Malta Hosts First Medicinal Cannabis Forum, Attracts Major Overseas Firms Eying Fast Route Into EU

Author: Mark Taylor

Malta is staking a claim to be the top European jurisdiction for medicinal cannabis research following a flurry of activity in recent weeks, capped off by the island’s first conference aimed at a global audience of investors, companies and international doctors.

The Medical Cannabis World Forum 2018 ran across November 20 and 21, featuring industry leaders, academics and researchers in the medical marijuana field, and even Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat.

“It is not by chance that you are gathered here,” the leader said in his keynote speech. “It is the right time. There are so many things happening here, finding fertile soil in Malta. This country is one shared office where businesses are working independently yet side by side.”

A week before the festival, one of the world’s largest medicinal cannabis firms, Columbia Care LLC, became the first US company to gain approval for a license by the Maltese government, allowing it import, export, cultivate, process and distribute medical cannabis.

It will also have the advantage of being able to access markets across the European Union where federal medical cannabis programs exist, without having to undergo costly regulation in each jurisdiction, due to the EU’s passporting regime for member states.

Other companies who have gone public with their plans in Malta include the Australian firm MGC Pharma and Canada’s Wayland (previously known as Maricann). There are six foreign  companies in total with licenses, which includes two other Canadian companies and another from Israel.

The EU’s single market of 500 million consumers dwarves both Canada and Australia, and is estimated at between $80-100 billion at maturity for legal cannabis.

Malta’s government told Cannabis Law Report that through Malta Enterprise, it’s economic development agency, 10 other projects have been approved with a total of €80 million (US$90.5 million) investment.

The man driving much of this is Minister for the Economy, Investment and Small Businesses, Dr Chris Cardona, having brought the legislative bill to Malta’s parliament in January 2018. Cardona said that the country is adamant about positioning itself as a centre of excellence with accountability and compliance being critical priorities.

“The prohibition and misinformation on the use of cannabis for medical reasons has overtime hindered substantive research,” he said in a statement. “Globally, we have only scratched the surface of its true potential and ramifications. The full industrialisation of medical cannabis is upon us.”

He said locally, the biggest mistake Malta can make is to underestimate the scale and the potential of the industry.

“We know the medicinal cannabis industry is only just coming of age, and we look forward to Malta playing a role in this industry’s future,” he said. “As we bury the stigma that is associated with cannabis, it’s going to be fascinating to see what comes next.”

In his keynote, Prime Minister Muscat echoed the line about the country’s reputation for innovation, as evidenced in its embracing of technologies such as blockchain, and defended its rapid enacting of the supportive medicinal cannabis laws following some domestic criticism.

While Malta legalised cannabis for medical use earlier this year there has been hesitancy in health circles amid confusion over how it would impact patients in other areas of their lives. Some prescribed marijuana as medication were told they would have their driving licenses suspended.

Pro-cannabis groups in Malta have also said amid the excitement there was still more to do to, and also called for a rethink of the country’s recreational laws.

“We are excited to see all of this happening in Malta,” said Graziella Calleja, co-founder of ReLeaf Malta, a domestic lobby group formed in 2017 to help guide the government. “However we have observed that this industry seems to be moving very fast,” she told Cannabis Law Report.

She said big companies “where capital doesn’t seem to be a problem” were closely stalking the jurisdiction, and warned there is a double edged sword in loudly promoting a sector still bound by draconian recreational use laws

A person caught with 3.5g of cannabis can be held for up to 48 hours by police, interrogated, arraigned to the Drugs Court and then fined. If they are caught a second time they are again arrested and taken to the Drugs Court Tribunal where a social worker is appointed to hold regular meetings with the accused and take urine tests to monitor their use.

A person caught with over 3.5g is immediately considered as a trafficker and faces jail time following prosecution in the Maltese Criminal Courts.

“This is what we are trying to change as we believe that these people are not criminals and do not belong in prison,” said Calleja. “Apart from the bad quality cannabis which you find in the black market which is more dangerous than the substance itself.”

As the European market shows signs of thaw, Malta faces competition from Jersey and the Isle of Man, two of the British Crown Dependencies in becoming the offshore locale of choice for US and Canadian firms. Both low-tax areas are renowned for their rapid turnaround of legislation and willingness to provide a base for firms in highly regulated sectors such as gambling to sell their wares into other areas of the EU.

Spain, Germany, Finland, the Czech Republic, Portugal, the Netherlands and Greece, and the UK have also legalised medicinal cannabis in some form or another.

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