Italy’s Rocky Road From Harsh Prohibition to “Cannabis Light”

    According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 10 percent of Italian adults (age 15-64) reported using cannabis in 2017. Amongst young adults (age 15-34), over one in five did so.

    As these are self-reported data, the real figure is likely to be higher. And anyone who hangs out with Italian youth can understand that the 20 percent estimate is probably on the lower end of the scale. In the 1960s and ’70s, cannabis use amongst youth in Italy increased, and today it is still relatively high. As is so nearly everywhere, cannabis is the most used illegal drug.

    Like most countries, Italy has witnessed a dramatic shift on the issue of drugs in general and cannabis in particular over the course of the 20th century. At the beginning of the century, industrial hemp was not only commonplace and accepted, but accounted for a significant proportion of the country’s cultivated land.

    In 1940, 90,000 hectares in Italy were still dedicated to growing hemp—a larger area than is now cultivated in the whole world. The adoption of the 1961 Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs and the arrival of cheaper synthetic fabrics from the United States (like nylon) led to hemp’s progressive disappearance. Successive anti-drug laws have helped sideline this natural resource by criminalizing all “drugs” together, with little attention to the specifics of each.

    The first prohibitionist laws appeared in Italy in 1923, after the international Hague Convention, and over the years the situation worsened, as the US-led prohibitionist approach started dominating the UN and therefore the world.

    In 1990, to implement the ratification of the 1988 UN Convention and mimic the US War on Drugs,  Italy adopted one of the most prohibitionist and punitive drug laws in Europe, known as Jervolino-Vassalli. Sentences for personal possession could range from seven to 20 years in prison.

    Then in 1993, after a referendum promoted by the Radical Party, personal drug use was substantially decriminalized. Despite the lack of structural application of the changes to the law, this less harsh situation lasted until 2006, when a punitive law—dubbed Fini-Giovanardi after the two members of government who proposed it—introduced a series of new rules. These once again increased penalties, both criminal and administrative, for drug-related crimes—including possession. Most importantly, the law rescheduled cannabis, placing it in the “hard drugs” section.

    The government has refused to address legalization because the junior coalition partner—the far-right League—is staunchly opposed.

    That situation lasted until 2014, when the Fini-Giovanardi was struck down by the Constitutional Court—not for the disproportionality of the law, but because of the way in which it was adopted. To fill the void left by the judges’ decision, parliament made cannabis a Schedule II drug and significantly reduced penalties—de facto decriminalizing personal use.

    Currently, there are nine bills on cannabis legalization ready to be discussed by parliament, one of which is a “popular initiative.” But the government has so far refused to address the issue because the junior coalition partner (numerically, but arguably not politically)—the far-right League—is staunchly opposed to it.


    Access to Medical Cannabis

    Access to medical cannabis has been legal since 2007 and none of the five governments that have been formed since has changed the law.

    Following an initial period in which any general physician could prescribe cannabinoids for virtually any condition, after the patient was considered resistant to “traditional” medicines, since 2015 the conditions for which medical cannabis can be used have been identified. They include, for example: chronic pain and pain caused by multiple sclerosis and other diseases; side-effects (such as vomiting and nausea) of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and HIV treatment; and anorexia. Therapeutic applications also include its use as an appetite stimulant. The product is prescribed when standard therapies appear not to be working.

    Although imports have facilitated wider access, problems arising from international norms governing “controlled narcotics” have complicated matters for patients.

    In 2014, the Military Chemical and Pharmaceutical Institute in Florence was given an exclusive licence to produce cannabis flowers. The idea was to produce 300 kg per year after a 12-month pilot project. So far, the production rate is only about 100 kg per year.

    To meet growing demand, Italy imports cannabis from abroad—in particular the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Yet although the imports have facilitated wider access to medical cannabinoids, the high price and the bureaucratic problems arising from international norms governing the commerce of “controlled narcotics” have complicated matters for hundreds of patients.

    The 2017 national budget earmarked 2.3 million euros ($2.6 million) to enhance production in Florence, and 700,000 euros ($800,000) to increase imports—efforts to meet a national need officially estimated at over 1,000 kg per annum.

    On June 13 this year, the Ministry of Defense issued a call for the import of 400kg of cannabis, costing a total of over 1.5 million euros. Most of it (320kg) will be high-THC cannabis, in what could be a turning point, as it is reportedly the first time that Italy is openly dealing with such products. The rest will consist of a 40kg batch of high-CBD cannabis and a 40kg batch with equal amounts of THC and CBD. Technical specifications were published in English as well as Italian, testifying to the international scope of the enterprise. Another call to enhance national production of cannabis is expected to be issued in July.

    As the Italian National Health System is devolved to the regions, since 2012 some 15 regional administrations have adopted additional legislation to better specify who can prescribe cannabis and for what therapies, earmarking hundreds of thousands of euros to reimburse patients’ costs.

    Over the last few years, several regional councils have also expressed an interest in starting local production to meet the needs of their patients. The government has said that any future production, including by regions, will need to be distributed by the military facility in Florence.


    Cannabis Light

    In 2016, a law was adopted to re-legalize hemp. The new set of rules allowed, among other things, “cannabis light” (low-THC cannabis) to be produced. According to the law, products with up to 0.2 percent THC content can be sold only for “technical use” or “collection” purposes. But Law n. 242 of December 2, 2016 states that penalties for growers will only occur if the THC content is higher than 0.6 percent.

    The market for low-THC cannabis soon started thriving. In less than a year, an estimated 1,000 “cannabis light” shops opened throughout the country. Another 300 new ones opened in 2018. Estimates of the sector’s worth are difficult to make and vary according to the source—but around 150 million euros a year seems more-or-less the most plausible one.

    Pushback risks hurting legitimate entrepreneurial activities while benefiting organized crime.

    On May 30, however, the Cassation Court ruled that cannabis sativa L. products do not fall under the December 2016 law, unless it can be proven that they are in fact without “drugging effects” (i.e., if they contain under 0.5 percent THC).

    The spread of cannabis shops in Italy has severely damaged the illegal market; the latter is estimated to lose up to 200 million euros a year because of the “legal” cannabis industry.

    Pushback, whether politician- or court-induced, risks hurting legitimate entrepreneurial activities while benefiting organized crime.


    A slightly different version of this article was originally published by Talking Drugs, which covers international drug policy and is operated by the charity Release, the UK’s national center of expertise on drugs and drug law. Follow Talking Drugs on Facebook and Twitter.

    Photograph of pro-legalization graffiti in Venice by Giovanni Dall’Orto via Wikimedia Commons

    • Guido Long works as a program officer for Science for Democracy and the Associazione Luca Coscioni. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a master’s from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, where he wrote his thesis on drug legalization. He lives in Brussels.

      Marco Perduca (above), was a Senator in Italy from 2008 to 2013 and sat on the Foreign Affairs, Justice and Human Rights Committees. For the past 20 years has coordinated the activities of the Nonviolent Radical Party at the United Nations in New York, Geneva and Vienna, and organized high-level meetings to abolish the death penalty in Africa. His expertise is in UN mechanisms with an emphasis on drug policy reform. He lives in Rome.

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