Eoin Keenan, Content Director, Prohibition Partners
The Supreme Court of Cassation said existing laws do not permit the sale or transfer, for any reason, of products ‘derived from the cultivation of cannabis’, and that products currently on sale including oil, leaves, inflorescences and resin must be removed from shelves. The move is a bitter blow to Italy’s burgeoning cannabis light sales, and comes amid a right-wing government push that may derail the country’s attempt to re-establish itself as a global hemp superpower.
The Backstory of cannabis light sales
Earlier this month, Italy’s right-leaning Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, threatened to close down every legal cannabis shop in the country ‘one by one’, and bring down the government should its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, not go along with his plan.
In a broadside against retailers selling so-called ‘cannabis light’, the minister said the war on drugs was ‘a new national emergency’, and that unless the government closed ‘these places of mass miseducation’ he would pull the plug on Italy’s fragile ruling coalition.
Industry observers said Salvini’s remarks were an emotive play to stir up nationalist feelings, and his intervention was viewed as unhelpful at best as the Supreme Court of Cassation was due to make its judgment on the right to sell hemp-derived cannabinoids.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio both distanced themselves from Salvini’s comments. Di Maio’s party have previously presented a bill to fully legalise cannabis.
‘The job of the Minister of the Interior is to solve the real drug problem that is fought daily on the streets and squares of our cities,’ said Italian cannabis entrepreneur Dr David Feig. ‘Salvini’s statements now are problematic for many reasons, not least because hemp is not an illegal drug. Italian law stipulates that industrial hemp with a THC content of less than 0.2% is excluded from international drug conventions.’
Legal grey area for cannabis light sales
In 2016, Italian retailers exploited a regulatory grey area that emerged following the creation of a law allowing them to sell hemp flowers. The flowers are labelled ‘not for human consumption’, and are sold as ‘collectors’ items’. With little clarity around ingestion, the ‘cannabis light’ product was created, and eventually spawned franchises that resulted in an offshoot market.
While flowers have been listed as a ‘collectors’ item’, users have been ingesting them as a mild, legal form of cannabis. Traders have reported police seizing products and shutting down their shops without legal basis.
The authorities claimed that Italian law means sellers are guilty of criminal conduct under Presidential Decree 309/1990, and that ‘cannabis light’ products are not being marketed correctly.
Industry groups say they are waiting for more detail on the ruling from the court (Cassazione), but criticised the decision as politically motivated and without merit. They told Italian media that cannabis production has multiplied tenfold in the last five years, creating hundreds of jobs, and that to issue a blanket ban on the product while the country’s economy was troubled was ‘paradoxical’.
A Booming cannabis light sales market
CBD sales have boomed in Italy, raking in an estimated turnover of €6.5 million (£5.64 million) in 2018. More than 300 CBD stores opened in 2018, a rise of 75% on the previous year.
The soaring market has been hailed as a way of revitalising Italy’s powerful hemp industry, which until the 1940s was the second largest in the world until the advancement of synthetics such as nylon from the US, and the advent of war, killed off production.
‘Restoring industrial cannabis growth would have a huge economic impact on Italy,’ said Dr Feig. ‘There are estimates it could bring in more than €40 million from its multiple uses in textile fiber, insulating materials, food and cosmetic products.’
He said he felt it was a ‘political responsibility’ to protect the hemp sector, and that Italian politics had other priorities such as sorting out the country’s significant financial problems.
What next for medical cannabis?
Italy is considered a European forerunner when it comes to progressive cannabis legislation, and medical cannabis has been available since 2013. However, production is carried out by one licensee in a military base, which limits the amounts available. To address the shortfall, the product is imported from the Netherlands, which prices out most Italian patients.
In August 2018, the government said it wanted to scale up domestic production, and would look at new sites. Italian Health Minister Giulia Grillo published a Facebook post after visiting the Military Pharmaceutical Chemical Plant.
Italian law permits the health ministry to give licences to private companies, but there has been little political will to increase public-private partnerships.
Although the full written judgement is unavailable yesterday’s verdict means that the sale of cannabis light is prosecutable. No formal change of legislation has happened yet, so we should not expect all stores to shut immediately; that will depend on local enforcement.
For a full review of cannabis across Europe, download The European Cannabis Report: 5th Edition.