A EUROPEAN FORERUNNER
There is no denying that the climate of attitudes towards legal cannabis has seen a tremendous global shift in recent years. With the progress already seen to be underway throughout Europe, it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before we see the majority of our countries introduce some form of cannabis legalisation. One market that has already established itself with one of the more progressive stances towards cannabis is Italy.
A TURBULENT HISTORY
Italy has had a tempestuous relationship with cannabis over the past few decades. In 1990, the Iervolino-Vassalli law saw newly classified ‘soft drugs’ including cannabis carry far lighter, non-criminal penalties. However, in 2006, Silvio Berlusconi introduced the Fini-Giovanardi law which reclassified cannabis to be on par with cocaine and heroin - implementing far harsher penalties for any cultivation, distribution or personal use of the drug. Interestingly this law was deemed unconstitutional in 2014 and cannabis was again reclassified as a ‘soft’ drug in the eyes of the Italian legal system.
This year saw even more progress. In April, in an effort to develop attitudes towards cannabis even further, The Radicali Italiani Movement announced plans to introduce a bill that proposes the full legalisation of adult cannabis use. This newly submitted bill, if accepted, would see cannabis shift from a decriminalised substance to a fully legal one.
THE BENEFITS OF LEGALISATION
So what prompted The Radicali Italiani Movement to set their sights on full legalisation? In an interview with marijuana.com, their president Antonella Soldo cited other countries already on the path towards that goal as major influences. When asked if legalisation efforts in countries such as Canada were the reason behind Italy’s attempts, Soldo said “Of course they are…. thanks to other countries’ experiences, we are able to study data concerning legalisation. For example, the reduction of overcrowding in jails and the reduction of minors using drugs“.
This legal sentiment was echoed by the foreign ministry. Benedetto della Vedova stated on his personal Facebook page that legal cannabis would “take profits from the mafia, free police to do other work, control substances that are in circulation and fight consumption among adolescents”. He also brought attention to the economic benefits of the industry, saying that a legal cannabis market would also “move money from traffickers’ accounts into the state's coffers". The benefits here could be significant with the value of the illegal cannabis market in Italy estimated from €7.2 billion to more than €30 billion. A figure like this would certainly be attractive to a nation that is still struggling to recover from a three-year recession.
The commercial potential for Italian cannabis can already be safely assumed by the current success of Easy Joint, a so-called ‘cannabis light’ that contains a small amount of THC (less than 0.6%) to be sold legally in Italy. Since its launch at a Bologna fair in May, Easy Joint sales have soared so much that the website crashed and stores holding the product had to instigate crowd-control measures.
Outside of recreational use, there is already a strong cannabis community in Italy. Consumption of prescribed cannabis has been legal in Italy since 2013. However, despite its legal status, there has still been a lingering stigma surrounding the use of cannabis in any capacity. This is in no small part due to the heavy religious presence in the country including the influence of Pope Francis. He recently reiterated that the Catholic Church is opposed to “every type of drug use”.
However, a huge step towards tackling the swathe of negative opinion came from the Italian government’s decision to give the Italian army exclusivity on the manufacture and distribution of the country’s medical cannabis stock. This bold decision provided a much-needed legitimacy to the medical cannabis market in Italy and also drastically opened up the domestic market.
Previously all of Italy’s legal cannabis was imported from the Netherlands at a price that was widely considered to be too expensive for Italy’s patients to afford. Therefore, the introduction of the army’s cultivation lowered costs which, in turn, lowered prices. Offering a much more affordable product to the public and subsequently presented a potential boon to the country’s medical cannabis economy.
AN ENTREPRENEURIAL OPPORTUNITY
The current restrictions on cannabis in all its forms are becoming more and more relaxed. The key question now is will the Italian army maintain exclusivity over any or all cannabis cultivation or will there be a future for entrepreneurs in the Italian market? Current trends suggest the latter.
In a development late last year, the Italian Senate passed a law permitting the cultivation of cannabis without the need for authorisation for producers of cannabis for food, cosmetics, industry and energy. Although this doesn’t directly relate to the country’s medical cultivation of the plant, it does demonstrate a willingness of the Italian government to relinquish the army’s monopoly on domestic cannabis production. It feels like there will be a massive opportunity for domestic entrepreneurs to get in on the ground floor of a fledgeling industry. A very exciting time for the Italian economy.