Cannabis Ruderalis

Cannabis in Italy is legal for medical and industrial uses, although it is strictly regulated, while it is decriminalized for recreational uses. In particular, the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use is a misdemeanor and it is subjected to fines, as well as the suspension of personal documents (e.g. passports and driver's licenses). Nevertheless, the unauthorized sale of cannabis-related products is illegal and punishable with imprisonment, as is the unlicensed cultivation of cannabis, although recent court cases have effectively established the legality of cultivating cannabis in small amounts and for exclusively personal use. The licensed cultivation of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes requires the use of certified seeds, however there is no need for authorization in order to plant certified seeds with minimal levels of psychoactive compounds (a.k.a. cannabis light).[1][2]

The history of cannabis cultivation in Italy dates back to Roman times, when it was primarily used to produce hemp ropes, although pollen records from core samples show that Cannabaceae plants were present in the Italian peninsula since at least the Late Pleistocene. The mass cultivation of industrial cannabis for the production of hemp fiber in Italy really took off during the period of the Maritime Republics and the Age of Sail, and continued well after the Italian Unification, only to experience a sudden decline during the second half of the XX century, with the introduction of synthetic fibers and the start of the War on Drugs, and only recently it is slowly experiencing a resurgence.

History of cannabis in Italy[edit]

Prehistory[edit]

The family of Cannabaceae includes the two genera of cannabis and humulus, with the former believed to be native exclusively to Asia, while the latter also to Europe.[3] According to Herodotus, the Scythians brought hemp from Asia to Europe during their migrations around 1500 B.C., while the Teutons were a major factor in the spread of the cultivation of hemp throughout Europe.[4]

Nevertheless, the oldest evidence of the presence of cannabis and humulus in central Italy dates back to the Late Glacial, as inferred from sediment cores extracted from the Albano and Nemi lakes, in which pollen records show an increase in the human influence on the local vegetation.[3] In particular, humulus pollen values increase during the mid Holocene, while hemp pollen values start to rise from about 3000 cal BP (i.e. 1050 B.C.) onwards, reaching their earliest peak during the I century A.D., as a clear consequence of the cultivation of hemp by the Romans, although the pre-Roman trends can be attributed to natural sources, and possibly to anthropogenic sources as well.[3]

Ancient Rome[edit]

Relief depicting a Gallo-Roman farmer harvesting crops.

In the I century A.D., Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described in his Naturalis Historia the cultivation and use of cannabis plants in the Roman Empire, both for industrial and medical purposes.[5][6] Ancient Romans would sow hemp seeds during spring and harvest the ripe hemp seeds after the autumn equinox, after which they were dried in the sun, or the wind, or by the smoke of a fire, while the hemp plants were plucked after the vintage, to be then peeled and cleaned.[5] According to the De re rustica by Lucius Columella, hemp plants require either rich, manured, and well-watered soil, or alternatively soil that is level, moist, and deeply worked.[7] Roman farmers would plant six hemp seeds per square foot toward the end of February however, if the weather was rainy, sowing could be done up to the spring equinox without harming the crop.[7]

The main use of hemp fiber was for manufacturing ropes, sheets, wickers, and nets;[8] in particular Pliny mentions three Alabandica varieties to be the best ones to be used for hunting nets, the variety produced in Mylasa to be the second best, and the hemp cultivated in the Sabine territory to be particularly tall.[5] Furthermore, archaeological excavations at Pompeii, in Campania felix (i.e. part of what is now Campania), unearthed samples of hemp textiles that have been preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.,[9] reportedly including cloth sandals made of hemp.[10] In 2018, excavations on the eastern bank of the ancient Natiso cum Turro river of Aquileia, in the area of Venetia et Histria that is now Friuli-Venezia Giulia, revealed the first system of basins from the Roman world that is known to have been used for the maceration of hemp, as inferred from archaeobotanical and archaeo-palynological studies of the site.[8] The long and shallow pools were dated between the late II - early III century A.D. and the late III - early IV century A.D.; they were delimited by parapets made of clay, sand, and tiny pebbles; and they were coated by thin layers of cocciopesto for waterproofing.[8] Similarly to more recent water retting procedures, the harvested stalks of cannabis sativa were bundled into sheafs and then submerged into either stagnant or running water by tying them to dedicated poles, in order to extract the fiber.[8]

In Italia, different parts of the hemp plants were used for various culinary purposes, in particular Pliny mentions hemp seeds being stored in pots for later use and lasting for as much as one year, while the stalks and branches were used as vegetables.[5] In terms of the contemporary beliefs on cannabis plants and the effects of their personal use, according to Pliny, wild hemp first grew in woods and had darker and rougher leaves, while its seeds were said to cause impotence.[6] The juice derived from it was used to drive out worms and other creatures that could enter the ears, although it would cause headache as a side effect, and it was said to be so potent that it was able to coagulate water when it was poured into it.[6] Furthermore, when the hemp juice was mixed with water and then drunk by beasts of burden, it was said to be able to regulate their bowels.[6] Moreover, hemp roots boiled in water were thought to ease cramped joints, gout, and similar violent pains, while they could also be applied raw to burns, but they would be changed before getting dry.[6]

Middle Ages[edit]

Miniature depicting a medieval baker with his apprentice.

For several centuries, hemp seeds have been used for food, especially by the poorer social classes, since they were inexpensive, rich in nutrients, and available even during droughts.[11][12] In fact, several centuries-old Italian recipes use cannabis sativa as the main ingredient, such as:[12]

Republic of Venice[edit]

Engraving depicting the spinning process in the XVII century.

The mass production of naval ropes from hemp at the Venetian Arsenal dates back to between 1304 and 1322, when the first Corderia was established, known as the Tana hemp house.[13] The raw material was mainly imported from the Don river delta, on the Azov Sea, through trade agreements, and it was primarily used to manufacture ropes at a low cost, but it was also used for caulking ship hulls.[13]

The produced ropes would then be safely stored, thus creating strategic stockpiles that would allow the Republic to remain independent from external suppliers during wartime.[13] When needed, the rope would be taken out of storage through dedicated holes, and cut at the required size, rather than already being produced with standardized lengths, while the fiber of any leftover would be repurposed.[13] The rope could also be sold at a lower price to foreign ships transiting at the port, thus making it competitive in the international market at the time.[13]

Traditional hemp rope making[edit]

Hemp rope (150 m long, 4 cm thick), exhibited at the Corderie Royale in Rochefort, France.

