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Will Italy’s new government embrace cannabis legalization?

Posted on September 18th, 2019 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

ItalyWith the fall of Italy’s far-right government, advocates are hoping the path may be cleared now for the country to become Europe's first to formally legalize cannabis. Meanwhile, thanks to a loophole in the law, low-THC varieties are sold openly in shops across the country. And Italy’s internal THC limit is actually slightly higher than the ultra-cautious European Union standard.

Matteo Salvini, Italy's far-right interior minister and de facto leader, was seen as the figure standing in the way of any progress toward cannabis legalization in the country. Now, following a government shake-up in late August, he is gone—and legalization advocates have been swift to react.

Enza Bruno Bossio, a lawmaker with the center-left Democratic Party, one of the two partners of the new coalition government, said last week that the way is now cleared to press the legalization question.

Hailing the end of what she called “salviniano obscurantism,” she said there may be sufficient “numbers in parliament” for a cannabis legalization law. "We can now open a discussion in the light of the new red and yellow majority," she said.

"Red" is a reference to her own party, while “yellow” refers to the fuzzy populists of the Five Star Movement, Salvini's former coalition partners—who remain the wild card on the issue. Five Star spoke initially spoke in favor of legalization, then flipped when it joined Salvini in power. It remains to be seen if the party will return to its libertarian roots, at least on this issue.

Futile efforts at clampdown
Italy’s right-wing governments have sought to tighten up a moderately tolerant cannabis policy since 1993, when Italian voters approved a referendum decriminalizing personal possession of all drugs. But cultivation and sale have remained criminal charges.

Italy's Constitutional Court in 2014 struck down a 2006 drug law that jacked up sentences for selling, cultivating or trafficking cannabis—from 2-4 years to 6-20.

But Salvini revived the clampdown effort upon taking power last June. This May, he blustered: "From today, I'll go to war on cannabis street by street, shop by shop, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city."

This was actually a reference to low-THC varieties, which are sold openly in shops across Italy—and don't get you high at all. Some smoke them for the CBD, others merely for the cachet of the experience.

The European Union actually has a 0.2% THC limit for legal hemp—lower than the 0.3% limit in the United States. But for internal use within Italy, Law 242 of 2016 establishes a 0.6% limit—still not enough for a psychoactive effect, but providing more flexibility in the available strains.

Days after Salvini's May proclamation, Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation, the highest judicial body in criminal cases, ruled that selling cannabis or its derivatives is illegal despite Law 242.

This was hailed as victory by Salvini. But he either didn't read the fine print, or was hoping that others wouldn't. The text of the ruling contained a clear exception for "agricultural" varieties, and "products that in practice have no drugging effect" (prodotti siano in concreto privi di efficacia drogante).

Contrary to the media buzz, the ruling actually didn't change a thing—and Italy's low-THC cannabis shops remain open. Some closed doors in response to Salvini's threats. But with his fall, they are now starting to re-open.

Cannabis in Calabria
The provincial city of Cosenza, in the southern region of Calabria, is hardly one of Italy's metropolitan centers. But the town has several low-THC cannabis shops.

cicileu

 

One of the most prominent is Cicileu, just a block off the Corso Mazzini, Cosenza's main drag and pedestrian mall. It opened in April 2018, taking its name from the slang word for getting high in regional dialect (celebrated in song by local reggae and rap bands)—even though the stuff on sale there doesn't actually get you high.

But beautiful and fragrant buds are in open display—each in a sealed package marked with the percentage of THC and CBD, all within legal limits. There is also a perfunctory note on the display cases saying that samples are for "collection" and "ornamental" use. There are also bottles of CBD-infused olive oil, wines and liqueurs, and packages of hemp pasta.

cannabis in cosenza

 

 Cicileu co-owner Antonio Agovino says wryly, "We can market it thanks to a legislative hole. There is no law that says you can sell it, but none that says that you can't."

He shut the store in the spring, amid Salvini's anti-cannabis thunder—and has now just re-opened it, at the same location.

Antonio Agovino

Agovino points with pride to a package marked "The Grandfather's Weed"—in fashionable English. The package also sports a portrait of a rustic-looking old farmer with an impish expression and an outsized moustache. This is actually Agovino's real grandfather, who grows the 0.2%-THC bud on his mountaintop farm.

Agovino says his nonno has been growing cannabis for the past four years on the lands passed down in his family for generations, in the mountains west of Cosenza. "Before that he was growing tomatoes, fruits, greens. But he smoked cannabis in Germany in his 20s, while working in a factory there."

Grandfather's weed

 

The store sells 20 varieties, all grown in Italy—five from Calabria, several from Umbria, in central Italy. High-CBD strains are now being cultivated throughout Italy—including in greenhouses in the north, where the growing season is shorter.

The seed must come from within the EU, and only some 50 strains are approved. "It can't even come from Switzerland," Agovino says. "And you can't cross genetics." But he says that low-THC varieties from Hungary produce higher THC levels in the better climate conditions of Calabria.

Even without much THC, in fact, Agovino says, "People buy it to relax, for insomnia, to relieve anxiety. Many adults come here to not have to buy from the underworld."

Italy has had a medical marijuana program since 2014, but it is very tightly controlled. The cannabis is grown by the military on a base near Florence, and registered users can only purchase one gram a month at a pharmacy. "So people have to go the street and buy illegal, because that's not enough," Agovino says.

Calabria's notorious crime machine, the 'Ndrangheta, used to grow lots of cannabis, but it largely switched to moving cocaine in the 1980s. Compacted illicit-market pot is now mostly coming in from Albania, across the Adriatic Sea, and Agovino says it is often adulterated with methadone.

But legal production of low-THC strains is taking root fast. "There's been a huge explosion of cultivation in Calabria this year," Agovino says.

And he's proud to be a part of the new economy. A former pipeline worker for Italy’s ENI oil company, Agovino says he is much happier now. "This is my dream since I was a teenager."

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Photos by Bill Weinberg

Map: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection 

 

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