Harm Reduction

Frequently asked questions

Chapter 628 Act to establish the Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) and to amend various laws relating to certain cannabis activities, enacted into law on 18th December 2021, has not legalised the use of cannabis in Malta. The partial Decriminalisation of Cannabis, and therefore the removal of criminal status for a certain behaviour or action was introduced to address the ‘unintended negative consequences’ caused by the criminalisation of cannabis and incarceration of innocent people who use cannabis. This does not mean that the use of cannabis is liberalised, or that the Maltese Government is promoting the use of cannabis. In fact, non-criminal penalties may still be applied.

These changes build on the previous legislative changes introduced in 2015 under the Drug Dependence (Treatment not Imprisonment) Act whereby the possession of small quantities of drugs were depenalised. Depenalisation refers to the policy of closing a criminal case without proceeding towards punishment, and instead be diverted to appear in front of the Commissioner for Justice and sanctioned with a fine.

As part of its raison d’etre, the Authority is tasked with establishing and regulating an effective and efficient system that ensures the responsible use of cannabis for the purposes other than medical or scientific purposes, and to carry out work targeted at implementing harm reduction principles across the operational and technical framework establishing Not-for-Profit Organisations (“NPOs”) as Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations (“CHRAs”, “Associations”).

Acting both as regulator and educational hub, the Authority is tasked with developing a regulatory framework to establish a safe and regulated space where cannabis is produced and distributed amongst adult members registered in a centralised anonymised database. This safe and regulated space is created through the ARUC licensing process establishing Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations (CHRAs). These associations will be operating on a not-for-profit basis and prioritise a harm and risk reduction approach amongst their members. Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations will not be allowed to market their activities and registered members will join a closed space not accessible for non-registered members or tourists.

Malta has not legalised the use of Cannabis

What is partially decriminalised ?

Possessing up to 7 grams in public
Importing Cannabis seeds for personal use and cultivating up to 4 plants per household
Joining a Cannabis harm reduction association if you are 18 years and older
Possessing up to 50 grams of dried cannabis at home
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What is depenalised and carries a fine?

Possessing between 7 grams and 28 grams in public
Consumption of Cannabis in public
cultivating cannabis at home in a space visible by third parties
Consuming cannabis in the presence of minors
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What is a criminal offence and can land you in jail?

Possess more than 28 grams in public and more than 50 grams at home
Sharing or selling cannabis to others, especially to minors
Importing or exporting cannabis in any form
Driving a car or operating heavy machinery under the influence of cannabis
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Key Objectives of harm reduction principles

The safest way to consume cannabis is by not consuming cannabis at all. However, if you are over the age of 18 and decide to consume cannabis, the ARUC is here to encourage responsible use through non-judgmental educational tools and a commitment to social justice. Pertaining to a harm and risk reduction philosophy, therefore policies and practices aimed at promoting a human rights-based approach for people who use cannabis, ARUC issued on 23rd March a Directive on Harm Reduction Practices for Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations (CHRAs). Prioritising public health and the role of a democratic and bottom up-approach to the communal cultivation of cannabis, the Directive brings to the fore the relationship between regulation and the responsible use of mind-altering substances. Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations occupy a pivotal role to establish strong harm reduction protocols and a non-commercial approach, therefore one prioritising health before profit. This public health framework complements ARUC’s mission of transitioning cannabis policy from a predominantly  stigmatised and dehumanised environment towards a more inclusive and people centred approach.

As part of ARUC’s mandate to promote responsible cannabis use the Authority will be organising outreach and educational initiatives focused on health, social and legal risks associated with cannabis use. A multidisciplinary approach, therefore looking at the use of cannabis in society from a public health, human rights, sustainable development, and social justice lens, will further ensure the reform is not a standalone legislative act, but is also a comprehensive tool capable to positively impact human behaviour, practices, and risks.

Harm reduction originates in the late 1980s’ as a peer-led (people who use drugs) civil society reaction to the devastating effects caused by criminalisation of paraphernalia, such as safe injecting equipment for people using heroin. Politics focused on criminalisation had a direct impact on the surge of HIV infections and other blood borne diseases. Through the distribution of free syringes and other services such as access to Safe Consumption Rooms, harm reduction establishes itself as an important tool to mitigate health, social and legal risks associated with illegal drug use. Harm Reduction aims to primarily promote the well-being of all, including of people who chose to consume mind-altering substances not approved by society, and have no intention to stop.

In the year 2023, Harm Reduction principles, and different levels of decriminalised models have been introduced in more than 45 jurisdictions around the globe. Furthermore, various countries continued to introduce a regulated framework for the non-medical use of cannabis. To mention just a few, Uruguay, Canada, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, and Malta.

By addressing not only health risks, but also the negative social and legal consequences associated with illicit drug use, drug policies and drug laws, Harm Reduction works with people who use drugs, without promoting drug use, yet without the person needing to stop using the drug. Through a non-judgmental educational approach on the various risks associated with a particular drug, and tools to reduce the negative impact caused by the illegality of drugs (drug testing, safe consumption rooms, decriminalisation, reduction of people in the criminal justice system), harm reduction aims to promote a humane environment and truly leave no one behind

These two terms continue to prop up in different contexts, yet only few stakeholders have recognised the gravity of using a racially motivated term such as black market. In view of the historical injustices levied against certain groups, and the documented reality of racial inequality still present in most societies, the use of neutral language, such as illegal or unregulated market would further promote dignity and respect for all members of society (Packer, 2023).