At the Tana hemp house, the hemp fiber would arrive in large square bales, already macerated and dry, and it would be forcefully slammed against a wooden pole, equipped with metal rods, to complete the breakage of the stalk.[14] The remaining woody fragments would then be removed using comb-like tools of different shapes for both coarser and finer combing, in preparation for the spinning phase.[14] The winding machine would consist in a large rotating wooden wheel, placed vertically and firmly fixed to the ground, equipped with laterally protruding rods that supported a winding rope connecting the wheel to several interchangeable wooden cylinders of different dimensions, depending on the final size of the rope to be produced, which were located a few meters away.[14]

The rotating wheel would make such cylinders spin, and they would be used to either twist a twine (with a single cylinder), or intertwine three or four strings (with multiple cylinders) to produce different types of rope.[14] Several other tools would be used to keep the rope always tightly stretched, to avoid hand contact with the rope during twisting, and to keep it lubricated in order to prevent any friction-related heat.[14] Afterwards, the rope would be soaked overnight, and then an iron mesh would be used to rub the rope, in order to remove the last few remaining streaks, while a stretch of coarse rope would be rolled up and run around the rope for a final smoothing and polishing.[14]

Kingdom of Italy[edit]

Advertisement for cannabis indica cigarettes, which are promoted as a remedy for several ailments, Bergamo Provincial Gazette, 1881.

In 1914, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) compiled a report on the worldwide production of hemp, citing Italy as one of the main producer of hemp fiber for export, together with Russia, Hungary, and Romania.[15] In fact, the yearly average estimates for the five years between 1909 and 1913 reported 80,902 ha (i.e. 809.02 km2) of farm land in Italy being occupied by hemp fields, producing 83,500 t of hemp fiber, compared to a yearly worldwide production ranging between 500,000 and 800,000 t.[16]

As an average, the hemp fiber produced in Italy was exported at a rate of 50% of production, together with a considerable amount of tow, with the available yearly export estimates reporting 51,942 t of hemp fiber in 1924, 46,355.7 t in 1925, 53,697.1 t in 1926, and 83,903.3 t in 1927, which were mainly acquired by Germany, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States.[16] Hemp seeds were mainly used for planting new crops, but they were also exported, especially the Carmagnola variety.[16]

The USDA report described the Italian hemp as the highest-priced hemp fiber in both the American and European markets, noting that it was obtained from plants that were similar to those cultivated in Kentucky at the time.[15] The cause of the higher price was attributed to the process of water retting, as well as to the increased care and labor involved in the preparation of the fiber. This made the water-retted Italian hemp less competitive against the dew-retted American hemp, whose main competitors at the time were the dew-retted Russian and Hungarian hemp.[15] Nevertheless, its different qualities made it more suitable for use in certain kinds of twines, as well as the finer grades of carpet warp, for which the American hemp was not well suited.[15]

The 1914 report identified four main varieties of hemp being cultivated in Italy:[15]

  • the Bologna, (a.k.a. great hemp or chanvre de Piedmont in France), was cultivated in the provinces of Bologna, Ferrara, and Modena in Emilia-Romagna, and Rovigo in Veneto. This variety averaged nearly 12 ft (i.e. 3.66 m) in height thanks to the local rich alluvial soil, as well as the intensive cultivation that was practiced there. However, the variety was found to deteriorate rapidly when cultivated elsewhere, namely ranging just between 8 and 11 ft (i.e. 2.44 and 3.35 m) in height when grown in dedicated test sites that were set up in Washington, D.C. and Lexington, KY. Nevertheless, it was recommended in the USDA report as one of the most promising varieties for introduction in the United States, in small quantities, for the purpose of improving the Kentucky hemp by means of cross-fertilisation and selection.
  • the Canapa piccola, (a.k.a. small hemp), was cultivated in the Arno valley in Tuscany, with plants ranging between 4 and 7 ft (i.e. 1.22 and 2.13 m) in height locally, while ranging between 4 and 6 ft (i.e. 1.22 and 1.83 m) in height in the test sites.
  • the Neapolitan, large seeded variety, was cultivated in Campania in the vicinity of Naples and even on the sides of Mount Vesuvius, with plants ranging between 7 and 10 ft (i.e. 2.13 and 3.05 m) in height in the test sites.
  • the Neapolitan, small seeded variety, was cultivated in the same area of the large seeded variety, with plants rarely exceeding 4 ft (i.e. 1.22 m) in height in the test sites.

Hemp fiber production[edit]

A Swedish woman scutching flax by hand, in the early 1900s.

The hemp plants were harvested between the end of July and the beginning of August, either manually or mechanically, after which the stalks were bundled together, stacked, weighed down, and immersed into tanks filled with soft water.[15][16][17][18][19] The initial water retting usually lasted for eight days, after which the sheafs were taken out and dried, and then returned to the tanks for a second slightly longer retting, resulting in a soft white fiber.[15] In the retting tanks, specific bacteria (e.g. Bacillus felsineus)[16] processed the stalks while being kept at the best conditions in terms of temperature and air supply,[15] although in some locations the same process was done using running water.[16] The retting lasted until the bark, which includes the fiber, readily separated from the stalk, after which the process was interrupted before other bacteria could attack the fiber.[15] After water retting, the inner woody shell of the barks was broken into pieces and removed using either manual tools or movable breaking-and-scutching machines, thus leaving just the clean, long, and straight fiber.[15][17][18][19]

Besides the need of deep, soft, moist, and deeply worked soil that is rich in organic matter, several other factors were identified that could affect both the quality and the quantity of the produced hemp fiber:[16]

  • During the sowing, in March, farmers had to take into account the quality of the soil, the amount of fertilizer used, and the desired fiber qualities. In particular, densely planted seeds would produce taller and less-ramified plants, resulting in a long, fine, and delicate fiber, while sparser seeds would produce a coarser and more resistant one.
  • During the harvest, between the end of July and the beginning of August, the maturity of the hemp plant had to be carefully assessed, since a difference of a few days could have significant effects. In particular, a premature harvest would produce a paler, less resistant fiber, and also in smaller quantities, while a late harvest would return a thicker, darker, rougher fiber, which was also more labor-intensive to extract.
  • During the water retting, farmers used their experience and knowledge to determine its duration, which ranged between four and ten days, depending on factors like the water temperature and quality, as well as the particular hemp variety used. Moreover, the quality of the water within the open-air retting tanks was greatly affected by adverse weather, as well as the consecutive rettings of multiple stocks. Furthermore, the possible mishandling of the hemp stalks during this difficult process could also damage the fiber.
  • After the retting, the numerous sheafs were each untied at one end and the stalks were then left to dry in the open in cone-shaped stacks. In case of fair weather, the hemp would acquire a good, bright color between blond and light silver, while rain would prevent the hemp from properly drying, and make it lose color and brightness. Moreover, the mud at the feet of the stalks would cause irregular hues, while the dripping rainwater would affect the divisibility of the fiber, and therefore its fineness, elasticity, and spinability. These risks were significant, since the twice or thrice-repeated retting could extend the process to a few weeks, thus increasing the probability of bad weather.

Nevertheless, the average yield in Italy, based on statements of annual average yields for 5 to 10 years, was estimated in 1914 to be equal to 622 lb (i.e. 282.13 kg) of hemp fiber per acre, which was the second-biggest yield in Europe after France, which produced an average of 662 lb (i.e. 300.28 kg) per acre.[15] In the 1920s, the average yield in the whole Kingdom was instead reported equal to 1,000 kg/ha (i.e. 404.69 kg per acre), with peaks of more than 1200 kg/ha (i.e. 485.61 kg per acre) in the major production centers.[16]

In the 1940s, Italy was believed to be the second-biggest producer of industrial cannabis in the world, after the Soviet Union, although statistics from China, another major producer, are not available.[20] According to the national farmers association Coldiretti, almost 100,000 ha (i.e. 1,000 km2) of farm land in Italy were dedicated to the production of cannabis at the time.[21] Moreover, according to contemporary newsreels, the main hemp-producing Regions were Emilia-Romagna, Terra di Lavoro, and Piedmont, with the annual national production of bast fibre reaching as much as 130,000 t, while the average yield was still reported equal to 1,000 kg/ha (i.e. 404.69 kg per acre).[17][19] In addition to the areas previoulsy mentioned in the 1914 USDA report, further noteworthy centers for the cultivation of industrial cannabis were located in Frattamaggiore and Aversa in Campania, and Carmagnola in Piedmont.[22][23] Moreover, located near the Ear of Dionysius in Syracuse, Sicily, the wide humid spaces within the Grotta dei Cordari (i.e. Cave of the Ropemakers) have been utilized as ropewalks for three centuries, using hemp produced in Campania, until the last ropemakers left in 1984 due to the risk of collapse.[24][25]

National yearly estimates or averages for the production of hemp in Italy, with the extrapolated data given in italics.[16][21][26][27][28][29]
Year Cultivation area [ha] Production [t] Production rate [kg/ha] Export [t] Import [t] World cultivation area [ha] World production [t]
1909-1913 80,902 83,500 1,032.11 - - - 500,000 - 800,000
1924 - - - 51,942 - - -
1925 - - - 46,355.7 - - -
1926 - - - 53,697.1 - - 699,100
1927 - - - 83,903.3 - - -
1928-1938 73,529.41 75,000 1,020 - - - 420,000
1936-1939 85,000 110,000 1,176.47 - - - -
1938 - - - - - - 413,500
1941 102,500 135,300 1,320 - - - -
1945 - - - - - - 280,000
1947 52,380.95 55,000 1,050 7,500 - - -
1948-1952 - - - 22,000 - - -
1954 - - - 33,706 - - -
1958 16,000 15,000 937.5 10,300 - - -
1959 17,000 - - 11,562 - - -
1961-1965 10,000 - - - - 633,000 362,000
1972-1973 - - - - - - 260,000
1973 270 300 1,111.11 - 8,238 439,000 -
1991 0 0 0 - - 330,000 -
2013 400 - - - - - -
2018 4,000 - - - - - -

Republic of Italy[edit]

The decline of hemp production in Italy came with the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, during which time synthetic fibers were introduced into the market and the international campaign against narcotics intensified.[21] In particular, Italy endorsed all the three major drug control treaties, namely the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988, and soon after the passage of the anti-drug Cossiga Law 685/75 of 1975, hemp fields in Italy all but disappeared.[21]

In the 1950s, while the Soviet Union remained the biggest producer of hemp in the world, Italy was overtaken by India in the second place, and then by Yugoslavia in the third place.[27] The production of hemp in Asia in general, and India in particular, did not yet show significant oscillations since switching to more profitable crops was not yet feasible, and similarly in Yugoslavia and eastern Europe the trend remained more or less stationary.[27] Nevertheless, the total cultivation area in Europe was ever-shrinking, namely declining by 45.3% between 1961 and 1973, with the regional reduction peaking at 97.3% in Italy.[28] In particular, hemp fields in the Soviet Union were reduced from an average of 663,000 ha (i.e. 6,630 km2) between 1934 and 1938, to an average of 556,000 ha (i.e. 5,560 km2) between 1948 and 1952, and then to 400,000 ha (i.e. 4,000 km2) in 1958; while in Italy the cultivation area declined from an average of 85,000 ha (i.e. 850 km2) between 1936 and 1939, to 16,000 ha (i.e. 160 km2) in 1958.[27]

Global exports of hemp fiber were also declining, namely dropping by 46% from an average of 70,000 t between 1948 and 1952, to 38,000 t in 1958.[27] In particular, Italy was the biggest exporter between 1948 and 1952 with 22,000 t of fiber and 9,000 t of tow, followed by India with 22,000 t of fiber, and then by Yugoslavia with 5,000 t of fiber and 7,000 t of tow; however, India was the biggest exporter in 1958 with 11,200 t of fiber, followed by Yugoslavia with 10,600 t, and then by Italy with 10,300 t.[27]

The main importers of Italian hemp were West Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, France, Austria, and the United Kingdom, while Italy started importing hemp mainly fom Yugoslavia and India.[27] In 1973, Italy was the biggest importer with 8,238 t, which accounted for 25.8% of the global demand, while no significant export was reported, considering that the total cultivation area was reduced to just 270 ha (i.e. 2.7 km2), producing 300 t of fiber.[28] The decline of hemp production in Italy was more pronounced in the North, while it was slower in the South, but it was nevertheless irreversible.[27] In particular, Campania accounted for 77% of the national cultivation area in 1958, followed at a significant distance by Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont, with the latter being noteworthy primarily for the production of hemp seeds rather than fiber.[27] In 1991, Italy was still reported as the biggest importer of hemp, while the national production completely ceased by that time.[29] Similarly, world production continued to decline, with the total cultivation area reduced to 330,000 ha (i.e. 3,300 km2), while India and China both surpassed the Soviet Union, which was still a major producer nonetheless, to contend for the position of biggest producer.[29]

Drug prohibition[edit]

CBD pre-rolled joints infused with hemp flower and delta-8 THC.

