Supreme Court changes cannabis rules in Italy

Confusion has swept across Italy as the nation’s Supreme Court ruled that growing cannabis for personal consumption is now legal – a direct contradiction to a law that was introduced in the 1990s.

The landmark ruling came after a case involving an Italian man who was being prosecuted for having two cannabis plants in his home, although he was eventually given not guilty by the judge as “growing small amounts of cannabis domestically for the exclusive use of the grower” is no longer illegal.

This case is one of many involving small-scale cultivation of cannabis, which has left a sense of bewilderment among the public who are still in the dark over how many plants can be grown legally.

Matteo Mantero, a senator from the co-ruling 5-star Movement, said: “The court has opened the way, now it’s up to us.”

Italy’s parliament attempted to shed light on the legal grey area by voting for a motion that would have seen tobacconists become eligible to sell a weaker form of cannabis, but this was eventually denied by the Italian Senate earlier this month.

Mantero presented an amendment to the 2020 budget that included the legalisation and regulation of cannabis following Canada’s model, but it was quickly dismissed by the senate speaker from Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia party.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League Party and former Interior Minister made his position clear on cannabis, stating that “drugs cause harm” and to “forget about growing them or buying them in shops”.

Cannabis light

In 2016 Italy legalised ‘cannabis light’, which was cannabis with a THC content between 0.2% and 0.6%. The revenue from the sector has surpassed €40 million and created hundreds of companies, although the Senate’s recent denial of an amendment is predicted to bring future innovation within the industry to a standstill.

“It’s the end of a nightmare,” Luca Fiorentino, founder of cannabis supply company Cannabidiol Distribution, told Italian daily paper La Stampa. “After Salvini’s witch hunt I had to fire 10 people and I lost 68 per cent of my revenues.”

A report last year found that Italy ranked third place within the European Union in terms of cannabis use and a 2015 poll found that a high 83% of Italian citizens think the law prohibiting soft drugs such as cannabis is ineffective. 73% were also deemed to be in favour of completely legal cannabis.

From 2006 to 2014, a controversial and harsh law was upheld in Italy which refrained from distinguishing between hard and soft drugs, where those found in possession of cannabis or hashish would often be punished in the same manner as those in possession of heroin or cocaine.

The problematic Fini-Giovanardi law was originally passed by Silvio Berlusconi however it got subsequently struck down in 2014, as the constitutional court in Italy found that the law was “illegitimate” due to it being the primary cause of Italy suffering a severe prison overcrowding problem.

Overcrowded prisons

At the time, Italian jails were the most crowded in Europe with around 40 percent of all inmates serving sentences for drug crimes as well as approximately 62,000 detainees being squeezed into cell blocks initially built to hold fewer than 48,000 people.

Since the law was struck down, Italy has returned to the original regulations they had previously utilised, which impose lighter sanctions for cannabis and hashish related crimes such as two to six years for cultivation, as opposed to the lengthy six to 20 years under the Fini-Giovanardi law.

At the time, Franco Corleone from the human rights group Society of Reason said: “The so-called war as conceived in North America has been lost and it’s time to return to rational rules that distinguish between substances”.

Many of the political parties in Italy are inherently split on the topic of cannabis, with legislation having been put forward a number of times after pointing out the failure of reducing cannabis consumption despite prohibition, along with the idea that regulation of cannabis would allow for police and courts to utilise their limited resources elsewhere and to reduce the black market.

No concerns for hemp industry

While the cannabis industry in Italy remains steeped in uncertainty, the hemp industry continues to thrive as a result of the ideal growing climate.

Italian farmers were facing a crisis in 2016 amid low wheat prices and big companies beginning to import grain instead of purchasing it locally. However, hemp cultivation was legalised and as a result a large number of farmers cashed in on the industrious plant.

“The boom in the production of hemp is an excellent example of the ability of agricultural firms to discover new frontiers,” said Roberto Moncalvo, the president of Coldiretti – Italy’s largest farmers’ association.

“We are in the middle of an opportunity for economic and employment growth.”

The amount of agricultural land devoted to hemp cultivation in Italy has soared from 400 hectares in 2013 to 4,000 hectares in 2018, with innovative products being developed from the multifaceted crop such as hemp ricotta, hemp pasta, hemp biscuits and environmentally friendly bricks.

Even companies from the UK and across Europe began to flock to Italy to grow hemp, with the likes of Mirror Farm setting up shop in Italy to grow saffron and citrus alongside industrial hemp.

As well as being an incredibly sustainable crop as it doesn’t need much water or pesticides in the cultivation process, hemp also yields a much higher end value than the majority of alternative crops, especially in Italy where it can generate net earnings in excess of €2,500 per hectare in comparison to wheat, which can yield around €250 per hectare.

A worrying concern for the farmers in Italy has been the monocultural wheat cultivation, which has ultimately led to soil erosion and is a potential risk for making the land irreparably infertile.

Switching to hemp alleviates the risk of soil erosion due to the plant’s ability to return 60 to 70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil. Its nickname ‘weed’ is fitting from an agricultural outlook as the plant acts similarly to a common weed and grows prolifically without much water. The hemp plant is also completely biodegradable, and acts as a carbon store in which it absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide.