A view of the Maltese House of Parliament, where lawmakers are set to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis, Valletta, Malta. 

Malta just legalized recreational cannabis. Will other European countries follow? 

Malta is the first European country to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis. Germany and Luxembourg are likely to follow suit, but it's a far cry from the liberal Canadian model.

The World

A view of the Maltese House of Parliament, where lawmakers are set to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis, Valletta, Malta. 

Rene Rossignaud/AP

Andrew Bonello has been campaigning to legalize cannabis in Malta for over a decade. As president of the pro-cannabis reform group ReLeaf Malta, he’s been pressuring the Maltese government to change its strict cannabis laws mainly through Facebook appeals and protests since 2011. 

This past week, Bonello joined a small group of cannabis supporters outside Parliament and cheered as Malta’s government passed a bill legalizing the drug for recreational use. For Bonello, it’s personal — some of his friends have been imprisoned under Malta’s previously strict drug laws.

Related: Thailand legalizes kratom, a mild narcotic leaf

“Unfortunately, I've had people ending up sometimes even in jail, just for cultivating a couple of plants."

Andrew Bonello, president, ReLeaf Malta

“Unfortunately, I've had people ending up sometimes even in jail just for cultivating a couple of plants,” he said.

The bill is far from the liberal model seen in Canada or Uruguay, where cannabis is broadly legal. And it’s yet unclear whether other European countries will follow suit. 

Related: Move over gummy bears. Soon, you can drink weed in Canada.

Under the new Malta law, a person will be allowed to carry a maximum of 7 grams of cannabis and grow up to four plants, but smoking a joint in public remains illegal. And smoking weed in front of children can warrant a fine of up to $560 fine. 

The new bill also means that anyone with a criminal record for cannabis possession can now apply to have that struck off the record. Malta’s equality minister, Owen Bonnici, who promoted the bill in Parliament, said he hopes the law will reduce criminal trafficking of the drug.

“We are going to curb drug trafficking by making sure that people who use cannabis now have a safe and regularized doorway from where they can obtain it.”

Owen Bonnici, equality minister, Malta

“We are going to curb drug trafficking by making sure that people who use cannabis now have a safe and regularized doorway from where they can obtain it.”

Bonello said nobody knows if the police are actually going to impose the new rules, however. 

“We have tried to meet with the police commissioner. But unfortunately, they didn't accept the request to meet. So, we're just going to have to see how this pans out.”

The bill passed in Parliament by 36 votes to 27. Medical associations, educational groups and several church-led nongovernmental organizations signed a petition last weekend, appealing to lawmakers to alter the bill. 

They said they worry about the medical and psychological effects of the drug and believe that legalizing it will increase demand.

Opponents also fear that Malta could become a tourism hub for weed lovers, a little like Amsterdam. 

Related: Amsterdam officials move to ban tourists from its cannabis cafés

Dutch criminologist Robin Hofmann at Maastricht University in the Netherlands said he understands their concerns. 

Cannabis tourism has been an issue in the Netherlands for years following the liberalization of the use of marijuana in the mid-'70s. Dutch authorities have since introduced rules to try and crack down on tourists coming solely to buy weed, by demanding that only those with a resident’s permit can purchase the drug. But Hofmann said people have figured out workarounds. 

Hofmann sees Malta’s new law as “legalization-light” but added that the Dutch model is not one that he would recommend. In the Netherlands, cannabis use is tolerated but not actually legal. Coffee shops can sell weed but it’s illegal to buy it in large quantities. The system is commonly known as the “back-door problem,” where cannabis is sold legally out the front door and bought illegally through the back door.

And it’s led to a serious crime problem. Hofmann said organized gangs in Morocco and Turkey capitalized on the lax laws in the Netherlands in the 1990s and set up export routes to traffic drugs to Dutch cities. But cocaine soon became the drug of choice, and now, Hoffman said the Netherlands is effectively “the cocaine capital of Europe.” 

“Most of the cocaine that is consumed in Europe comes through the Netherlands,” he said. 

In the south of the Netherlands, Hofmann said, the province of Limburg is something like “the Silicon Valley of ecstasy production.”

Related: Amid narcotics reform, Thai cooks replace MSG with cannabis

Other EU countries are watching the Malta example closely. 

Germany’s new government has promised to legalize recreational cannabis. In October, Luxembourg announced plans to legalize the growing and use of cannabis at home. 

In Italy, a referendum on legalization is planned for next year although it faces strong opposition from right-wing parties. 

But Hofmann said European countries need to be mindful of both EU and international law. European law does not allow for the kind of legalization permitted in Canada, for example. It is still seen as a forbidden substance under EU rules Hofmann said, and it’s very much treated as such.

Related: Thailand approves medical pot in small step away from US-backed drug war

"All the EU law, when you look at it, is quite repressive; references to cannabis are all about organized crime and law enforcement.”

Robin Hofmann, professor, Maastricht University, Netherlands

"All the EU law, when you look at it, is quite repressive; references to cannabis are all about organized crime and law enforcement.”

In spite of the German government’s promise to legalize weed, Hofmann said it is much more likely any changes to German law will be akin to the Maltese model.

In Malta, the new law allows for the creation of cannabis associations, so people unable to grow their own plants can buy their supply from them. The clubs must be run as nonprofits, can only have 500 members and cannot advertise their services. 

A more relaxed approach would mean changing EU law. Hofmann said while Germany and some other western EU countries might be interested in reviewing the legislation, the majority of  the bloc’s member states are unlikely to be interested in altering the law. 

Some European countries even appear to be taking a harder line on the drug.

In Britain, which is no longer part of the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen as broadly against legalizing any drugs. Earlier this month, Johnson donned a police uniform and joined an early morning drug raid in Liverpool, with TV cameras in tow. He told reporters that the government planned to crack down not just on drug dealers but recreational users, too.

"We're looking at doing things to tackle those so-called lifestyle drug users who don't think that they're part of the problem. In the end, the demand is helping to create the problem,” the prime minister said.

Britain’s policing minister, Kit Malthouse, was asked his opinion on smoking weed in a recent UK radio interview. Malthouse said he had never seen anyone smoke a joint at a dinner party and if he did, he would report them to the police.

Malta’s President George Vella is set to sign the new bill into law this weekend, which means next week, the EU’s smallest country will become the first place on the continent where recreational use of weed is now legal. 

Just don’t smoke it in public.