The Law 685/75 introduced the concept of modest quantity in order to differentiate between those who merely consume drugs and those who push them, with the latter being the ones whom the law was supposed to punish, while previously no such distinction was made.[30] Nevertheless, with the lack of a specific definition for what constitutes a modest quantity of a certain drug, the matter was left to the discretion of the judges, and thus the Supreme Court of Cassation presented guidelines so that judges would reach consistent verdicts.[30] In particular, the guidelines established that a modest quantity did not necessarily refer to a particular quantity of narcotics and that, before reaching a verdict, a court had to clarify the level of drug dependence of the defendant, and to scientifically establish the nature and composition of the confiscated drugs, as well as the average quantity of active principles that could be obtained from them.[30] However, the so-called Iervolino-Vassalli Law, which was included in the Presidential Decree DPR 309/90 of 1990, substituted the concept of modest quantity with the one of average daily dose, where the maximum quantities that could be legally consumed were defined for each drug by Ministerial Decree.[30]

In the context of the DPR 309/90, a mere drug abuser is considered to be a patient in need of rehabilitation, and therefore not subjected to penal system, but they can still be subjected to administrative penalties.[30] Such penalties include the suspension of their driver's licence, gun licence, and passport, for a period of at least one month and at most one year.[30] Nevertheless, the Radical Party led by Marco Pannella successfully campaigned for a referendum that repealed criminal penalties for the personal use of soft drugs in 1993,[31] and thus the concept of average daily dose was eliminated, while the judicial discretion on a case-by-case basis was re-established.[30]

In 2006, the controversial Fini-Giovanardi Law 49/06 removed the distinction between hard and soft drugs, and thus made the possession of marijuana and hashish punishable as harshly as the possession of heroin or cocaine, until it was eventually struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2014.[32] In particular, the Law 49/06 tripled sentences for selling, cultivating, and possessing cannabis from 2–6 years to 6–20 years, thus leading to prison overcrowding, with 40% of inmates being jailed for drug-related crimes, although cannabis consumption was never criminalized.[33][34] Furthermore, the Law 49/06 introduced the criterion of quintifying the amount of active principle within the confiscated drugs, as well as a zero-tolerance policy regarding behaviors and circumstances which could indicate drug trafficking.[30] As a consequence, a crime would be committed if the quantity of active principle was above the limits set by the Ministerial Table, which for cannabis was established at 500 mg, corresponding to a gross weight of about 5 g, or about 15-20 joints.[30]

Recent developments[edit]

A hemp field in Côtes-d'Armor, Brittany, France.

In recent years, hemp production for medical and industrial purposes has seen a resurgence in Italy thanks to new technologies and innovative applications involving hemp plants. In particular, hundreds of new businesses started growing cannabis in several Regions after looser requirements came into force in 2016 regarding the cultivation of cannabis plants with levels of THC below 0.2% (a.k.a. cannabis light), with the estimated cultivation area increasing 10 fold, from 400 ha (i.e. 4 km2) in 2013 to almost 4,000 ha (i.e. 40 km2) in 2018.[21] Furthermore, it is estimated that with the potential redevelopment of already-existing greenhouses, which either fell into disuse or were abandoned due to the crisis of the horti-floriculture sector, Italy would have ready access to a further 1,000 ha (i.e. 10 km2) of farm land for the production of medical cannabis within secure environments.[35]

At the same time, the area dedicated to hemp cultivation in the entire European Union increased by 75.1%, from 19,970 ha (i.e. 199.7 km2) in 2015 to 34,960 ha (i.e. 349.6 km2) in 2019, while the production of hemp increased by 62.4%, from 94,120 to 152,820 t.[36] At present, France is the largest hemp producer, accounting for more than 70% of the EU production, followed by the Netherlands at 10%, and Austria at 4%.[36]

Legalization efforts[edit]

Pro-legalization graffiti in Venice, marking the cannabis leaf symbol as Erba Buona (i.e. good weed), and the symbol of the Northern League party as Erba Cattiva (i.e. bad weed).

At present, the possession of cannabis for personal use is decriminalized and subjected to fines and the confiscation of personal documents like passports and driver's licenses, while its unlicensed cultivation and sale are still illegal, and punishable with a prison sentence between 2 and 6 years, as well as a fine between €26,000 and €260,000 (i.e. between about 29,000 and 290,000 US$).[37][38] Nevertheless, according to a 2015 poll by Ipsos, 83% of Italians deem laws prohibiting soft drugs as ineffective, 73% are in favour of legal cannabis, and 58% think that legalization would benefit public finances.[39] In terms of consumption, 25% of people aged 15 to 19 years old have admitted using cannabis for recreational purposes at least once in 2014.[39] Moreover, according to a 2018 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Italy ranks third in the European Union in terms of cannabis use.[40][41]

The popularity of recreational cannabis led in 2016 to renewed legalization efforts in Parliament, where legislation was proposed with the support of several politicians, mainly from the centre-left Democratic Party, the left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the anti-prohibition Radical Party, and even a few from the conservative Forza Italia party, as well as members of the Anti-Mafia Directorate.[32][39][42][43] Proponents of the legislation point to the failure of prohibitionism in reducing cannabis consumption and argue that legalizing cannabis would regulate the circulation of cannabis-related products, reduce consumption among adolescents,[44] allow the police and courts to focus their resources on other issues, and deprive criminal organizations of a significant source of revenue by redirecting it toward the State in the form of taxes, similarly to what happened in Colorado after it legalized cannabis in 2012.[38][39][42][43] In particular, the value of the illegal cannabis market in Italy is estimated between 7.2 billion and more than 30 billion euros, while the potential tax revenue from legal cannabis is estimated between 5.5 and 8.5 billion euros.[32][38][39] Moreover, the potential GDP boost resulting from a legal cannabis market in Italy is estimated between 1.30% and 2.34%.[32]

Nevertheless, legalization efforts were opposed by several conservative and catholic-leaning politicians, mainly from the Northern League party and the New Centre-Right party, who argued that the consumption of cannabis constitutes a health risk and that legalization will not reduce drug addiction.[32][38][45] The PD-led coalition government at the time, of which the New Centre-Right was a partner, was mainly focused on ensuring the passage of constititutional reforms, therefore cannabis legalization was not considered a priority.[32][38][39] After the defeat of the constitutional referendum and the subsequent resignation of then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on 12 December 2016, legalization efforts stalled in Parliament.

