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In first for Europe, Malta to legalize recreational marijuana, with several other countries on the cusp

Strains of cannabis for sale at a dispensary in Oakland, Calif. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Malta is set to become the first country in Europe to legalize the cultivation and consumption of marijuana for recreational use, in a bill that goes before parliament Tuesday and is widely expected to be enacted by the end of the week.

The European Union’s smallest member will just edge past Luxembourg, which has approved but not yet implemented legislation to legalize growing cannabis plants, and Germany, where a new government has pledged to legalize marijuana consumption in licensed stores.

The move comes amid a global shift toward local and nationwide decriminalization, and in some cases legalization, of the cultivation, sale and consumption of cannabis.

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Uruguay was the world’s first country to legalize the production and sale of marijuana, in 2013. In the years since, countries including Canada and Morocco have created their own legal cannabis markets.

In Europe, the Netherlands was the first to permit the selling, buying and use of marijuana in shops, though cultivation of the plant remains illegal. Some European countries and 18 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., have enacted various laws to decriminalize the sale and consumption of cannabis, or in the case of some U.S. states, to legalize it even as it remains illegal under federal law.

Advocates say regulating cannabis is beneficial for both public health and the economy, as it formalizes an illicit and lucrative trade and reduces consumer risks and incarceration rates. Critics cite marijuana’s psychoactive properties and a moral opposition to legalizing drugs.

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Under Malta’s bill, people 18 and older will be allowed to possess up to seven grams of marijuana and to grow up to four cannabis plants, as well as store up to 50 grams of dried leaves. Anyone caught possessing up to 28 grams will be fined around $55 to $115 but will not have the offense on their criminal record.

Consuming cannabis in front of a child, however, will incur a fine ranging from $340 to $565. People younger than 18 caught possessing cannabis will not be arrested but will instead be sent to a judicial commission that will recommend a care plan.

“There is a wave of understanding now that the hard-fist approach against cannabis users was disproportionate, unjust and it was rendering a lot of suffering to people who are leading exemplary lives,” Maltese politician Owen Bonnici told the Guardian. “But the fact that they make use on a personal basis of cannabis is putting them in the jaws of criminality.”

Malta legalized divorce in 2011 and remains the European Union’s only country to entirely ban abortions.

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Cannabis is Europe’s most commonly used illicit drug, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). Last December, the United Nations removed it from a list of the most dangerous drugs, citing its medicinal uses.

“The transatlantic winds of change that have been blowing in the Americas for a while have now reached the shores in Europe,” Tom Blickman of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute told a webinar hosted by EMCDDA in October. There’s growing consensus, he said, of a need to “take back control of an illicit and criminal market that in fact is out of control in terms of protecting public health.”

Similar to the way cannabis regulations vary among U.S. states, Blickman said, Europe’s laws have likewise developed along “what fits best for local circumstances or national circumstances.”

But, he cautioned, laws on both the European and international level that continue to class cannabis as an illicit substance could at some point clash with country-level efforts to legalize it.

The question, he said, is “how can we best manage this process so that the wide diversity of Europe is respected.”

Karen Mamo, an addiction researcher in Malta, said that among the country’s challenges is preventing “corporate takeover” of the recreational cannabis market and regulatory system.

“We could end up with another alcohol and tobacco industry creating much more, even bigger, challenges than the actual cannabis,” she said.

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