Is cannabis cultivation now legal in Italy? In December 2019, the Italian Supreme Court made headlines after declaring that ‘small-scale cultivation’ of cannabis should not be the primary focus of Italy’s legal aperture. Though not set in stone, the precedent sent shock waves throughout Europe and reopened a hotly contested topic for many political figures in the country.
Clarification on the ruling has yet to be published, but many commentators from the local cannabis community consider the move a big win. Now, it’s simply a matter of specifics.
Details of the latest Italien court ruling on cannabis
The latest ruling was the product of a young man appealing local courts in the town of Torre Annunziata in 2013 after a harsh cannabis-related conviction.
The 29-year-old was sentenced to one year in prison and forced to pay a €3,000 fine after officials discovered that he had been cultivating two cannabis plants for personal use. He appealed the decision and brought it to the attention of a higher court in Naples, of which Torre Annunziata is a commune.
The higher courts in Naples didn’t arrive at a suitable conclusion, either.
The case was passed along even higher, until, eventually, it arrived at Italy’s supreme court, Corte Suprema di Cassazione. Insofar as the supreme court failed to make a decision, they then passed it onto the joint sections or Sezione Unite. Legal experts consider this party to be the ‘supreme court of the supreme court’, as the Sezione Unite is Italy’s highest legal authority.
At this point, the Sezione Unite determined that the man’s small production of cannabis wasn’t relevant to the larger objective of culling the illegal drug trade. The fact that he grew the two plants in his home rather than outfitting an industrial operation further evidenced the insignificance of his crimes.
This decision took such a long time due to the complexity and remaining uncertainty inherent in Italian cannabis laws. Currently, it is technically illegal to grow cannabis for private use; authorities passed this law in 2008. In 2016, however, the Italian government made an amendment that allowed citizens to grow and sell cannabis with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The law stipulated that certified seeds that yield cannabis ranging between 0.2 and 0.6 percent of THC were legal. Legislators hoped that the law would inspire more farmers to join a green initiative of growing industrial hemp in Italy. The move worked for the most part as agricultural shifted away from slumping grain markets to new cannabis crops.
Since passing the law, the number of hectares dedicated to growing the ‘green gold’ jumped from 400 to 4,000 in 2018. The president of Italy’s biggest agricultural association, Roberto Moncalvo, told The Guardian:
‘The boom in the production of hemp is an excellent example of the ability of agricultural firms to discover new frontiers. We are in the middle of an opportunity for economic and employment growth.’
However, the lack of regulatory clarity on a specific aspect of this market eventually attracted the ire of many politicians.
Dubbed ‘light cannabis’, Italian officials stated that these low THC-level cannabis plants were not to be smoked or eaten. Meanwhile, shops all over the country started popping up and selling jars of inflorescences or whole buds of light cannabis to anyone. Shop keepers allegedly described the products as ‘collector’s items’, which were meant only for ‘technical use’.
What eventually developed was a booming grey market in Italy. In 2018, regulators, spearheaded by Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Northern League party, eventually recommended that law enforcement agencies confiscate any plants that fall outside the official 64 varieties from the original law.
Salvini even went as far as calling shops selling cannabis light products ‘brothels’.
The Superior Council of Health, a group that reports directly to the Ministry of Health in Italy, also urged legislators to prohibit the open sale of light cannabis to the public. They cited a lack of scientific studies surrounding its effects.
The Italien supreme court has held its ground on the subject, stating that cultivation is indeed legal as long as it serves the agricultural community and their ambitions in the field of industrial hemp. The court’s latest announcement, though far from law, has reopened this nuanced discussion. It includes many of the same voices, too.
Along with Salvini’s Northern League Party, Forza Italia, a centre-right party, has also worked to keep cannabis from gaining substantial legal ground in the country. Maurizio Gasparri of Forza said that he would ‘cancel the absurd verdict of the court’ if his party ever came to power.
This year, Matteo Mantero of the 5-Star Movement attempted to legalise cannabis via an amendment of the country’s budget. Forza blocked this, too.
Further on the left, Benedetto Dalla Vedova of the Piu Europa party described the court’s ruling as one that essentially ‘legalised cannabis’ and moving forward ‘society will be more secure because billions have been taken from the revenues of organised crime.’
Indeed, the latest verdict is yet more fodder for an issue that has been fought hard on both sides of the aisle. And, although it is making international headlines, Italy’s history with cannabis is nothing new.
A historic return of cannabis to Italy
In the 1940s, Italy was a major hemp cultivator for the entire world. Up until the introduction of cheaper, more versatile synthetic fibres as well as a firm anti-cannabis law passed in 1961, Italy was the second-largest producer of hemp in the world, according to local media.
This success was based heavily on the country’s excellent agricultural industry, which, up until now, has rarely met any difficulties. The revival of this industry via hemp is, thus, seen as a return to the country’s roots. About thirty years after cannabis was banned in Italy, the plant came under more scrutiny until authorities prohibited all cultivation and sale of any part of the cannabis plant in the 1990s.
In a bizarre move, the state also allowed Rastafarians the right to smoke up to 10 grams of cannabis per day. The supreme court said that the plant is ‘not only [a] medical but also [a] meditative herb. And, as such, [it is] a possible bearer of the psychophysical state to contemplation and prayer.’
Naturally, the same palette of right-wing politicians was quick to add its criticism.
Gasparri of Forza quipped that:
‘Today we learn a Rasta is free to go around with drugs. If somebody belonged to a religion which permitted them to eat their children, would they give them the go-ahead, too?’
The waffling back and forth on the cannabis subject has been a major point of contention in Italy. This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that local courts are allowed to interpret certain precedents as they see fit. The United Sections ruling on the Naples case is just another example of this; it is guidance, not cut-in-stone law.
Still, the announcement carries enough weight to inspire pro-cannabis activists, politicians and even farmers in Italy. The concrete measures produced in the coming months will surely evidence this enthusiasm.
One law professor from the University of Trieste, Pietro Faraguna, is optimistic that since the ruling, ‘cultivating cannabis alone is not enough’ to land someone in prison. With the cannabis debate picking up major headlines in the rest of Europe, these developments in Italy will certainly be followed closely.