Cannabis light[edit]

In 2016, the "cannabis light" Law 242/16 removed the need for authorization to plant certified cannabis seeds with levels of THC below 0.2%, while the detection of THC levels between 0.2% and 0.6% during field inspections is still considered acceptable, when it can be attributed to natural causes.[20][21] The law also requires farmers to keep the certification receipts for up to one year, however the use of cannabis leaves and inflorescences for edible products is still prohibited.[20][21] The potential revenue from the sale of cannabis light in Italy was estimated to be more than 40 million euros, and by 2018 hundreds of new businesses started growing cannabis in several Regions.[21]

Even though these looser requirements were originally intended to benefit farmers growing industrial hemp, with the production being limited to the 75 varieties of industrial hemp certified by the European Union,[36] a lack of clarity regarding the use of cannabis inflorescences effectively created a booming unregulated market for recreational light cannabis.[20][41] Since the law does not explicitly prohibit the sale of hemp flowers, customers can legally buy them, and then they can simply crumble them, roll them, and smoke them.[41] The aforementioned 0.2% limit for the allowed THC content is considerably lower than the 15-25% range typically found in marijuana, thus preventing cannabis light users from actually getting stoned, however proponents of cannabis legalization are confident that the spread of cannabis light can contribute to the normalization of cannabis overall.[20]

Nevertheless, in September 2018, then Interior Minister and Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini issued a memo to law enforcement agencies outlining a zero-tolerance policy towards cannabis retailers.[46] In particular, the directive stated that cannabis products that contain THC levels above 0.2%, or that are made from plants not included in the official list of industrial hemp varieties, must be considered as narcotics and thus confiscated.[46] Moreover, the Superior Council of Health, which provides technical-scientific counsel to the Ministry of Health, recommended in April 2018 to stop the free sale of cannabis light, as a public health precaution.[47] The Council argued that the industrial applications of cannabis, as envisaged in the Law 242/16, do not include cannabis inflorescences; and they also cited a lack of scientific studies on the effects of even small levels of THC on possibly vulnerable subjects such as older people, breastfeeding mothers, and patients suffering from certain pathologies, which prevents them form ruling out possible health risks.[47] Adding to the uncertainty in the cannabis light market, the Supreme Court of Cassation ruled in May 2019 that the sale of derivatives of cannabis sativa which do not fall within the scope of the Law 242/16, most notably oils, resins, buds, and leaves, is illegal under Italian Law unless such products are effectively devoid of narcotic effects.[48][49] The Court also reaffirmed that only certain agricultural varieties of cannabis are permitted under the Law 242/16, which was meant to benefit farmers growing industrial hemp.[48][49]

In 2019, a team of economists from the University of Magna Graecia, Université Catholique de Louvain, and the Erasmus School of Economics published a study on the effect of light cannabis liberalization in Italy on the organized crime. Albeit light cannabis does not generate hype as illegal marijuana, the study showed that confiscations of illegal marijuana declined with the opening of light cannabis shops. The authors also found a reduction in the number of confiscations of hashish and plants of marijuana along with a reduction of arrests for drug-related offenses. Forgone revenues for criminal organizations were estimated to be at least 90–170 million euros per year.[50] Conversely, the total revenue from the cannabis light market was estimated to be more than 200 million euros in 2020.[51]

Personal use[edit]

Lifetime prevalence of cannabis use among all adults aged 15 to 64 years old, in nationwide surveys among the general population of Europe.

In July 2008, the Supreme Court of Cassation ruled that followers of the Rastafari religion can smoke marijuana as a meditative herb after a man from Perugia, who was initially sentenced in 2004 to 16 months in jail and a €4,000 (i.e. about 4,900 US$) fine for possession of 97 g of marijuana, was acquitted on religious grounds.[52][53] In December 2019, the Court ruled that cultivating domestically small amounts of cannabis for the exclusive use of the grower is legal under Italian Law, after being asked to clarify previous conflicting interpretations of the law.[54][55][56] The ruling did not specify what constitutes a legally allowed small amount of cannabis, however the defendant involved was initially sentenced by a lower court to one year in prison and a €3,000 (i.e. about 3,900 US$) fine for the possession of two plants.[55][56]

The Court argued that public health is not threatened by a single cannabis user cultivating a few plants in a domestic setting and, in order to justify the assessment of a personal use of the plants, it pointed out the small size of the cultivation.[55][57] In particular, the Court argued that, given the rudimental techniques used, the small number of plants present, the modest achievable amount of the final product, and the lack of evidence connecting it to a larger narcotic market, the cultivation appeared to be destined exclusively for the personal use of the defendant, and should therefore be considered excluded from the application of the penal code.[55][57] The ruling came just days after a proposed amendment to the 2020 budget calling for legalisation and regulation of domestic cannabis use, although already approved by the Lower House, was ruled inadmissible by the President of the Senate on technical grounds.[54][56]

In April 2021, a patient suffering from acute rheumatoid arthritis was acquitted of drug pushing after a court ruled that he was allowed to exceed the legal limits of cannabis cultivation, after running out of an adequate supply of medical cannabis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on the grounds that it was for his personal health use.[58] As of July 2021, another patient suffering from fibromyalgia, for which a daily dose of one gram of medical cannabis is usually prescribed, is currently on trial for the same charge of drug trafficking, after two cannabis plants were found in his house, together with rudimental tools for cultivating, preserving, and weighing cannabis, as well as a stock of the final product sufficient for just above a month of therapy, with a THC content ranging between 0.32% and 2.38%.[59] The defendant lives in Calabria which, similarly to Molise and Aosta Valley, has not yet approved for medical cannabis to be covered by its Regional Health Agency, thus leading to higher costs and a distribution limited to a few pharmacies.[59] Moreover, critics have argued that such charges would lead patients to buy cannabis directly from illegal pushers instead of growing it themselves, since they would risk just a fine, confiscation of documents, and a mandatory rehabilitation program for the charge of possession, as opposed to 6 years in prison for drug pushing.[59] In fact, a third of all the illegal marijuana produced in Italy is reportedly cultivated in Calabria, due to its favorable climate, with the 'Ndrangheta being the leading criminal organization for drug trafficking in both Italy and Europe.[59]

In September 2021, a preliminary text was approved by the Justice Committee in the Lower House that would decriminalize the small-scale cultivation of up to four female cannabis plants at home for exclusively personal use.[60] The stated aim of the proposed legislation is to make sure that patients have access to medical cannabis, as well as to combat criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking.[60] The law would also lower the penalties for minor cannabis-related infractions from 2–6 years in prison to 1 year at most, thus distinguishing it from hard drugs like heroin, while it would increase penalties related to drug trafficking to 6–10 years.[60]

Decriminalization initiative[edit]

At the same time, a ballot initiative was launched that aimed at the decriminalization of the cultivation of marijuana, as well as the repeal of penalties for cannabis possession, by amending the relevant laws through a referendum.[31][61][62] According to Article 75 of the Constitution, general referenda are allowed for repealing a law or part of it, when they are requested by either 500 thousand voters or five Regional Councils, while neither propositional referenda nor referenda on a law regulating taxes, the budget, amnesty or pardon, or a law ratifying an international treaty are recognised.[63] Therefore, the legislative process regarding the legalization of recreational cannabis can only go through Parliament.

