Italian Cannabis Decriminalization Initiative Pushes the Envelope on European Cannabis Reform
Advocates make their voices heard gathering a half a million signatures.
In late September, Italian activists scored a huge win for the global cannabis reform movement after they managed to gain half a million signatories for Referendum Cannabis Legale, a ballot initiative which, if passed would decriminalize the possession and use of cannabis throughout the country. While Italy has seen several waves of progress and retrenchment with cannabis legalization over the years, the referendum would mark a bold leap forward. Having a medical cannabis industry that admittedly cannot provide enough cannabis for its growing user base and an embattled grey-area “cannabis light” market, the move could give the country one of the most most open cannabis policies in the EU.
Referendum Cannabis Legale benefitted from the passage of a recent law in the country that allows for the collection of signatures to be conducted online. By the time the referendum reached its deadline, initially slated for the end of September but extended to October 4th, the referendum had reached 604,000 signatures. This leaves just the country’s two federal court systems to sign off on the petition and Italian President Sergio Mattarelli to schedule a date next year for the referendum to be voted upon.
When last polled, the Italian public was apparently split on overall legalization of substances, which include cannabis, with 47.8% saying yes and 52.2% just saying no. This is reflected in the legal tug of war which cannabis has faced over the past 30 years. An earlier referendum in 1993 decriminalized cannabis just three years after the passage of the Jervolino-Vassalli law enabled a seven-to-20 year sentence for simple possession. In 2006, the pendulum swung back again with the passage of “Fini-Giovardini,” which extended sentencing for cannabis. This law was stricken down as unconstitutional by the court.
However, one year after Fini-Giovardini, medical cannabis was legalized. In 2016, industrial hemp with 0.6% THC was also revived by the state. However, this law’s passage said nothing about the purchase or use of flower from such plants, leading to the birth of the “cannabis light” market. Stores and brands selling cannabis strictly for “collectors” instructed users not to eat or smoke the flower, but those who did anyway continued to flock to the market. In the meantime, medical cannabis demand far outstrips the ability of the country’s lone legal cultivator, the Military Chemical Pharmaceutical Plant, to meet. Imports from Canada and the Netherlands attempt to cover the shortage, but scarcity occasionally occurs. An estimated 1000 cannabis light stores still operate throughout Italy, despite periodic attempts to shut them down. And one of Italy’s court systems, the Court of Cassations ruled in 2019 that at-home cultivation in small quantities would be allowed.
However, the Referendum Cannabis Legale would delete entire laws surrounding most cannabis-based activity. Moreover, it also removes similar laws around psilocybin mushrooms, which brings the referendum in sync with similar psychedelic decriminalization initiatives underway in the US and Canada. However, the only sort of substance legalized would be the plant or fungi themselves — manufacturing would still be against the law. Not unlike the Mexican Supreme Court’s nullification of cannabis prohibition, it would be up to the Italian government to craft laws and regulations around any resultant industry that would erupt in the wake of the referendum’s passage. Importantly, intoxicated driving would continue to be illegal.
An estimated 6 million of Italy’s 60 million citizens use cannabis, and the market has been estimated by drug reform project/Referendum Cannabis Legale supporter Meglio Legale at €8 billion. Underground sales are dominated by the Mafia, which makes a reported €32 billion off of narcotic sales in general. Referendum Cannabis Legale frequently promotes their referendum as a means of undercutting the power or organized crime. “The majority of Italians want legal cannabis and Italy free of Mafias [sic],” declared a post on Referendum Cannabis’s page in October. For now, momentum appears to be on their side — a poll conducted by Sondaggi Bidimedia found 57% in favor of the referendum. Earlier in September, a bill in Italy’s Lower House was introduced to formally decriminalize home cultivation.
Still, there is a strong conservative sentiment in Italy which will campaign against the referendum. Former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who during his time in office aggressively pursued cannabis light entrepreneurs, has been particularly outspoken. A divide comparable to a rift in the US between progressive younger voters and older conservatives on cannabis also exists in Italy, but it’s far starker. The gap between Salvini’s Northern League and the progressive Social Democrats stands at 60%, versus the 25% between Democrats and Republicans found by Pew Research.
However, the referendum campaign countered with some statistics of their own: 58% in favor of legalization, which jumped up to 65% amongst voters who considered themselves well-informed on the issue, suggesting that from here on out, it’s all about the messaging. It will surely be interesting to watch Italy’s approach evolve..