Italy is considering legalising cannabis Reuters

The traditionally reactionary Italy might incredibly soon find itself at the forefront of liberalism, becoming the largest country in Europe to legalise cannabis.

A cross-party committee has in fact submitted to parliament one of the world's most progressive legislation proposals on the matter, with a text that, if approved, would largely decriminalise, production, distribution, sale and consumption of marijuana all over the Mediterranean peninsula.

The leap could seem far-fetched for a nation drenched in Christian conservatism, which only ten years ago voted in a draconian anti-drug bill that cancelled any distinction between hard and soft drugs, strengthening sanctions for pot smokers and heroin addicts alike.

However, the legalisation movement has recently gained unprecedented momentum and, although Italian politics and the country's tortuous legislative system harbour plenty of potentially deadly obstacles, conditions seem favourable, as more than 250 lawmakers from the entire political spectrum have already given their support to the proposal.

Italian history C

Italy's pro-legalisation movement started in the 1960s with the anti-establishment Radical Party, which has distinguished itself, among other things, for a successful campaigns to introduce divorce and abortion and for getting the first porn star elected to parliament, Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina.

Marco Pannella
Marco Pannella (R) has long advocated for legalising cannabis in Italy Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Its histrionic leader, Marco Pannella, 85, has been the face of Italian anti-prohibition for decades, getting routinely arrested for distributing marijuana as act of civil disobedience.

The party has however largely remained a fringe force, backed by the liberal intelligentsia but shunned by the masses.

It never won more than 4% of the vote, with the exception of the 1999 European elections, where it got 8.5%.

Despite Pannella and his colleagues' attempts, repression has always been Rome's favourite response when it comes to drugs.

The tendency peaked in 2005, with the approval of the above-mentioned law equating soft and hard drugs by the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi (the legislation was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2014).

Meanwhile, through the years, the Radical Party has served as training ground for several young politicians who have since moved to more successful political ventures.

Among them is the current Foreign Ministry undersecretary Benedetto Della Vedova, the promoter in chief of the new legislation, which was unveiled earlier this month,

"I believe there is a majority of senators and deputies in parliament that support the measure," he told IBTimes UK.

The bill has infact already been endorsed by more than 250 of Italy's 945 lawmakers.

These include members of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party and Berlusconi's Forza Italia, as well as MPs with the leftists SEL, the populist Five Star Movement, the centrist Scelta Civica of former PM Mario Monti, and some independents.

So, how did cannabis all of a sudden become so popular in Italy's two chambers of parliament?

The answer is it didn't happen overnight, but the practical reasons in favour of legalisation seem to have struck a chord with many MPs.

italy cannabis marihuana albania police greece
Police burn 1.6 tonnes (1,600 kilograms) of cannabis in a valley south-east of Tirana, Albania. According to authorities, the cannabis was seized as it was being transported out of producing areas like Lazarat near the Greek border in the south, being ferried across the Adriatic to Italy hidden in commercial vehicles, or from the rocky coastal area of the Karaburun Peninsula in western Albania's Vlore REUTERS/Arben Celi

Why go green: Anti-Mafia police say it's a good idea

The Italian proposal came as the prohibition model entered a period of global crisis, with its benefits disputed by experts and governments.

A 2014 London School of Economics (LSE) report, for example, urged the United Nations to drastically change its hard-line approach, saying that despite increased spending, decades of 'war on drugs' have failed to yield results.

"The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global 'war on drugs' strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage," the paper read.

The problem is not to be in favour or against legalisation but to regulate an already free market.
- Cross-party committee Cannabis Legale manifesto

"These include mass incarceration in the US, highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilisation in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication, and the propagation of systematic human rights abuses around the world."

Similar views were recently used by authorities in Uruguay and several US states, including Colorado and Washington, to legalise cannabis.

Back in Italy, the turning point came earlier this year, as the National Anti-Mafia Directorate (DNA), the authority in charge of fighting organised crime, suggested reforms to decriminalise cannabis-related crimes were needed.

In its annual report, it said security forces could no longer afford diverting resources to the fight against cannabis as consumption was spreading despite security forces' "best efforts", noting that repressive action was to date "a total failure".

State income would be absolutely remarkable.
- Benedetto Della Vedova

According to the report, up to 3,000 tonnes (6.6 million pounds) of cannabis are illegally sold each year in Italy, enough for each national, children included, to smoke two to four joints a week, for a total market worth up to an estimated €30bn (£21bn, $32bn).

The appraisal is based on the amount of drugs seized by police, which is supposedly a small fraction of the total amount in commerce. In the 12 months running from June 2013 to June 2014, the DNA said they intercepted 4,499kg of cocaine, 851kg of heroin, and 147,132kg of cannabis, making the latter by far the most popular drug in the southern European nation.

DNA recommendations on drug policies are not easily ignored in Italy, as this is the authority waging war in Europe against the largest drug cartel, the Ndrangheta, and other mafia clans that plague the country.

The DNA also pulls quite considerable political weight. For example, Pietro Grasso, the current president of the Senate which is the second highest office in the country, is its former chief.

Finally, critics say that the post-2005 crackdown on drugs has exacerbated systemic problems, engulfing Italy's traditionally congested courts with a wave of low profile cases that went on to strain the country's overcrowded jails.

Marijuana cannabis legalisation
Cannabis plants are pictured in a state-owned agricultural farm in Rovigo, Italy, about 60km (40mi) from Venice. Italy legalised marijuana for medical use in 2013 but the high cost of buying legal pot in a pharmacy meant few people signed up REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Why go green: Money

Italy is currently struggling to get out of an economic crisis that has left the government desperate for cash. In May its debt touched a record €2.2tn, 132% percent of GDP, which is expected to grow of 0.7% this in 2015 after years of recession.

