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

Italian Parliament on Cannabis and CBD

hearing with Italian Senator Marco Perduca on the legality of cannabis

Italy has had a long relationship with hemp, used for centuries as a foodstuff and in the textile industry. In 2016, Italy increased the allowed THC limit, which was instrumental in bringing about the so-called “cannabis light”, i.e. the rise of CBD. However, recent developments point to new obstacles for cannabis products and their users.

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

What were the consequences of the increase of the THC limit to 0.6% 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 a “back to the future” decision of sorts. In fact, in the 1950s, Italy and the USSR were the world’s largest producers of industrial hemp. When Italy adopted its first comprehensive drug law in the mid-1970s, it also banned the use of the plant contained in the 1961 Single Convention. The political decision to proceed unanimously had important repercussions on regulations which, while on the one hand gave the green light to production, on the other hand was unclear as to the uses of these “new” products, creating problems in particular for stores rather than for growers or users. The lack of clarity, which led to several stores being searched by the financial police (Guardia di Finanza), also discouraged significant investments in a sector that was at the mercy of the incoming Minister’s propaganda.

Is it currently legal to sell CBD-rich flowers with less than 0.6% THC for smoking?

Flowers can only be sold for “collection reasons”, which means that you can buy flowers and, if someone asks why you bought them, you must declare that you are a collector. Whether one believes that the lack of clarity in the rules was meant to set things in motion or that Italian legislators cannot write a law is a matter of debate. I would choose the first option.

Are there many CBD stores in big cities? Do you have any idea how many there are in Rome or Milan? Tens, hundreds?

In the year following the adoption of the new law, the rate at which “grow shops”, as they are called, were opening was unbelievable and unsustainable, in the thousands. According to the Magic Guide to Italy compiled by Dolce Vita magazine, there are about 900 businesses specializing in light cannabis, including associations and companies that sell and produce hemp for “industrial” use. Estimates issued five years ago were three times higher. As is often the case in new economic sectors, a boom was followed by a bust.

Do you have any estimate of how many Italians use cannabis or CBD products?

Unfortunately, there are no reliable studies on this subject. The latest National Drug Report says that there are four million people in Italy who use cannabis regularly, but does not specify the potency of the plant.

What does the latest development in mid-August really mean, in terms of classifying CBD in the narcotics category?

The new decree will come into force on September 20, so at this stage we can only speculate, but when an active pharmaceutical ingredient is classified as a narcotic, much more paperwork and security is required for its production, importation, storage, distribution or sale than if it were not classified as such. Bureaucracy consumes time and money and can become a discouragement for all parties involved in the CBD chain, from production to use. The decree affects CBD used orally, so oils or other edible products can only be sold in pharmacies and purchased with a non-reusable prescription. It is a political decision that was already taken in 2020, but was suspended because it was considered that it needed more evidence and studies. The decree makes no reference to scientific studies, so it is difficult to understand what arguments arose to confirm the classification. Again, poorly drafted legislation will create problems with several WHO recommendations and a recent decision of the European Court of Justice. This decision, in part, responded to a request from French organizations who regretted that the French government wanted to block the sale of imported CBD produced elsewhere in the EU. We will see how it evolves.

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

Following a Constitutional Court ruling in 2014 that annulled parts of the 2006 law that tightened the comprehensive regulation adopted in 1990, personal use and possession of all illicit drugs have been substantially decriminalized. The “circumstances” (presence of instruments for cutting and preparing doses, different types of packages, scissors, scales and the like) in which someone is discovered or possesses the plants or substances can still be grounds for prosecution and eventual imprisonment. Cultivation remains a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. However, in 2019, the Court of Cassation clarified that if the cultivation is rudimentary, the plants are few and the flowers have weak potency, such conduct should not be considered a crime. Other rulings by the Court of Cassation have acquitted people with more than a kilo of THC-rich cannabis that they were cultivating or possessing for therapeutic use, as there are not enough products in Italy to guarantee therapeutic treatments for all those who have a prescription. Case law is in favor of reducing, if not nullifying, the punishment for personal use.

What is the prevalence of THC use, is it increasing or decreasing? What about young people?

Use appears to be stable; the government estimates the number of users at four million, while the European Centre on Drugs and Addiction estimates it at six million. This figure appears to be stable, other EU-sponsored studies indicate that the first encounter with cannabis occurs in the later years of elementary school, around age 10. Research has also shown that, in the case of hashish, the quality of the substance is very low. However, there is growing concern about skunk or supercannabis, which are often CBD flowers sprayed with enhanced active ingredients, or synthetic cannabinoids, and more addictive. Since the re-legalization of industrial hemp, or perhaps as a new fashion trend, cultivation has become more popular among young people as well. Despite all the alarms, the latest National Drug Report, issued by the Government in July 2023, indicates that the average age of illicit narcotics users in Italy is 40 years old.

How does the medical cannabis system work in Italy? How does it look in theory and how does it look in practice?

Italy was one of the first European countries to allow the medical prescription of cannabis in 2006, importing Bedrocan and Bediol from the Netherlands. Italy has a “federalized” welfare system, in which the cost of therapies can be reimbursed if the Region of residence has regulations in this regard. Since 2012, 18 of the 20 regions have adopted laws to identify the conditions under which products can be reimbursed, limiting prescribing powers to specific types of physicians (the national law allowed all general practitioners to do so). The law obliged the regions to share with the central government the number of prescriptions issued, the reasons and possible adverse effects. However, this exchange of information never materialized. In 2015, Italy began domestic production at the Medical Pharmaceutical Institute of Florence in an attempt to meet the growing demand for medical cannabis. Since 2017, Italy has also been acquiring THC- and CBD-rich flowers for medical purposes through tenders that, for the past four years, have been won by non-Italian companies based in Germany (and owned by US or Canadian groups); last year, an Italian consortium finally had the opportunity to produce a few hundred kilos. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, Italy should have the right to produce or import up to three tons of medical cannabis. Between imports from the Netherlands, which has a special agreement with Italy, domestic production and tenders, the availability of cannabis for therapeutic purposes does not reach one ton, leaving almost two thirds of existing patients without products. There has been talk of increasing production in Italy, also thanks to special funds (almost 1.5 million euros) earmarked for the Florence institute, and of initiating public-private partnerships to provide the missing two tons of flowers, but the change of governments has not allowed this to happen. The current administration is not necessarily against medical cannabis, but neither is it for it, as we have seen with the new rules on CBD.

Are there trends we should be aware of? Does Italy have plans to legalize and regulate THC-rich cannabis in the near future, like Germany or possibly Czechia, or should we expect your country to take another direction?

As long as Meloni’s center-right government is in office, that is not going to happen. At the same time, another referendum could risk being declared inadmissible due to the decision taken in 2021, which was borderline. In October, five judges will change, some appointed by the President of the Republic, a former moderate Christian Democrat, and others will be elected by a Parliament in which the majority is ultra-conservative in this matter.

Interview adapted from the original by Cannactiva.

Lukas Hurt
Cannabis activist : Journalist focusing on cannabis-related issues in Central Europe

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