well as early media appearances.

Aside from ReLeaf, Dr Andrew Agius of the Pain Clinic was also working hard to show both his colleagues in the medical community as well as the wider country that cannabis had several positive benefits that could be utilised in a medical setting. He added medical expertise to the growing list of activists calling for change on the island.

During the first meeting, a new breed of younger activist showed up, activists that were still scared of going public, but more determined than ever to make something happen. In 2011, while we had united to call for justice, we weren’t too sure of what system needed to be put in place – but things had come a long way since then.

By 2017, we had a fully fledged, detailed manifesto bringing together the best elements of legalisation models from around the world. We had a very clear call – legalisation of up to 28g per person, and the allowance to grow six plants per household.

Weekly meetings started to be held, with many who were keen to be part of the process – including people who worked with the government – starting to show up.

Their presence at these meetings raised eyebrows, and they were immediately met with distrust by the rest of the activists.

But the discussion during those early months was very fruitful – cannabis users of all types, ages and creeds shared their visions for the island’s future.

Some people wanted full on commercialisation – some wanted Barcelona-style social clubs while others just wanted to grow some plants at home and be left alone.

Eventually, we settled on ReLeaf as a name, though some activists were worried that it would be mixed up with “government relief” – ie subsidies given to vulnerable families – in a Maltese context. Others wanted a more straightforward name, like ‘Bud Justice’ and others still wanted something global sounding, like Yes We Cannabis.

And soon afterwards, ReLeaf went public, launching our manifesto publicly during a rally outside Parliament in Valletta.

While not more than a couple hundred people attended that day, all of Malta’s media covered it, with online links to the manifesto being shared around.

More and more people were realising that sending young men and women to jail for consuming a plant was more than ridiculous – it was actively wasting human and financial resources, eroding faith in the authorities and leading thousands of people in Malta to continue to distrust police, instead of looking to them as allies.

ReLeaf grew exponentially, with more and more activists, both locally and from abroad, ready to work and dedicate time without any pay for the cause of a more just society. The group was also able to host some groundbreaking events, including a blistering talk from Canada’s so-called Prince Of Pot Marc Emery, something many never ever expected to see, in 2018.

That night, the halls in Strait Street were packed to the brim as more and more people tried to catch a glimpse of a man who has spent years fighting multiple countries’ justice system in his personal fight for legalisation.

The energy was electric.

Lobbying continued – we met with then-PN leader Adrian Delia, who was tentatively receptive to our arguments, but who, despite recounting some of his own experiences, did not seem to be too personally convinced.

Similarly, we met with then-Reforms Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli who didn’t seem to understand the cause so much, but seemed to generally agree.

I’ll never forget walking in to the first official meeting with Farrugia Portelli, stacked with studies from various universities and hospitals extolling the benefits of cannabis, ready to pitch legalisation to her, only for her to attempt to break the ice with a: “sorry, we don’t have any joints on the table”.

Maybe it was her attempt at showing us some positive vibes, but it landed badly, seemingly showing us how some people weren’t taking the serious criminal trauma the community was facing that seriously… they clearly had never experienced it. Having John Ellul – a former forensic officer – as her right hand man on this reform also added to the distrust at the time.

Lobbying continued though, with high-ranking politicians ready to meet and hear us out, and our talking points of harm reduction and personal use not leading to the sky falling in began to be heard.

ReLeaf met with then President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, who made it clear that she could never agree with any “form of drug” with her old-school background, but was sympathetic to the plight of young men and women being stigmatised for their cannabis use. ReLeaf began to be invited to the President’s Roundtable discussions.

There were several media appearances, including public debates with representatives from groups like Caritas. As incredible as their rehabilitation work is, the fact that these groups often focused on the worst case scenarios, never recognising the positive stories linked to cannabis, rubbed many activists the wrong way.

The fact that they also depended on addicts to continue providing services also meant there was a conflict of interest as far as them recognising the benefits of legalising the plant. But ReLeaf invited any and all thoughtful discussion, and to their credit, many people opposing legalisation kept to logical arguments, and did not try to scaremonger.

Public events were held as well, from indoor discussions, outdoor panel talks and even a party or two.

In 2017, ReLeaf met with Joseph Muscat, who was Prime Minister this time. The meeting was held in Castille, and the vibe was very different than the 2012 meeting in Muscat’s office as Opposition Leader.

