Is Italy The Next Frontier For Legal Cannabis?

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One of the most interesting, relevant and perhaps shocking places to study cannabis is Italy. Mostly known for other crops like tomato and olive, Italy was actually one of the world’s top cannabis producers in the first half of the 1900’s. Cannabis has served many roles through Italy’s recent history: as a centerpiece of a thriving industry, as an illegally trafficked narcotic, and as a consumable product used both medically and recreationally. Cannabis was widely grown as an industrial crop used in everything from ropes and rigging, to sails for ships, clothing, bedding, and other commercial applications. It was also grown to be consumed recreationally and had thriving domestic and international industries that contributed to trade. North African, Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Western European countries all took part in Italy’s cannabis trade.

The last half of the 20th century saw the growth of synthetic materials that undercut the industrial hemp industry and a wrath of prohibitionist legislation that prevented consumers from the access to recreational cannabis they were used to. As Italy moved into the 21st century a series of new legislative measures from the Italian government over the years have created conflicting approaches that often alternated between heavy and light enforcement. And often with conflicting results.

Twenty-three percent of teenagers between fifteen and 19 admitted to using cannabis, according to Italy’s Department of Antidrug Policies. Police admit to only seizing a fraction of what’s traded illegally. The rest enriches organized crime families, which see an estimated 70 percent of their profits come from drug trafficking. A repercussion of Italy’s geographic location combined with a poorly structured legal cannabis market.

Yet, a legal industry does persist. A shining example can be found in fields near Castiglione d'Otranto, in Apulia. There, young farmers say they prefer to live off their land by growing cannabis rather than seeking higher-paying jobs in cities. The farmers here supply medical marijuana to patients using marijuana to cure their illnesses. As the cannabis culture has shifted globally to a more accepting environment, so to do local associations here advocate for less regulations. Their goal is two-fold. Less regulations would allow cannabis prices to fall, which would not only benefit consumers of medical marijuana, but would also compete with the black market pricing – hurting cartels and mafia families in the process.

“In Italy, while it’s legal to buy marijuana in drugstores with a prescription, too much regulation often leads to spiking prices, and many see the black market or simply growing it themselves as more affordable. Andrea Trisciuoglio, a 38-year-old with multiple sclerosis, had tried different treatments for years; but since he started using marijuana 10 years ago, he’s been able to walk again. Alberico Nobile, 36, affected by quadriplegia since age 15, needs marijuana every other hour. Trisciouglio started an advocacy group LapianTiamo to push for easier access for private medical use and to publicly correct misconceptions of the drug” claims an excerpt from National Geographic.

Despite the spirited and somewhat rebellious farmers of Apulia, most of Italy’s medical marijuana is imported from The Netherlands. It is available from authorized pharmacies for patients holding valid prescriptions. This import model, combined with internal regulations, creates prices of 38 euros per gram – which is almost ten times as much as marijuana bought illegally on the street.

To provide a little more insight into the type of confusion the government helps create, let’s digest just the recent history of Italy’s possession laws. Currently, Cannabis is decriminalized for personal use, so getting caught with a small amount leads to a fine or citation. In 1990, the Iervolino-Vassalli law defined non-criminal penalities for ‘soft’ drugs including cannabis, mirroring todays laws. Then in 1993, the Italian public voted by referendum for the decriminalization of personal possession of all drugs, further softening Italy’s possession laws..

In 2006, the passing of the Fini-Giovanardi law by Berlusconi’s government saw the distinction between hard and soft drugs abandoned (a direction that was clearly against the will of the majority of the public), and the penalties for soft drugs including cannabis increased in line with those for hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. In 2014, the Constitutional Court found that the Fini-Giovanardi law was unconstitutional, and the law reverted back to the older Iervolino-Vassalli legislation.

Still, recent times have seen a change in the wind for cannabis. A wind that may carry Italy past its ebb-and-flow past into being the first European nation to completely legalize marijuana. In July 2015, 218 Italian lawmakers from several political parties, both right- and left-leaning, signed a bill calling for full legalization of cannabis, allowing for recreational use, retail sales, possession of up to fifteen grams, establishment of social clubs, and cultivation in personal quantities. The bill is arguably the most progressive in the history of Italian drug legislation, and if passed, it would make Italy the second nation after Uruguay to legalize cannabis on a national level in the world.

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