Instead, the objective of the campaign was to amend several articles of the DPR 309/90, regarding the discipline of narcotics and psychotropic substances, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of the related stages of substance dependence, which is reportedly responsible for 35% of the current prison population in Italy.[62] The initiative was supported by several pro-legalization organizations, including ARCI and the Luca Coscioni Association, as well as several political parties, including Italian Radicals, +Europa, Possible, Power to the People, Communist Refoundation, and Italian Left.[31][61][62]

In its first week of operation, the campaign collected 400 thousand signatures in less than four days and reached the required 500 thousand signatures well before the deadline set at the end of September, which would have allowed the referendum to take place as early as spring 2022.[31][61][62][64] The speed at which the signatures were collected was made possible by a law approved in July 2021 that allows for signatures to be collected online, while previously only in-person signing was allowed, and the campaigners continued to collect signatures up until the deadline, in order to make sure that the initiative would not be rejected due to some of them being ruled invalid.[65] In fact, the campaign managed to collect as much as 630 thousand electronic signatures in a single week, 70% of which were from people under 35 years old.[51]

As prescribed by the law, the collected signatures were verified by the Supreme Court of Cassation on 12 January 2022, however the Constitutional Court ruled on 16 February 2022 that the ballot question was inadmissible, thus preventing the referendum from going forward.[31][51][64][66] The Court argued that the proposed changes to the legislation would not have affected just the cultivation of marijuana, but also of plants like poppy and coca, from which opioids and cocaine can be derived.[66] These potential changes to legislation regarding hard drugs would have violated international obligations, and therefore were ruled not in line with the constitutional provisions on referenda in Italy.[66]

Law enforcement[edit]

CIA map depicting the major international drug trafficking routes for opiates and cocaine.

Cannabis inflorescences are classified as narcotics and their pharmaceutical use is strictly regulated in accordance with the aforementioned UN Conventions of 1961 and 1971, EU regulations, as well as national legislation, including the aforementioned DPR 309/90 of 1990.[67] The cultivation of cannabis plants for pharmaceutical use, as well as the production and distribution of cannabis-based medicine, are allowed only for authorized entities, while the DPR 309/90 forbids both the direct and indirect advertisement of a list of derived substances.[67] Nevertheless, farmers can cultivate cannabis for exclusively non-pharmaceutical purposes, such as the production of hemp fibers or other industrial applications, using certified seeds under the direction of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies.[67]

Central Office for Narcotics[edit]

In November 2015, Italy instituted the Central Office for Narcotics, in accordance with the 1961 UN Convention and subsequent amendments, which instruct countries allowing the cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes to create a state agency for its management.[68] The functions of the Central Office for Narcotics include:[68][69]

  • implementing national and EU regulations regarding narcotics and psychoactive drugs;
  • updating the official list of narcotics and psychoactive substances;
  • authorizing the cultivation of cannabis for the production of medicine and other substances;
  • approving areas dedicated to the cultivation of cannabis;
  • approving the exportation, importation, distribution within the national territory, and storage of cannabis plants and derived materials, with the exception of stocks kept in facilities authorized for the production of medicine;
  • determining the production quotas based on Regional requests, and relaying that information to the International Narcotics Control Board.

Central Directorate for Anti-Drug Services[edit]

The Central Directorate for Anti-Drug Services (CDA) is a joint organization involving the State Police, the Carabinieri, and the Financial Guard, as well as civil administration personnel from the Ministry of Interior, in the fight against drug trafficking.[70] The three law enforcement agencies are equally represented in the Directorate, with the general director being selected every three years from the three agencies on a rotationary basis.[70] The Directorate was originally instituted as the Anti-Drug Directorate through the Law 685/75 of 1975, and underwent several changes over the years, becoming the Central Anti-Drug Services through the Law 121/81 of 1981, until the Law 16/91 of 1991 defined its current structure and functions.[70] The Directorate is made of three main branches, each containing two Divisions.

The General and International Affairs (GIA) branch manages multilateral, training, and legislative initiatives, as well as providing technical support to the Judiciary Police. International initiatives are coordinated with the United Nations, the European Union, as well as other agencies including the G7 Rome-Lyon Group, the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre, Ameripol, the Paris Pact Initiative, and the International Drug Enforcement Conference.[71] The GIA branch manages training and educational activities at both a national and international level through courses, conferences, and workshops; and it also gives technical-juridical advice with regards to bills and regulations on narcotics and drug trafficking.[71]

The Studies, Research, and Information (SRI) branch conducts research and intelligence activities, in particular monitoring national and international drug trafficking. The analysis includes local consumption statistics, trafficking routes, production and market areas, concealment methods, demographics of the people involved, and evolution of new narcotics.[71] At the international level, the SRI branch collaborates with the International Narcotics Control Board. It also gathers and processes information from both national and foreign sources regarding drug-related confiscations, arrests, and deaths, subsequently relaying these data to the National Statistics System (SISTAN), as well as using them for internal reports. Finally, the SRI branch offers support upon request in terms of providing bibliographical references for academic and research purposes.[71]

The Anti-Drug Operations (ADO) branch coordinates police activities against drug trafficking through intelligence, strategic, operational, and technical-logistical support both at a national and international level.[71] The ADO branch also approves and coordinates undercover operations, manages naval boarding requests against suspicious vessels in international waters, and monitors internet activities related to drug trafficking.[71]

Illegal drug trade[edit]

The main narcotic substances obtained from the female inflorescences and resin of cannabis plants are marijuana, hashish, and hashish oil.[72] According to the CDA, the major marijuana producers worldwide are Albania, supplying Italy and parts of Europe; Mexico and the United States, mainly supplying North America; and Paraguay, which represents the main distribution center for all of South America; while Morocco represents the main producer of hashish.[72] Moreover, the three main routes for the illegal trade of cannabis-derived substances are from Mexico towards the United States and Canada; from North Africa, through Spain, towards the European markets; and from Albania, through the Adriatic Sea, towards Italy and other European markets.[71] Furthermore, the Italian black market for marijuana is also supplied by the Netherlands, as well as local producers.[72]

Medical cannabis[edit]

Medicine bottles from the XIX century on display at the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam.

