Did Italy just Decriminalize Cannabis?

Italian cannabis activists have been on a roller coaster ride over the last month, as the country's legalization movement took an unexpected leap forward.

The confusion can be traced back to 2016, when the Italian Parliament passed a law making it legal for farmers to grow industrial hemp.

While the move was originally intended to help Italy's fledging hemp industry, a loophole in the law also allowed for the cultivation and sale of "cannabis light", which refers to any strain of the plant that contains less than 0.2% THC.

The change allowed for the subsequent development of a thriving industry of cannabis light shops, delivery services and even vending machines. However, this would all come crashing down in May 2019, when the Court of Cassation ruled that the sale of cannabis sativa derivatives was illegal in Italy.

The court's decision was the result of a protracted campaign by former Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who declared "war" on cannabis light retailers.

"I'm sorry for the jobs [lost], which I hope can be recovered elsewhere," Salvini said.

"But it sends a clear message and clarifies something obvious: drugs are dangerous and there are other ways to have fun."

While this was devasting news for retailers and cultivators—who have accused Salvini of leading a "witch hunt" against them—the battle was only just beginning for Italy's legal cannabis industry.

The situation would take another turn in December, after the Italian Government voted to legalize the production and sale of cannabis light, ending months of uncertainty. The amendment was approved by Parliament on 12 December and will allow tobacconists and specialized shops to sell cannabis products, as long as they contain less than 0.5 percent THC.

The decision was welcomed by Italy's agriculture association Coldiretti, while the founder of cannabis supply firm Cannabidiol Distribution, Luca Fiorentino, described the situation as "the end of a nightmare".

After Salvini's witch hunt I had to fire 10 people and I lost 68 percent of my revenues. Cannabidiol Distribution Founder, Luca Fiorentino

Unfortunately, at the last minute the President of the Italian Senate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati, blocked the legislation in a last-minute reversal of the bill just four days later. Casellati is a known supporter of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, however she claims that the change was made because the amendment is "inadmissible" due to legal issues, rather than being a politically motivated decision.

 "If you think this measure is so important for the majority, then propose a bill," Casellati said.

At this point, things seemed dire for Italy's legal cannabis industry, as the Senate also stated that the decision is unable to be appealed, leaving activists little recourse to challenge the ruling.

However, the situation took another shocking turn on 27 December, when the Italian Supreme Court ruled that small-scale cannabis cultivation for personal use is legal.

The judgement was made as part of a request for clarification on differing interpretations of the current narcotics control laws, which saw the court conclude that, "small amounts [of cannabis] grown domestically for the exclusive use of the grower" should be excluded from prosecution. 

The decision has already provoked calls for further legalization reforms, while also generating considerable controversy from drug dependency support organisations. The Court of Cassation has yet to issue an in-depth explanation of the logic behind the ruling—and is unlikely to do so for weeks or even months—which means at this time it is not currently clear what "small-scale cultivation" constitutes.

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A senator for the co-governing 5-Star Movement, Matteo Mantero, is expected to spearhead another campaign for the legalization of recreational cannabis use in Italy, after having previously tabled a similar amendment to the 2020 budget.

"The court has opened the way, now it's up to us," Mantero said.

But Mantero will be in for a tough fight, as Italy's conservative parties are still strongly opposed to the idea.

"Drugs cause harm, forget about growing them or buying them in shops," far-right League Party leader Matteo Salvini said.  

This sentiment was also echoed by senator Maurizio Gasparri from Silvio Berlusconi's conservative Forza Italia party, who stated that the coalition, "will cancel the absurd verdict of the court", if elected.

While it's still unclear how the situation will resolve itself, it seems clear that Italy is going to be blazing its own trail in 2020.

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Hugo Gray
Hugo Gray

Hugo Gray is a Melbourne-based journalist with a body of work that covers a diverse range of topics, including immigration law, sex technology, and now the rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

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