The Italian Parliament has established an intergroup on the legalisation of cannabis following calls to address the need for its decriminalisation and shortages of medical cannabis. More than 50 members of Parliament already have applied to join the intergroup, mainly from the left. For now, no one from the centre-right has asked to participate. The impetus behind this movement is multifaceted but at the forefront is Walter de Benedetto, a patient with rheumatoid arthritis potentially facing prison for growing nine marijuana plants to assuage his pain. The movement is supported by 25,000 signatures to date and aims to rekindle the 2016 citizens’ initiative to legalise cannabis.

Italy and other Member States allow the growing of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) stemming from seeds listed on the EU’s Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species. EU subsidies are available for crops that do not exceed 0.2 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychotropic substance in cannabis. Italy does not require an authorisation for cultivation and does not penalise growers if their crops exceeds 0.2 percent THC as long as the production was in compliance with all legal requirements. This protection for farmers was interpreted incorrectly as extending to other operators down the supply chain, however, the Italian Supreme Court confirmed earlier this year (Corte Suprema di Cassazione 30 May 2019) that only the cultivator benefits from this immunity. The authorities may confiscate or destroy crops exceeding 0.6 percent THC, with no further consequences for the farmer.

While cultivation of hemp from EU certified seeds is legal in all 28 Member States, requirements, THC limits, and permitted purposes differ from country to country. Hemp and its derivatives can be used in food and cosmetics in Italy as long as the applicable EU and domestic laws are followed. Italian law also allows hemp and its derivatives to be used in a number of semi-finished products, such as fibre, wood chips, oils or fuels; as organic material for bioengineering for green building or as part of green manure practices; as material for bioremediation; and for certain public education or research purposes.

Since November 2015, the Italian Ministry of Health may issue permits to cultivate cannabis for medicinal purposes with a THC content in excess of 0.2 percent. Licensed cultivators deliver the harvest to the Ministry. Pharmacies then purchase it and turn it into an active substance or vegetal preparation. Doctors can issue a prescription for herbal cannabis to support the original treatment and set out the type, the amount, and the method of consumption for each patient, which is either decoction or vaporising. Eligible conditions primarily are spasticity associated with pain, chronic pain, nausea from chemotherapy or HIV treatments, loss of appetite from cancer or AIDS, glaucoma, and Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. According to Walter de Benedetto, the current system fails to provide him with sufficient quantities to alleviate his pain, as Italy struggles to keep up with increasing demand, despite also importing.

Under the citizens’ proposal, it would be legal to grow up to ten female plants for personal consumption (more than five would require notification of the authorities); to set up non-profit cannabis social clubs associations of up to 100 members that can each grow five plants each; and to sell cannabis as long as the name and variety of cannabis used and quantity of seeds per hectare is communicated to the authorities. Products would need to be labelled with geographic origin, percentage of THC, and include a warning that “irresponsible consumption can damage health.” Access to cannabis-based medicine would be promoted to patients suffering from symptoms that respond favourably to cannabinoids.

Proponents view scheduling a parliamentary debate as the next step. According to them, the proposal will have more success under the incumbent Parliament than under its predecessor. It currently is too early to predict whether the goal will be achieved. However, hemp firmly is tangled with the peninsula’s culture and therefore likely to see further liberalisation.