Cannabis and CBD in Italy: Interview with former Italian Senator Marco Perduca on the legality of cannabis

Italian Parliament on Cannabis and CBD

Interview with former Italian Senator Marco Perduca on the legality of cannabis 

Italy has had a long relationship with hemp, used throughout centuries as food and in the textile industry. In 2016, it raised the allowed THC, which was instrumental for the so-called “cannabis light”, i.e. CBD, boom to happen. However, recent developments signal new obstacles for cannabis products and its users.  

I spoke with a former Italian Senator Marco Perduca who in 2021 promoted a national referendum to legalize cannabis.

What were the consequences of the increase of THC limit to 0,6% THC in terms of cannabis use and industry development in Italy?

The law that was unanimously adopted in 2016, at the request of advocates and the private sector alike was supposed to be some sort of a “back to the future” kind of decision. In fact, in the 1950s, Italy and the USSR were the biggest world producers of industrial hemp. When Italy adopted her first comprehensive law on drugs in the mid 1970s, it also prohibited the use of the plant contained in the 1961 Convention. The political decision to proceed unanimously had some major repercussions on the norms that if on the one hand gave the greenlight to production on the other was not clear on the uses for those types of “new” products creating problems in particular to shops more than for growers or users. The lack of clarity, that caused several shops to be raided by the financial police (Guardia di Finanza), also discouraged significant investments in a sector that was at the mercy of propaganda of the incoming Minister.  

Is it currently legal to sell CBD rich flowers with less than 0,6% THC for smoking?

Flowers can only be sold for “collectible reasons”, which means you can buy flowers and if someone inquires why you bought it you will have to state that you are a collector. Whether one believes that lack of clarity in the norms was intended to get things going or that Italian legislators cannot write a law is an issue for debate. I would choose option one.

Are there many CBD shops in large cities? Do you have any idea how many there are in Rome or Milan? Dozens, hundreds?

In the year after the adoption of the new law the pace at which “grow shops” as they are called, were opening at an incredible, and unstainable, rhythm in the thousand. According to the magical guide Italy compiled by Dolce Vitamagazine, there are around 900 businesses specialized in cannabis light including associations and companies that sell and produce hemp for “industrial” use. Estimates issued five years ago were three times bigger. As it often happens in new economic sectors, a bust followed the boom.

Do you have any estimates on how many Italians use CBD cannabis or products?

Unfortunately, there are no such reliable studies. The latest National Drug Report says that there are four million people that in Italy use cannabis habitually but it does not specify the potency of the plant.

What does the latest development from mid August actually mean? Regarding putting CBD in the narcotic category.

The new decree will enter into force on 20 September so at this stage we can only speculate, but when an active pharmaceutical ingredient is scheduled as narcotics in order for it to be produced or imported or stored or distributed or sold it requires a lot more paperwork and security than if not scheduled. Bureaucracy takes away time and money and can become a discouragement for all the parties involved in the CBD chain, from production to use. The decree concerns CBD used orally so oils or other edible products may only be sold in pharmacies and bought with a non repeatable prescription. It is a political decision that had already been taken in 2020 but suspended because it was felt that it needed some more evidence and studies. The decree does not make any reference to scientific work so it is difficult to understand what arguments emerged to confirm the scheduling. Once again a poorly drafted piece of legislation will raise issues with several WHO recommendations and with a recent decision of the European Court of Justice that, in parte, adjudicated a request from French organizations that lamented the fact that the French government wanted to block the selling of imported CBD produced elsewhere in the EU. We will see how it will evolve.

In general, what is the policy on “recreational” cannabis in Italy?

After a sentence of the Constitutional Court that in 2014 struck down parts of the 2006 law that had toughened the comprehensive regulation adopted in 1990, personal use and possession of all illicit narcotics have been substantially depenalized. The “circumstances” (presence of instruments to cut and prepare doses, different forms of packages, scissors, scales and the like) in which one is caught or detains the plants or the molecules can still be cause for prosecution and eventually incarceration. Cultivation remains a serious offence punishable with up to seven years in prison; In 2019 though the Cassation Court clarified that if cultivation is rudimentary and the plants are not many and the flowers have a weak potency that conduct should not be considered a crime. Other sentences of the Cassation Court have acquitted people with over one kilo of THC rich cannabis that were growing or possessing for therapeutic uses - in Italy there are not sufficient products to grant therapeutic plans for all those that have a prescription. Jurisprudence is in favor of lessening if not annulling punishment for personal use.

What is the prevalence of use of THC – is it rising or going down? How about youth?

Use seems to be stable, the Governments estimates the number of users at four million and the European Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction at six million. The number seems to be stable, other EU sponsored studies signal that the first encounter with cannabis happens in the last years of elementary school - 10 years. Studies also have demonstrated that when it comes to hashish the quality of the substance is very poor while there is a growing preoccupation concerning skunk or super cannabis, which often is CBD flowers sprayed with enhanced, more addictive, active principles. Since the re-legalization of industrial hemp, or perhaps as a new fashionable trend, growing has become more popular also amongst youth. Despite all the scare, the latest National Drug Report, issued by the Government in July 2023, states that the average age of illicit narcotics users in Italy is 40 years of age.

How does the medicinal cannabis system work in Italy? How does it look in the books, and how in practice?

Italy was one of the first European countries to allow medical prescription of cannabis back in 2006, importing Bedrocan and Bediol from the Netherlands. Italy has a “federalized” welfare system according to which the cost of therapies can be reimbursed if the Region of residence has rules about it. Since 2012, 18 of the 20 regions have adopted laws to identify the conditions for which the products can be reimbursed, limiting the powers to prescribe to specific types of doctors (the national law allowed all general practitioners to do it). The law mandated regions to share with the central government the number of prescriptions issued, for what reasons and the eventual adverse effects. The info-sharing never took off. In 2015, Italy started national production at the Pharmaceutical Medical institute in Florence to try and face the increased demand of medicinal cannabis. Since 2017, Italy is also procuring THC and CBD rich flowers for medical purposes through tenders that for the last four years have been won by non Italian companies based in Germany (and owned by U.S. or Canadian groups); last year an Italian consortium finally got a chance to produce a few hundreds kilos. According to the International Narcotics Control Board Italy should be entitled to produce or import up to three tons of medicinal cannabis. Between imports from the Netherlands, that have a special agreement with Italy, the national production and the tenders the availability of cannabis for therapeutic purposes does not reach one ton, leaving almost two thirds of existing patients without products. There have been talks to increase production in Italy, also thanks to special funds (almost 1,5 million Euros) allocated to the institute in Florence, and to initiate public-private partnership to provide the missing two tons of flowers, but the changing of governments has not allowed such a thing to happen. The current administration is not necessarily against medical cannabis but also not in favour, as we have seen with the new rules on CBD.

Are there any trends we should be aware of? Is Italy going to legalize and regulate THC rich cannabis anytime soon like Germany or possibly Czechia, or shall we expect your country will be moving into another direction?

As long as the center-right Meloni Government is in office no such thing is going to happen. At the same time another referendum may run the risk of being declared inadmissible because of the decision taken in 2021, which was borderline. Come October five Judges will change, some appointed by the President of the Republic, a moderate former Christian Democrat, and others will be elected by a Parliament where the majority is ultra-conservative on the matter.