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Italy Is Debating a Proposal to Legalize Cannabis

A man holding up a t-shirt printed with a marijuana leaf
A demonstrator holds a t-shirt during during a marijuana legalization rally in Rome on May 5, 2014. © Giuseppe Ciccia/Getty

Fabrizio Pellegrini, a pianist and painter from Chieti, Italy, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia syndrome, disorders that cause constant pain and make many otherwise simple tasks insurmountable. A combination of cannabis and yoga has proven to be the only therapy that eases his symptoms, allowing him to function independently despite his debilitating condition.

Today, however, Pellegrini can’t utilize this treatment, because he is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for growing cannabis for therapeutic use.

You could say he’s one of the lucky ones. In Italy, even though purchasing cannabis was decriminalized in 2014, an individual growing it can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

A recent independent report found that, despite decriminalization of possession and personal use of illicit drugs, one in four people in prison in Italy is there for a drug-related offense. Many are individuals caught with a quantity of illicit substance that exceeds a “reasonable” amount for personal use. Despite this continuum of arrests, Italy remains a hub for the northward distribution of illegal drugs into Europe, demonstrating that the severity of punishments has not deterred use.

At the beginning of July, the country’s anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutors sent a joint statement to Parliament on the eve of a debate in the Justice and Social Affairs Committees. The statement outlines possible legalization of the production, consumption, and commerce of cannabis and its derivatives. The prosecutors favor a system that would regulate all marijuana-related activities under a state monopoly with products sold by tobacconists. The proposal, which outlines a flexible system that leaves most of the power and decision-making in the hands of the central government, will be discussed in a plenary session on July 25.

Over the last 20 years, bills to decriminalize personal possession of all substances or regulate cannabis have been presented in Italy, but they were never brought up for discussion by the relevant committees. Indeed, next week’s parliamentary discussion is the first time this type of legislation has reached this level of debate in Italy. This time around, a group called Cannabis Legale, composed of 220 deputies and 80 senators, developed and agreed on the proposal's text. If the legislation moves to the floor, it will make Italy the only country in the European Union with a legislative initiative to legally regulate cannabis production and use for nonmedical purposes.

Proponents of the proposed legislation say it would free up resources, ease the burden on the courts, curtail money flowing to the mafias, and provide the government with a new revenue stream. We hope that Italy’s long, hot summer will provide an opportunity for policy makers to contemplate these benefits. Mr. Pellegrini is not a criminal, yet he remains confined to a prison cell in Chieti. His defense council and doctors have publicly documented his poor health and have asked for his immediate release. Should he be freed, and reform enacted, perhaps he can finally—legally—get the therapy he deserves.

The Luca Coscioni Association for Freedom of Scientific Research is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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