Thus, the prospective of fresh income from taxation and licensing is quite alluring to the government.

"I believe this is the strongest argument in favour of the bill," Pier Luigi Petrillo a public Law professor at Rome's Luiss University and lobbying expert told IBTimes UK.

"Particularly so now that the government has pledged to cut taxes and has to find revenue elsewhere. Most reforms are done with an eye to the wallet and this one creates revenue, not costs".

According to a study published last year, new business generated by the law could result in an increase of GDP fluctuating between 1.20% and 2.34%.

"Thousands of new jobs could be created," said Della Vedova. "State income would be absolutely remarkable and quite higher than, for example, that granted by the controversial first home tax which today is worth about €3.4m".

Benefits could be even greater, as the figure doesn't take into account resources now allocated to fight cannabis related crimes, could also be diverted elsewhere creating new efficiencies.

What the bill says

A vendor sells marijuana at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles. Reuters

Drafted by the Intergruppo Parlamentare Cannabis Legale, the proposed legislation would allow everyone over the age of 18 to grow up to five plants at home.

Resident growers could also team to form a "cannabis social club", with a maximum of 50 people cultivating up to 250 plants.

In both cases the product will have to be consumed or shared by the farmers, who are banned from selling and profiting from it and have to notify authorities about their activity.

All other individuals will be allowed to store up to 15g of marijuana at home and carry up to 5g, with higher quantities being allowed for medical use.

Breaches would not lead to criminal charges but only to administrative sanctions. Smoking in public areas is to remain strictly prohibited and so will be advertising, exporting and importing all cannabis products.

Larger scale production and sale will be controlled by a state monopoly, with the government regulating the sale of licences.

Retail sale in particular would be restricted to dedicated stores, something similar to the Dutch coffee shops.

The level of taxation has not been defined but Della Vedova explained a balance will have to be found so as not to fuel a black market, while at the same time not encouraging consumption by making marijuana very cheap.

According to the text, the state will reinvest 5% of all revenue from licensing and taxation in anti-drug projects and all income from fines into education and rehabilitation programmes.

Last but not least, the measure would slash prison sentence terms handed down according to the 2005 law by two thirds, an amnesty that is likely to sensibly reduce the inmate population.

marijuana legalisation
Christian Avarello from Italy lights up a joint purely made of marijuana in a coffee shop in Amsterdam REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Is it going to pass?

"Our parliament's recent history teaches that legislations proposed by the parliament without the backing of the government is very rarely approved," noted Petrillo. "So chances are quite low unless the government decides to take responsibility for it".

Although many MPs who threw their weight behind the proposal are members of the governing coalition, legalisation is not a government priority, and indeed not a government plan at all as Prime Minister Renzi has not expressed himself on the subject yet. The PM is quite sensitive to public opinion, which remains volatile.

The far-right populist Northern League party is opposing the plan. Its firebrand leader said legalizing prostitution would be a better option as "sex does no harm, cannabis does."

Also against the proposal are some drug rehabilitation groups, such as the San Patrignano community.

Its social committee coordinator Antonio Tinelli told IBTimes UK that, based on their hands-on experience, legalisation will reduce the risk perception connected to weed, eventually creating more addicts.

"For example, since gambling has been legalised there has been an expansion of the problem and we are currently treating a dozen betting addicts," he said, adding that "98% of people we help have started out with drugs smoking a joint."

Does public opinion count?

On the other hand, Della Vedova said opinion polls show a majority of Italians favour alternative approaches. A survey by pollster Ipsos found that 77% of interviewees said Italy should follow the path taken by Colorado and other US states.

Benedetto Della Vedova
Italy´s Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs Benedetto Della Vedova. DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

"Today, negative views on prohibition's failure have more weight than in the past," says Della Vedova.

"There is no favourable opinion towards hashish and marijuana consumption, which is still viewed with suspicion and fear, but this is getting less and less relevant in the face of a reality that tells us prohibition favours the spread of cannabis instead of hindering it."

Interestingly, the Vatican and its Italian Episcopal Conference, which is traditionally quite vocal on Italian political matters touching on morals and ethics, have not voiced any opinion yet.

"The options are two; they are studying what position to take or they have been told not to say anything," noted Petrillo.

The second option might be the result of the more progressive course started by Pope Francis, who has already steered the Catholic Church in the direction of a more open position towards homosexual people, and recently drank a tea of coca leaves during a trip to South America.

"This silence certainly strengthens the bill's hopes," says Petrillo. "Many MPs are also Catholics and I'm not sure they would have signed the text if the Pope had spoken against it."

Among the strongest endorsements received by the measure was an opinion piece written for Il Corriere della Sera - Italy's largest circulation newspaper - by former health minister Umberto Veronesi, a highly regarded oncologist.

"The question is not whether marijuana is detrimental to health or not: it surely is," he wrote, in the article that soon became the paper's most read online.

"Tobacco use is also widely recognised as one of the most severe social and health issues globally. Cigarettes however are not banned. If we are not able to dissuade our children from smoking cigarettes and joints, at least let's not throw them in the arms of the mafia."

Parliamentary discussion on the proposal is likely to start after the summer and it might take up to two years for a text to be approved by both chambers.

Della Vedova is nevertheless optimistic. "So far more than ¼ of all lawmakers have signed the bill, these include more than third of the deputies sitting in the Chamber. So there is a concrete possibility that this proposal will be approved."