In 2014 Elia was 17 and living in a small town in northern Italy where everything runs slow. And running slowly everything was, until one day in October when officers detained him while he was biking to school, searched him and found .08 ounces of weed in his pocket.
Elia didn’t know it, but he was about to face a year-long ordeal.
The criminalization of so-called “soft drugs”—marijuana and its derivatives, such as hash—has a long history In Italy. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, Italy went from being one of the world’s top hemp producers to a country where hemp cultivation, possession, sale and use is severely sanctioned.
Because of a law called Fini-Giovanardi, between 2006 and 2014 Italian courts did not distinguish between “soft” and “hard” drugs when sanctioning drug-related charges. The recommended sentence for marijuana users and dealers was six to 20 years in prison.
“The officers told me, ‘a boy of your age … why don’t you go whoring instead of smoking joints?’”
Drugs in Italy are regulated by a law enacted in 1990—the Fini-Giovanardi law replaced it in 2006 and was ultimately defined as unconstitutional in 2014, leaving the original law in power once again. The culture of criminalization has remained deeply rooted in Italy’s national politics and its law enforcement.
“When they put me in the car to take me to the barracks, the officers told me, ‘a boy of your age … why don’t you go whoring instead of smoking joints?’” Elia said. “I was afraid.” Shortly afterwards he gave the officers all the drugs he had at home—about half an ounce of marijuana.
Elia was charged with dealing and sentenced to one year’s house arrest, during which police officers were free to inspect his home as often as they wished, at all hours of the day or night. He was forbidden to see friends or engage in social activities outside of school. After a few months, he was permitted to play recreational sports. He still felt lucky; he had been close to receiving a sentence that was much harsher.
One-third of the 60,000 people incarcerated in Italy are in prison on drug-related charges. In 2019 alone, police reported 41,744 Italians to the Prefect as drug users—78 percent of them for using marijuana or hash.
Drug prohibition has been estimated to cost Italy the equivalent of nearly $25 billion per year. That cost supports detention conditions that are “ineffective and repressive drug legislation, which is one of the main causes of entry and stay in prison,” according to a 2019 report published by the Associazione Antigone. The European Union has fined Italy many times for prison overcrowding, a violation of prisoners’ human rights. Much of the problem of prison overcrowding could be solved or largely alleviated by more liberal drug policy.
“The responsibility lies with a timid and bigoted political class.”
“Italy’s approach to drugs is completely anti-scientific and obtuse,” former Member of Parliament Rita Bernardini told Filter. Bernardini is a member of Italy’s left-leaning Radical Party, which has been fighting for decades for the legalization and regulation of all drugs.
According to Barnardini, decriminalization is broadly popular among Italians—just not the Italian government. “It is not a cultural issue of the country. The responsibility lies with a timid and bigoted political class.”
Even if Italian law provides no clear definition of “personal use,” the penalties for people charged with possession of drugs for personal use generally involve mandated counseling or perhaps passport suspension, while penalties for possession of drugs “for selling purposes” involve extended incarceration.
In 1993, the Radicals organized a popular referendum calling for the repeal of sentences for the personal use of drugs. The Radicals’ front won, and restrictions on personal use were repealed. But then the Fini-Giovanardi law pushed the country back into prohibition.
The only attempt to legalize any drug since then was a timid effort in 2016, when cultivation and marketing of so-called “light” cannabis—containing derisory amounts of THC—was allowed. Nevertheless, this legalization led to a boom in new shops dedicated to low-THC weed (0.6 percent), which often contains a high percentage of relaxing CBD (up to 15 percent).
This opening has largely failed to remove market slices from illegal cannabis, as evidenced by data provided by the National Drug Police. Bernardini described the 2016 law as an “unbelievable mockery” that had no material effect on the Italian prison system or the country at large.
“Italy has a great cannabis culture, but remains stifled by a stupid and prohibitionist approach.”
In October 2020, Health Minister Roberto Speranza signed a decree including CBD-based products in the national list of prohibited drugs—potentially disrupting the entire “light” cannabis supply chain—despite WHO’s recommendation that Italy recognize the medical properties of cannabis and not classify CBD-based products as narcotics. The decree was withdrawn shortly afterwards, largely thanks to pressures from two hemp groups.
“Although it had no effect, it was a maneuver that showed how difficult it is to do business in this country,” Riccardo Ricci, president of the Italian Cannabis light association, told Filter. “Italy has a great cannabis culture, but remains stifled by a stupid and prohibitionist approach, when it would be enough to copy laws already existing in countries like Canada or Switzerland.”
According to Ricci, the low-THC cannabis supply chain would benefit from legalizing marijuana and hash, as shops could also sell high-THC content products.
“I think it’s a matter of who the state wants to work. Legalization helps growers [and] transporters as well as professional, expert and well-informed sellers interested in providing a quality product,” Ricci said. “The problem to solve is therefore no longer cultural. It’s just that our state prefers ignoring traders and growers in favor of the overwhelming power of organized crime and the pharmaceutical companies.”