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Italy & The Medical Cannabis Access Issue

Medical cannabis access
Written by Sarah Friedman

It’s great that countries like Italy are opening up their laws to allow for more things, like medical cannabis. But what happens when these laws are set up in a way that make it hard for the standard citizen in need to partake? Such is the problem in Italy right now, where medical cannabis access is being stymied by military production.

Italy and its medical cannabis market are facing major access issues since the country only allows the military to cultivate the plant. This is a cannabis and psychedelics news publication featuring the biggest and most interesting stories in these growing landscapes, and well beyond. We provide the Cannadelics Weekly Newsletter so readers stay updated, as well as to give access to a bunch of awesome deals on products like vapes, smoking devices, edibles, other cannabis products, and cannabinoid compounds including new industry staples Delta 8 & HHC. Head to our ‘best of’ lists for more info, and make sure to purchase products you’re fully comfortable using.


Italy and cannabis

Italy is one of those interesting countries that never instituted direct laws for drug use, while it does account for drug possession. Personal possession of drugs is decriminalized, and doesn’t incur more than administrative penalties like suspension of a passport or driver’s license. A 2014 law made the designation between hard and soft drugs, with the former category receiving administrative penalties of 2-12 months, and the latter for 1-3 months. All this so long as the amount is within personal possession limits.

How much is a personal possession amount? No specific answer, as this came from a court decision, and not a written law. Law enforcement is tasked with deciding if a case fits under personal possession, or if it’s drug trafficking or something else. Luckily, first time offenders are less likely to undergo sanctions, which are generally saved for repeat offenders.

The cultivation, sale, and transport of drugs (including cannabis) also use the same system of punishment of hard vs soft drugs. For example, more extreme supply crimes for hard drugs carry prison times of 8-22 years, while the same things for soft drugs incur 2-6 years. Cannabis fits under the soft drugs category. For either hard or soft, a minor offense is eligible for a prison sentence of about six months – four years.

Italy cannabis laws
Italy cannabis laws

In terms of cannabis, the recreational use of it is illegal, as well as cultivation and sale, according to the Consolidated Law of 1990. This law was attacked in various ways over the years in court, which led to contradictory decisions. In light of this, it finally went before the Supreme Court – and then the Court of Cassation – in order to clarify the law. The final case on the matter was about a possession charge involving a guy with two plants, and the ruling came in 2019. This resulted in the previously mentioned decision which clarified that the cultivation of small amounts of drugs for personal use, is indeed, legal.  

Italy passed a medical cannabis legalization in 2013, which went into effect in 2014. In order to access cannabis medications, a user must obtain a doctor’s prescription. At the time of passage, Italy wasn’t growing cannabis, making for a purely import market, which meant expensive medications for those in need. In 2014 it was announced that the Italian military would take over domestic cultivation, and in the years since then, the system has become a bit more accessible to patients, but with a major caveat.

Italy and the medical cannabis access issue

It’s great to modernize laws, and give residents of a country things they need, like medicine. It’s great to try to keep production in the country so as to keep prices low for those in need. But what happens when the system is set up in a way that essentially minimizes access to the very services put out there for the public? This is what’s going on right now, and Italy is in the middle of a major medical cannabis access issue.

Italy is one of the biggest cannabis markets in Europe (2nd to Germany). However, regardless of market size, there’s been a problem for residents to access this system. Even as the industry grows year over year, it succumbs to one basic problem, which has been there since the beginning. In Italy, all domestic cultivation is done via the military, and the military only. This creates a monopoly in cultivation.

As more and more people want to access this system, its become evident that this monopoly is causing an impediment for patients to get what they need. Military growing hasn’t increased since 2019, but the number of people wanting cannabis medications, has. So even though Italy’s medical cannabis market is second biggest in Europe according to the number of patients within it, those patients are having an increasingly hard time getting their medications.

How bad is Italy medical cannabis access?

That Italy is most certainly not meeting demand is an understatement. Italian journalist Fabrizio Dentini was able to get data from the Italian Ministry of Health, according to the publication Businesscann.com. In terms of last year, the military grew 101.90 kg of weed, which is a huge 175% increase from 2020, which had paltry growing numbers of only 37 kg (likely a result of corona). However, that big increase still put production at lower rates than pre-corona times, when in 2019 the country produced 123 kg.

Italy medical cannabis access
Italy medical cannabis access

Plenty of cannabis is sold in Italian pharmacies, but most of it is still imported, which means higher prices for buyers. In fact, military growing hasn’t accounted for more than 20% of sales at most, and that was back in 2018. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, domestic production accounted for 14%, 3%, and 8% of sales respectively.

According to Dentini of these numbers, “The figures speak for themselves… In fact, if compared to the 1,400 kilos estimated by the Ministry of Health as national requirement for 2021, the military agency only managed to cover 8% of the 1,271 kilograms concretely distributed during the same year.”

He goes on to explain, “The monopoly production regime de facto fails to carry out the functions for which it was put into operation, and the lack of production authorisations for the private market blocks the development of a healthy and competitive production chain.”

When the military sells to pharmacies, it does so based on estimated production costs, and sets limits for how high the price can go. These prices are lower than import prices, making it easier for patients to afford. Though no formal numbers exist for how many medical cannabis patients there are in the country, estimates put it at about 20,000 residents. In March of 2021, it was reported that as many as two million patients in the country could benefit from cannabis medications.

Technically Italy does provide medical cannabis access to patients, but the majority that’s accessible, is much higher priced. While a few medical conditions are covered completely by healthcare in the country, everyone else must pay out. And this limits how many people can realistically use the service.

What about a legalization?

Sometimes these issues lead to new reform measures, and its possible this could happen here, especially since Europe is moving toward recreational legalizations. If nothing else, the country is looking to cement the laws around that 2019 decision allowing home-growing. In 2021, the Lower House’s Justice Committee approved a text to decriminalize up to four plants for home cultivation so long as its for personal use. The measure also works to lower punishments for soft drug law-breaking, from up to six years, to only one.

Home cultivation cannabis
Home cultivation cannabis

This doesn’t change the current set-up with the military holding a monopoly, or the general supply issues this creates, but it would help the sick to get what they need (as the ruling already does), and without going to the black market. This last point is a strong factor to Italy, as the black market is seen as an impediment to the legal one. (Technically, this is standard just about anywhere a legal market exists).

However, Italy hasn’t been as quick to move in this direction, as it probably should. Earlier this year, Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation approved a referendum measure to legalize cannabis, and which would’ve allowed the personal cultivation of plants like magic mushrooms, as well. This approval was based on about 630,000 signatures which were verified by the Supreme Court of Cassation.

In order to get the measure officially on the ballot, it needed approval by that court, as well as the Constitutional Court. The latter makes sure the provision is legal per the country’s laws. Unfortunately, the Constitutional Court decided it was not a legal measure, and banned it from a vote. The referendum committee responded with, “This is not a defeat of us and of the hundreds of thousands of citizens and citizens who signed up for legal cannabis. Today’s first and foremost is a defeat for the Institutions that are no longer able to comprehend a major part of this country.”

Conclusion

Italy is a country at odds with itself. This was probably best exemplified by opposing and simultaneous decrees a couple years ago over the legality of CBD, one saying it could be sold on store shelves, one which classified it as a narcotic. Italy wants to minimize the black market, but is hesitant about a legal one. And while it fights with itself, the country loses money to other countries by requiring cannabis imports, rather than upping domestic production.

Whether Italy opens up the cultivation market, more officially allows home growing, or both, something has to change. And if it doesn’t, the best the country can expect, is a major growth in its black market.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.

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