In January 2013, Italy legalized the medical use of cannabis with a doctor's prescription.[73][74] However, at the time, the cost of cannabis-based medicine wasn't covered by the State and the drug had to be imported from abroad, primarily from the Netherlands and through intermediary agencies, making it too expensive for the average patient to buy legally at pharmacies, with prices reaching up to €50 (i.e. about 59 US$) per gram, as well as waiting times reaching up to a month.[75][76][77]

For this reason, then Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti announced in September 2014 that the army would begin growing cannabis plants in a secure room at the Chemical-Pharmaceutical Military Institute in Florence, which is already tasked with the production of orphan drugs both as an application of the constitutional right to health care and as a matter of national security.[75][77][78] The military facility manages all stages of the production of medical cannabis, including growing and harvesting the plants, drying and grinding the leaves, sanitizing the final product with gamma rays, and then shipping it to pharmacies and hospitals.[77]

The army production of medical cannabis increased from 20 kg between 2014 and 2016 to more than 100 kg in 2017,[76] resulting in a 30% decrease in the cost of the final product.[79] Moreover, in order to keep up with the demand from doctors and patients, which was estimated between 400 and 450 kg a year in 2017,[77] the army is expanding its cultivation to other areas of the military facility, where new greenhouses have already been set up in order to reach an estimated production of 300 kg per year.[76][79] Furthermore, in November 2019, the Ministry of Health increased the maximum amount of cannabis inflorescences allowed to be produced by the facility from 350 to 500 kg per year.[80]

Medical cannabis can be used for treating several conditions, and its prescription is allowed when the patient is unresponsive to conventional or standard therapies, while the list of medical applications includes:[75][78][81]

The state-run production and distribution of medical cannabis is the result of a collaboration between the Ministries of Health and Defence, as well as other entities including the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies; the Regions; the Italian Medicines Agency; the Superior Institute of Health; the Defence Industries Agency; and qualified experts.[82] The aim is to ensure the availability of the raw material; guarantee the safe preparation and use of cannabis-based medicine; prevent the use of unauthorized, illegal, or counterfeit products; and make therapies affordable by reducing the cost of cannabis.[76][83]

The military facility currently produces two types of cannabis-based ingredients, which are then distributed to pharmacies in a minced form to be used in their formulations.[78] Cannabis FM2, which is similar to the Bediol strain,[84] has been available to the Regions since December 2016, and its THC content (i.e. between 5% and 8%) is lower than the levels commonly found in similar drugs sold in the black market, or even in those legally imported from the Netherlands, while its CBD content (i.e. between 7.5% and 12%) is comparatively higher due to its more useful anti-inflammatory properties.[83][85] Since July 2018, Cannabis FM1, which is similar to the Bedrocan variety,[84] has also been available to the Regions, and it shows a considerably higher THC content (i.e. between 13% and 20%), as well as a considerably lower CBD content (i.e. less than 1%).[83] The higher THC content makes Cannabis FM1 more suitable to mitigate the symptoms of conditions like multiple sclerosis.[77]

The final price of the product being sold to pharmacies by the military facility, based on the estimated production costs, is equal to €6.88 (i.e. 7.39 US$) per gram, not including the VAT.[85][86] Furthermore, in June 2017, the Ministry of Health established a maximum price for medical cannabis between €8.50 and €9.00 per gram, in order to standardize the expenses sustained by patients.[76] However, this price cap has resulted in a short supply of the product due to limited profit margins for pharmacies, while regional legislative differences also add to the overall complexity of the cannabis market.[76] For example, the Regions have the ability to decide for which health conditions the drug can or cannot be prescribed, and they can also increase local prices in order to make it profitable for pharmacies to sell medical cannabis (e.g. Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol), or alternatively they can completely cover the cost for patients through their Regional Health Agencies (e.g. Sicily).[76][87]

Consumption statistics[edit]

Medical cannabis shop in Denver, Colorado.

The Ministry of Health also publishes consumption statistics for medical cannabis both at a national and a regional level, based on regional distribution requests and the authorized sale of the product, and the military facility determines its production quotas by taking into account the consumption data from the previous two years, as well as the yearly increases.[86] The annual legal consumption of medical cannabis has grown from 40 kg in 2013 to nearly 10 times that in 2017, and the demand is expected to further quadruple as the value of cannabis is more widely understood by doctors.[20] The high demand caused pharmacies throughout Italy to run out of medical cannabis by September 2017, prompting many patients with prescriptions to turn to the black market, while in January 2018 the importation of cannabis was extended to Canada.[20][88][89] As of March 2021, it is estimated that more than 2 million patients in Italy could benefit from medical cannabis, while the total needs are estimated to be at least 2,000 kg per year.[90] However, only a few tens of thousands of patients have access to cannabis-based drugs, while the COVID-19 pandemic has affected both the importation and the distribution of the medicine.[90]

National consumption of medical cannabis in Italy in kg[86]
Year Total sales from pharmaceutical wholesalers Imports authorized by the Ministry of Health for the Local Health Agencies Total sales from the military facility to pharmacies Total
2014 33.315 25.275 0 58.59
2015 61.9 56.725 0 118.625
2016 127.305 102.41 0 229.715
2017 162.475 129.265 59.745 351.485
2018 284.29 147.265 146.905 578.46
2019 451.025 252.485 157.165 860.675
2020 664.94 215.255 242.6 1,122.795
2021 742.5 251.46 277.515 1,271.475

Chemical-Pharmaceutical Military Institute[edit]

Entrance to the Chemical-Pharmaceutical Military Institute in Florence.

The origins of the Chemical-Pharmaceutical Military Institute in Florence date back to 1853 in the Kingdom of Sardinia, when the General Chemical-Pharmaceutical Laboratory was established in Turin by royal decree, as part of the Military Pharmacy Warehouse, in order to provide the military with the medicine and medical supplies needed, as well as combating diseases like malaria, which was widespread in Italy at the time.[78] After the Great War, plans were made to modernize the Laboratory, and move it to a more central location within the Italian peninsula, in order to improve the distribution of supplies.[78] The current facility, covering about 55,000 m2, was thus constructed in Florence, becoming operational in October 1931, and producing several types of medicine, medical supplies, cosmetics, and food products, with a workforce peaking at 2,000 people in the 1940s.[78]

Renamed the Chemical-Pharmaceutical Military Institute in 1976, beside the production of medical cannabis with hydroponic cultures, the institute also produces five different orphan drugs, as well as maintaining the national stockpile of antidotes in case of mass poisoning, terrorist attacks, and nuclear disasters, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health which manages a net of warehouses located in each Region.[91] In particular, the facility was involved in relief efforts during several natural and man-made disasters, including the Florence flood of 1966, the Friuli earthquake of 1976, the Irpinia earthquake of 1980, as well as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, for which the institute produced 500 thousand pills of potassium iodide in less than 24 hours, in order to combat the thyroid damage caused by Iodine-131.[78] The facility has also been involved in the production of medicine and medical supplies for international assistance, such as during the Romanian revolution of December 1989.[78]

The military facility is a non-profit institute, operating on a balanced budget since 2008 and reinvesting any surplus into research and production, and collaborating with several Italian universities in several fields of research and education.[91] In order to avoid unfair competition with the private sector, the facility mainly focuses on the research and production of unprofitable drugs used to cure rare diseases, which are defined as affecting just one every 2,000 people, although possible revenue may still be obtained from exporting such drugs, with potential customers numbering at least 400 million people worldwide.[91] With regards to the production of medical cannabis, the facility is looking for a public–private partnership in order to increase the overall production, possibly reaching 4,000 kg a year, thus covering the national demand while also providing export opportunities.[91]

