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Sitting just in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in-between Europe and Africa, Malta is exceptionally well positioned both geographically and politically to benefit from shifting trends opening up for medical cannabis progress. Alexandra Curley, Head of Insights at Prohibition Partners, talks to Business Malta about the island nation’s potential in medical cannabis, and the future she paints looks indeed rosy.

Dialogue on medical cannabis has sped up in recent years, many countries having already opened up or seriously planning to open up for utilising products from the plant for healing. Additionally, beyond the decriminalisaion of recreational usage, some countries are weighing the possibilities of legalising cannabis for leisure use. Cannabis has come a long way from being mentioned on the same page with hard drugs triggering life-long addiction and demise. Malta has been progressive about medical cannabis and could become one of the early starters in the field in Europe.

“Politically speaking, the country is in an advantageous position to develop a medicinal cannabis industry, particularly owing to the fact that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is a huge advocate both for medical and commercial purposes. He has expressed his support for Malta becoming a key regional producer — and exporter — of medical cannabis and the county’s trade routes, climate and regulatory infrastructure can support that,” Alexandra Curley, Head of Insights at Prohibition Partners, tells Business Malta.

Alexandra Curley, Head of Insights at Prohibition Partners.

Malta decriminalised the possession of small amounts of cannabis in 2015 and legalised medical cannabis in March 2018. In the past year, companies with expertise in medical cannabis have appeared to cast an eye on the island. A handful of them is already negotiating with Malta Enterprise, a government body responsible for assisting investors in the country, about grabbing a licence and setting up shop in here.

PM Muscat earlier said that “the current system favours criminals and it would be far better to have controls over its distribution”. His governing party expressed support for looking at legal models adopted by countries like Canada. Currently, medical cannabis cultivation for domestic consumption and for international exports is legalised in Malta.

Immense market

With a population of more than 740 million people — more than double of the United States and Canada together — Europe has a promising future in the upcoming years in terms of medical cannabis. “Over the last twelve months, the European cannabis industry has grown more than it has in the last six years,” Prohibition Partners says in its “The European Cannabis Report 2019 4th Edition”. Six countries have announced new legislation and over €500m has been invested in European cannabis businesses. “According to our findings, Europe’s cannabis market is estimated to be worth up to €123b by 2028 and will likely become the world’s largest legal market over the next five years,” the report says.

“According to our findings, Europe’s cannabis market is estimated to be worth up to €123b by 2028 and will likely become the world’s largest legal market over the next five years,”

The European Cannabis Report 2019 by Prohibition Partners says.

Prohibition Partners — founded in 2017 with a mission to open up the international cannabis industry through reliable data and intelligence — estimates the medicinal cannabis market to be worth €58b by 2028 and the recreational cannabis market to come around €65b by 2028, in Europe. This is the unfolding market that Malta is most likely to tap into.

“Malta sits in a highly-interesting and strategic position between Europe and Africa but as a European Union member state, Malta is likely to tap into the European market, which presents higher value growth opportunities for cannabis exporters,” Ms Curley tells BM. “Despite its geographical proximity to Africa, I think it is unlikely that Africa will become an export market for Malta. Cannabis, both recreationally and medically, is still illegal in the vast majority of Africa and the three nations with legal medical frameworks (Lesotho, Zimbabwe and South Africa) have plans to develop domestic markets,” she adds.

‘Progressive’ nation

As a member of the European Union, Malta is more likely to be producing cannabis to EU-GMP standards which could possibly give the country an advantage over products manufactured outside the bloc. The country appears to sport a promising future in this field, being one of the most forward-thinking nations in the European Union.

“Malta is definitely seen as progressive in relation to other EU countries. Obviously, all eyes are on the region’s leaders like the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, but Malta has passed legislation to decriminalise recreational cannabis and also promote a profitable and accessible medical cannabis industry,” Ms Curley says.

The legislative environment seems to have created a safety net for providing services to high standards. “The law is definitely less ambiguous than other countries who have begun the process of legalisation of cannabis — South Africa being a case in point, where key definitions are unclear around what constitutes personal use or private space. The Maltese regulations have been designed to ensure that standards are maintained, thus preserving the country’s ability to benefit financially from the industry, particularly with regard to employment, taxes and revenues. While the intent is there, Malta will need to sort out regulations for international export before they can be seen as regional heavyweights,” Ms Curley underscores.

“The Maltese regulations have been designed to ensure that standards are maintained, […however,] Malta will need to sort out regulations for international export before they can be seen as regional heavyweights,”

Alexandra Curley, Head of Insights at Prohibition Partners.

The paradigm shift has been quite fast in the past years; the legalisation of cannabis for medical use and decriminalisation of possession in small amounts for recreational use is a long way travelled. However, how likely could Malta open up for legalised and controlled recreational cannabis use, similarly to Canada and some states in the US?

“It is not unfeasible that this would be the case. When you examine other legal markets around the world, recreational cannabis can follow the legalisation of medicinal cannabis or the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use. It might not be in the next one or two years, but, it could happen in the mid-term. We would expect to see something of a snowball effect as other European countries start to legalise or decriminalise cannabis for recreational purposes,” Ms Curley says.

“Cannabis has already been decriminalised in Malta (2015) which means that possession is not a criminal offence, but there is still a long way to go to creating a regulated legal market. That said, Malta has been going through something of a renaissance of late, with the legalisation of same-sex marriage (2017) and updates to laws on IVF (2018). It is not out of the question that liberal political attitudes will also influence cannabis legislation too,” she concludes.