People under the age of 18 should not consume cannabis or any other mind-altering substances, such as alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. Minors will not be allowed to join Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations. Consuming similar substances before the age of 25 carries increased risks for your health and general well-being. Legislative changes tolerating the consumption, cultivation and possession of cannabis for non-medical purposes are not intended for people under the age of 18. Nonetheless, the law included provisions to divert minors caught with cannabis from the criminal justice system to educational and social services. Although breaking the law, any minor caught with cannabis amounting below 28 grams will not be immediately considered as a criminal.

The ARUC, together with other governmental and non-governmental organisations will also develop preventive messages to discourage the use of cannabis, and for those already using cannabis to seek less risky consumption methods and practices. Through the Directive on Harm Reduction, ARUC is from the beginning promoting the responsible use of cannabis amongst vulnerable groups, such as young adults. In fact, people between 18 and 21 years old, are being advised to consume cannabis with a THC percentage of less than 15% and will not be allowed to obtain cannabis with a THC percentage higher than 18%.

The function and purpose of Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations in Malta have been modelled on the core principles of harm and risk reduction. Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations are required to produce cannabis products which are rigorously tested to ensure that they do not contain any microbiological or chemical contaminants (including the ill practice of using Plant Growth Regulators). This will ensure that users are not sold harmful products found in the illicit market, such as synthetic cannabis or low potency cannabis sprayed with synthetic THC. Therefore, without promoting drug use, the establishment of a regulated framework for cannabis will be pivotal to bridge dialogue between cannabis consumers. Furthermore, better investigative tools on local trends and practices will further guide the development of evidence-based research protocols and policy approaches.

The tracking of the whole activity (seed to distribution) will avoid the potential for illicit trafficking of cannabis and diversion to non-registered members or the criminal world. Significantly, Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations will act as a safe space where to obtain cannabis and related health information.

Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations have several tools to implement a harm reduction approach, including educational activities organised at the distribution centre. Activities could range from the simple dissemination of health information to the realisation of regular talks and workshops aimed at promoting responsible cannabis use and sustainable cultivation practices. Information about the properties of different strains, including expected effects and how to prevent risks will be imparted by trained employees working within Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations. Pertaining to the core purpose of establishing a communal and safe space from where to obtain cannabis, therefore ensuring the social space acts as a protective factor for people who use cannabis, harm reduction messages will also be conscious and adapted to the necessities of different persons. In turn, such environment facilitates the exchange of experiences without the fear of criminal consequences and in turn promote the development of a less stigmatised society. The ARUC is presently developing comprehensive harm reduction training and certification process for prospective founders and workers of CHRAs.

Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations will not be funded by the Maltese Government and need to operate on a non-profit basis; surplus income may only be used for the association’s needs. Associations are bound by legislation to ensure the democratic participation of all members. Therefore, each association is required to organise a yearly general assembly where members elect the administrators of the association and vote on a number of agenda items linked with the operations, finances and goals of the association. The ARUC will oversee the entire operations of Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations. Detailed three-year financial forecasts, including income and expenditure, balance sheet and cash flows statements, details of the projected income to be generated by the association, which shall include membership fees and prices of the various cannabis species and phytocannabinoid profiles that shall be distributed, including details of workings and key assumptions relevant to the projected financial forecasts are part of the requirements to obtain a license.

ARUC has also introduced a harm reduction contribution equivalent to five percent (5%) of the income that is generated by the associations and a yearly community projects contribution equivalent to ten percent (10%) of the amount of retained earnings recorded on the association’s audited financial statement. These contributions will help ARUC develop various initiatives promoting health, environmental sustainability, and social justice.

Prospective members of Cannabis Harm Reduction Associations will enrol with an association through an anonymous centralised IT System which will ensure people are not registered in more than one association. Not allowing membership in more than one association promotes responsible use and a more conscious approach to cannabis consumption. Member’s data will be protected against potential diversion to third parties and ARUC will not have access to any personal data. Information collected by ARUC will only be related to consumption trends and patterns, and used for research purposes only. More information on the registration process, including how to resign from an association and enrol with a new association will be made available in this space at a later stage.

Social equity and cannabis reform

Communities Disproportionately impacted by prohibition are important to be identified and included within drug policy reform rooted in social justice and human rights. By looking at the geographical area where arrests or raids are most common, including information if the offence amounted to personal possession or trafficking, could better highlight the nexus between structural violence and institutionalised tools of persecution. Studies from the USA highlight that reduced lifetime earnings resulting from conviction for cannabis related offences have been disproportionately borne by those already living in poverty, further increasing disparities between different groups. Secondary costs of involvement in the criminal justice system such as the earnings lost by a family when a parent must leave work to care for a child while the other parent is in prison, the money spent on court costs and criminal justice debt, and costs of private lawyers (Office of Cannabis Management, New York 2021).

A commitment to equity is acknowledging that there are communities that have been historically marginalised and harmed. While diversity guarantees the presence of various identities at the table, equity considers and provides the support needed to foster inclusive participation. Considering intersectionality, and therefore multiple identities harboured by each individual (ethnicity, race, age, culture, gender, religion, sexual orientation) provides a better understanding how personal and community experiences with cannabis differ and how broader structural and institutional forces hinder or facilitate access to the cannabis licensing process. Therefore, creating a pathway for legacy operators (people who have been operating illegally) to transition to the regulated market has been identified as important to ensure cannabis reform fulfils social equity and social justice principles (Office of Cannabis Management, New York 2021).

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Further reading

If you wish to read more about the topics above click here