Italy Blazes a Trail for Legal European Weed
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Italy would be a great place to get the munchies.
By Nick Fouriezos
Europe has always been an unlikely advocate for pot reform — despite its liberal platforms toward social aid and welfare, most nations still hold surprisingly conservative views toward drugs and immigration. Globally, only one country — South America’s Uruguay — has permitted complete weed production and use, and a handful of others has allowed mere possession. Yet there’s reason to believe that the “forest of chestnuts” and “orchards of fruit trees” that Ernest Hemingway romantically described as the Italian front in A Farewell to Arms could become the fertile soil for the first fully legal green stuff in the Western world.
In July, 250 Italian lawmakers gave support to a heady proposal that would decriminalize every part of marijuana use, from production to consumption. The proposed legislation would let adults grow up to five plants in their homes and form cannabis clubs with up to 50 people growing as many as 250 plants. Rule breakers would face civil penalties, not jail time. The government would be responsible for large-scale production and sales of the resulting, um, product. “The time is ripe,” Marco Perduca, a former Italian senator and current United Nations representative for the Nonviolent Radical Party, told OZY. “There isn’t this skepticism of legalizing marijuana anymore.” More proof: In October, the draft bill was put on the agenda of the country’s Justice and Social Affairs committees, and even opposition groups have asked for a speedy procedure to start discussing it, a first for such legislation.
Could a purple haze soon supplant the Vatican’s white smoke as the most famous smog over Rome? Definitely maybe. According to a Council of Europe report, Italy’s jails were the second-most-crowded in the region, with 20,000 more prisoners than beds in 2012, a problem that could be eased if nonviolent drug offenders faced fines instead of handcuffs. Plus, with Italy’s debt last year at an all-time high of €2.2 trillion ($2.4 trillion), or 132 percent of its total gross domestic product, the green from state-controlled hemp sales is a pretty tempting chronic.
The bigger question is whether legalization stands any chance of spreading across Europe.
And there’s plenty of cash in kush. Just look stateside: Colorado sold almost $700 million of the good stuff in 2014, according to the mile-high state’s first annual report on the industry; it pulled in $76 million from taxes and new business licenses. Colorado has a population of about 5.5 million; Italy, 59 million. There were an estimated 2.3 million Italian drug consumers in 2012, according to an Anti-Drug Policy Department report to the Italian Parliament, and about 4 percent of Italians said they smoked weed in the previous year. That’s a lot of potential customers searching for some potent stuff, and there could be even more judging by other measures. In a 2011 survey, almost 9 percent of Italians said they toked the year before. One estimate claims that national revenue could rise 1.2 percent to 2.34 percent through legalization.
Medical marijuana was legalized in Italy in 2007, but those suffering from diseases like multiple sclerosis and glaucoma had to buy expensive bud from afar. Most just opted to purchase it illegally from street dealers instead. Last year, the Italian government agreed to essentially put the military in charge of homegrown production in order to undercut black-market prices. The National Anti-Mafia Directorate said in its annual report in February that it could no longer afford to fight against cannabis, calling deterrent efforts “a total failure.”
Still, though it risks harshing Italy’s burgeoning mellow, critics say it’s hard to imagine the peninsula legalizing the devil’s cabbage. Less than a decade ago, in 2006, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government passed legislation that tripled sentences for selling, cultivating or possessing weed, eliminating any distinction between soft drugs like Mary Jane and harder ones like cocaine and heroin. (The U.S., too, still classifies both heroin and marijuana as Schedule 1 drugs).
True, the Italian constitutional court overturned the law last year, and 250 legislators have already voiced their informal approval of the pro-legalization bill. But it could be a tough sell to the other 695 Italian lawmakers if it ever heads to a vote — and even if it passes, the prime minister could still deep-six it. “It’s quite common for more progressive countries to table legislation like this,” said Adam Miron, co-founder of Hydropothecary, a medical marijuana farm in Canada. “Most of the time nothing comes of it.” And time may be a luxury Italy can’t afford; those that enter the market early will capitalize the most from ganja tourism.
The bigger question is whether legalization stands any chance of spreading across Europe. The British House of Commons will stage a debate on legalization after more than 125,000 U.K. citizens signed a petition. Meanwhile, Spain is already being called “the new Amsterdam” thanks to the popularity of its now-legal private cannabis clubs, which have “succeeded in netting the ‘drug pusher,’” writes Amber Marks, a University of London law lecturer, “whilst excluding drug users and those satisfying the demand of users within their social circle.”