This was following the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and Muscat was feeling major political pressure and facing serious allegations against him. The meeting’s tone was a bit tense, with Muscat explaining how the government would be able to know if anyone was cultivating large illegal grow rooms via their electricity output, and other tidbits showing that, at the very least Muscat was aware of some facets of the topic.

However, we butted heads on the fact that, at the time, major pharmaceutical companies were being wooed to the island to grow and produce cannabis medicines – all while Maltese citizens couldn’t even grow a personal plant.

More meetings were held with Malta’s third parties – Alternattiva Demokratika and Partit Demokratika – as well as various student groups, lawyer groups and even medical-based associations such as the Fibromyalgia Alliance.

The last Minister’s meeting I joined in an attempt to persuade was with Evarist Bartolo, who I can now say is way less smiley than he seems in public. We tried to explain to him how updated, modern education material on cannabis was sorely needed in our schools to inform youths

Andrew Bonello, a filmmaker and longtime cannabis activist dedicated to the cause (and someone who had been in the first meetings back in 2011 – he even shot and produced the YouTube video from the 2011 protest) took on the mantle of ReLeaf president, which he holds to this day.

Bonello continued to build momentum, meeting with MEPs and political leaders as well as talking at media events and public debates.

And it wasn’t just activists at this point – Lovin Malta has been very public in its call for a better justice system for cannabis users.

We joined Daniel Holmes on the day he was hurried onto a plane at 4am and booted out of the country, and went on to produce a documentary about his life and publish his tell-all memoir, which became a bestseller in Malta.

Earlier this year, we launched a nation-wide April Fools’ joke launching a cannabis social club called The Planting Authority. And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect – the government’s White Paper proposal was launched just days later, and it led to social clubs to be part of the national discussion.

Eventually, all three of the original founders of ReLeaf left the group for various reasons.

Either way though, not many could have expected to see the Labour Party call for full on legalisation in 2021.

Though the island had been heading in that direction for years (alongside more and more countries around the world), it is safe to say that no one really expected either Prime Minister Robert Abela or current Reforms Minister Owen Bonnici to have the political will to really and truly push for legalisation.

While Farrugia Portelli was in charge of the reform, it felt like it had been shelved. She was holding a seemingly endless “consultation period with various stakeholders”, but many could see she wasn’t the one that was going to make this historic change.

With activists feeling let down and suspecting that Labour was only paying lip service to the cannabis community, the young – and controversial – MP Rosianne Cutajar was put in charge of the reform in early 2020 and, to her credit, immediately set out to revive the process.

Cutajar moved fast, and did things no one really expected from a local politician, even sending out the Maltese government’s first-ever 4/20 message. Some people might have thought it was cheesy, maybe even a vote-grab – but to the people hidden in the shadows, it meant the world.

Though she was much more in tune with a modern approach to regulation, there were a number of facets – things like expungement of criminal records for simple possession – that she wasn’t too aware of, but was keen to learn.

Indeed, the proposed reform by the government, which was spearheaded by Cutajar and a brilliant team of young legal analysts and advisors, features everything from expungement to a number of proposals ReLeaf pushed for back in 2017.

As it stands, unless Luxembourg or Germany beat Malta to it, this tiny little Mediterranean island may be the first European nation to fully regulate cannabis.

Malta may truly be a pioneer in something.

Hearing both Bonnici’s and Abela’s passionate addresses in Parliament in defence of legalisation has galvanised Malta’s cannabis community like never before.

Heartbreakingly, the Nationalist Party has decided to take a confused Prohibitionist approach, which is doubly heartbreaking considering that their current strategist, Chris Peregin, was one of the first people to answer ReLeaf’s public call in 2017, joining our earliest meetings.

With a bill calling for legalisation of up to 7g and the right to grow up to four plants in one’s household currently set to go to the committee stage in Parliament, Malta may truly be on the cusp of a historic moment.

However, we are not there just yet.

The thousands of people who hid in the shadows all these years, the young activists who gave hours upon hours of their time organising and lobbying behind the scenes, and the estimated 40,000 cannabis smokers in Malta are still waiting for Malta’s leaders to recognise them, validate them, and finally, after all this time, tell them with their hands on their hearts: “you are not criminals, but welcome members of Maltese society”.