Paolo Molinaro is a savvy entrepreneur, if not an opportunist, who has found a way to sell an illegal product Italians want without going to jail.
“It's a different way,” he explained in a thick Italian accent, though he speaks English fluently, having lived and worked in the United States for a time. “We have not legalized the real marijuana.”
Molinaro is CEO and founder of Erba di Roma. The Amsterdam-style coffee shop is less than a year old, but it already has three retail storefronts around Rome, and another large retail operation planned to open in late 2018 in the center of the city.
Erba di Roma, literally translated as “Grass of Rome” or “Weed of Rome,” is one of a number of specialty shops popping up in a nation best known for sports cars, pasta and Catholicism.
These shops are selling small jars of cannabis flowers labeled “not for human consumption” to a growing number of Italian consumers coming in to buy a product many are calling “cannabis light” because of its low THC content.
Sellers began appearing after a 2016 law regulating hemp production went into effect. The law was intended to help farmers growing industrial hemp for commercial uses like food, fabrics, biofuel and animal feed. However, the law did not regulate the use of cannabis flowers.
That loophole allows the existence of these specialty shops, which sell the marijuana flower in a decorative jar, which buyers can take home and place in a hutch or in a desk at the office as a collector's item.
Sellers cannot tell customers they can smoke it, nor can they tell them to open the packaging.
“We are selling it as souvenir,” Molinaro said. “It's really complicated here. When customers come in, we have to say you are not allowed to open the packaging.”
Say if, for example, an undercover police officer comes into a store and buys the product from a salesperson who tells them they can smoke it, the seller will be treated the same as a drug dealer and punished under the law.
“It's the end,” Molinaro said. “You're going to be in so much trouble you can't imagine.”
His employees tell customers the jars are keepsakes, but he knows that's probably not the intended use.
“Obviously, everyone opens and smokes it,” he said.
The price of the jars depends on the weight. Pricing starts from 12 euros for 1 gram to 70 euros for 10 grams. The exchange rate was 1.18 US dollars per euro as of Wednesday, May 16, 2018.
The THC content is prohibited from exceeding 0.6 percent, far less potent than the 20 percent or more found in many countries where cannabis is legal.
Some customers who frequent Erba di Roma come in to buy the product to use as medical cannabis, according to Molinaro. Medical marijuana has been legal in Italy since 2007, but supply and demand has ebbed and flowed for a number of reasons since that time.
One regular customer is the mother of a young child with epilepsy. She comes in twice a month to buy the flower to help reduce epileptic seizures, and has told Molinaro that her child has gone from having roughly 20 seizures per day to 20 per month.
Before launching Erba di Roma, Molinaro, who has a master's degree in accounting from Tor Vergata University in Roma, managed the family business and ran his own accounting agency. He lived in the US from 2013 through the end of 2014 while managing a company that owns bars and hotels around Los Angeles.
He said he thinks the Italian government needs to wake up to people's interest in cannabis, and consider legalizing it for recreational use.
“They are so closed-minded,” he said. “They say 'It's a drug, it's illegal, it's dangerous.”
He said he views the cannabis market as a means to create more jobs, and generate taxes. And if the government doesn't allow recreational cannabis to be sold legally, he believes the black market for it will thrive.
“Then they will never kill the black market of the illegal marijuana,” he said. “To have the possibility of sell it here, it would be a dream. I'm doing all this also with the hope that one day the regular one can become legal.”
This post has been updated to clarify details about cannabis laws in Italy.