Italy has a long and peculiar history with cannabis that is still in flux. Currently, cannabis is legal only for medicinal and industrial use.
However, retailers in exploding numbers have taken advantage of a loophole in government regulations for licensed cultivation of cannabis that allows for the unregulated “sale of plant for ornamental purposes.” This has created a booming unregulated market for recreational so-called “cannabis light,” or marijuana with a THC ratio of 0.6% or less.
In 2014, the Italian Supreme Court struck down a law from 2006 that removed the distinction between so-called hard and soft drugs. Under that law, cannabis was legally considered and prosecuted on par heroin and cocaine.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, penalties for use of marijuana have been greatly reduced. Possession for personal use is generally punished by administrative sanctions, such as suspension of a driver's license or passport, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). First-time offenses may result only in a warning and a “therapeutic” program, such as counseling, may be offered. The threshold between personal possession and trafficking is determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the amount of substance found, paraphernalia, such as packaging tools, and unlicensed cannabis products.
Criminal sentences for unlicensed growing and sale, even for personal use, can range from six months to six years.
In its heyday in the early 20th century, Italian hemp was considered among the finest in the world. By the 1940s, Italy was the second-largest producer of industrial hemp in the Western Hemisphere, but by the 1970s, it all but disappeared during the international war on drugs. The recent loosening of regulations on cultivation has led to a ten-fold increase in the acreage for industrial hemp since 2013 from about 400 hectares to 4,000 hectares, or roughly 988 acres to 9,884 acres.
Cultivating cannabis for industrial purposes requires the use of certified seeds. However, no authorization is required to plant certified seeds that contain minimal levels of psychoactive compounds. The resulting crop with 0.6 % or less THC is commonly called “cannabis light” in Italy. If the plant contains more than 0.6% THC, the government can impound the crop or destroy a cultivation facility.
Where is it safe to use
The lack of clarity regarding the use of cannabis flower has allowed customers to purchase them legally as “ornamental.” That has led to a veritable bloom of retailers selling buds in decorative packaging. Technically, the flower is not to be crushed, smoked, or consumed, and package labels contain warnings against consumption. The marijuana generally has only 15% to 25% of the THC content in illicit weed. Numerous outlets sell the product. Patients with prescriptions can consume their own cannabis in a therapy room.
Despite the booming popularity, would-be consumers should be wary as the law is in flux. In September 2018, a directive to police called for strict scrutiny of shops and criminal penalties for those who sell marijuana that does not conform to all government regulations. In addition, various organizations, including the Superior Council of Health, the Ministry of Health's scientific and technical advisory panel, have advocated stopping the sale of cannabis light.
It is estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 Italians consume medical marijuana with qualifying conditions including:
- Chronic pain
- Multiple sclerosis
- Spinal cord injury
- Tourette's syndrome
Medical cannabis is produced by the Military Chemical Pharmaceutical Plant, or imported from Canada or the Netherlands. Medical cannabis must be purchased at pharmacies, but demand often exceeds supplies.
The Ministry of Health oversees the medical marijuana program. The government requires patients to have tried other treatments before turning to medical marijuana.
Italy does not require patients to apply for a medical marijuana card. Physicians give eligible patients limited prescriptions for medical marijuana that must be purchased from a licensed pharmacy.
Italy does not allow patients to cultivate plants, though it allows patients to carry medical cannabis. The annual legal consumption of medical cannabis has grown nationally from 40 kilograms in 2013 to nearly 10 times that in 2017, according to the Ministry of Health.