Private sector[edit]

The potential revenue from medicinal cannabis is estimated to be more than 1.4 billion euros, with the internal market creating at least 10,000 jobs and reducing the dependence on imports.[21] In February 2021, Bio Hemp Farming, which is a consortium between the Bio Hemp Trade company and the Palma d'Oro cooperative, became the first private entity in Italy to be granted authorization by the Ministry of Health to grow medical cannabis and to extract its active principles for pharmaceutical purposes.[92][93] The consortium currently manages two different sites for growing medical cannabis, with a total cultivation area of 300 ha (i.e. 3 km2), in Cerignola, Apulia.[93] The leaves and inflorescences harvested from these sites are sent to two pharmaceutical laboratories for the extraction of cannabidiol for medical purposes, while the stems and fiber are instead used for industrial purposes, such as the production of paper, yarns, or biomaterial for construction.[93] An innovative method implemented by the consortium, for the extraction of active principles from medical cannabis, is a cryogenic process in which the low temperatures allow to reduce the preparation time for the final product from 2 or 3 days to about 15 minutes.[93]

Industrial cannabis[edit]

Bottles of hemp oil.

The cultivation of industrial hemp with minimal levels of psychoactive compounds has several commercial applications, including food, fabrics, clothing, biofuel, building materials, and animal feed.[20][36] In Italy, certified hemp plants can be used for both industrial and ornamental purposes, however food products can only be derived from the hemp seeds, since they have no THC content, while the consumption of hemp flowers and leaves is still prohibited.[20][21]

On the other hand, the hemp seeds reportedly contain all essential amino acids in optimal proportions and in an easily digestible form, as well as high levels of protein and considerable amounts of fibers, vitamins, Omega-3, and minerals; and edible products include biscuits, taralli, bread, flour, anti-inflammatory oil, ricotta, tofu, and beer.[21][36][94] The elevated protein content also makes cannabis-based food a suitable meat replacement for vegetarians, while its intense flavour has even been used for gelato, chocolate bars, and pastries.[95][96]

Building materials that can be derived from hemp include mortar, plaster, finishing products, thermally insulating panels, bricks, and ecobricks, as well as hemp-cement and hemp-lime biocomposites.[21][97] Moreover, hemp concrete is a carbon sequester, since the amount of carbon stored in the material is higher than the emissions generated during its production, and it continues to store carbon during the building's life.[36]

Other hemp-derived products include oils used in cosmetics, wax, paint, soap, detergents, paper, packaging materials, pellet fuels for a clean combustion, as well as natural resins and fabrics that can be used for clothing due to their thermal properties, and for furnitures due to their resistance.[21][94] Moreover, hemp paper is considered to be a more sustainable alternative to paper made from wood-pulp, since hemp stalks only take up to five months to mature, while hemp paper does not necessarily require toxic bleaching chemicals, and it can be recycled up to seven or eight times.[36] Furthermore, as a good substitute for plastic due to their light weight and durability, hemp-derived products can be used in different sectors, such as car manufacturing, railway, aviation, and aerospace.[36]

Environmental benefits[edit]

Top view of the root system of a 1.8 m tall cannabis sativa plant, acquired at the beginning of August, before flowering, in a field near Klagenfurt, Austria.

Another significant application of industrial cannabis is soil decontamination through phytoremediation, a process in which contaminants are absorbed by the fast-growing roots of hemp plants, which store the toxins or even transform them into a harmless substance.[98][99] Examples of applications include the removal of toxic chemical dioxins from farm lands and grazing fields around the Ilva steel plant near Taranto, as well as the removal of radioactive strontium and cesium from areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.[98][99]

Further environmental benefits of cannabis cultivation derive from the fact that, among the other commonly grown crops, hemp plants reportedly have one of the lowest impact on their surroundings, since they do not require herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides due to the lack of natural parasites, thus resulting in a higher biodiversity in terms of the local wildlife and insects; they have a minimal need for fertilizers and necessitate far less water than cotton; and they provide the soil with a good amount of organic matter, consisting of a significant amount of fallen foliage, as well as an extensive and deep-reaching root system.[36][94][97] Given this significant soil enrichment, when turning the cultivation within a field from cannabis plants to other crops, the resulting yield tend to significantly increase with respect to more traditional crop rotations. For example, in some cases, the production of wheat can increase by as much as 20% with respect to what it would have been, had the same field previously been growing either grass or chard.[94] Furthermore, hemp plants can help to break the cycle of diseases when used in crop rotation, their fast growth and shading capacity prevent the growth of weeds, and the dense foliage just three weeks after germination constitutes a natural soil cover, which reduces water loss and protects against soil erosion.[36]

Hemp plants also consume a significant amount of CO₂, so much so that the gas is sometimes artificially added to indoor cultivations in order to increase the resulting yield.[97] This carbon capture quality results in a significant plant growth rate, as much as 4 m (i.e. 13.1 ft) in three months, and can have significant applications in the removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere, with a hemp field spanning just 1 ha (i.e. 0.01 km2) being able to sequester between 9 and 15 t of CO₂ after just five months.[36][97]

Private sector[edit]

Shirt made of hemp, with initials.

In 2016, Italy removed the need for authorization to grow certified hemp with levels of THC below 0.2%, in order to stimulate the production of industrial hemp and to offer an alternative to the cultivation of wheat for farmers damaged by low prices, desiccated lands, and competition from large corporations importing grain from abroad.[41] In particular, the potential profit from the cultivation of hemp in Italy is estimated to be more than €2,500/ha (i.e. about 2,900 US$/ha), which is more than 10 times the estimated yield for wheat, and with the increasing number of farmers turning to hemp production, the overall production of durum wheat in Italy decreased by more than 4% in 2017.[41] Nevertheless, producers of hemp fiber in Italy still face significant competition from the low-price fiber produced in China, as well as other Asian countries.[97] This competition is reportedly contributing to the prevalence in Italy of cannabis cultivations aimed at the production of inflorescences, as opposed to fiber, since the wholesale of flowers from cannabis sativa can result in a profit between €300 and €1,500 per kilogram, depending on the quality, and 1 ha (i.e. 0.01 km2) can yield as much as 1,000 kg of inflorescences.[97]

An important cultivar for Italy is Fibranova, which was developed in the 1950s as 'Bredemann Eletta' x 'Carmagnola', while 'Bredemann Eletta' was developed at the Max Planck Institut. Other cultivars include Carmagnola Selezionata, the landrace Carmagnola, Eletta Campana (a Carmagnola cross), and Superfibra.[100]

In February 2022, a collaboration protocol was signed between Coldiretti Toscana and the Vecchiano start-up CanapaFiliera, which aims to revamp the hemp industry in Tuscany.[101] In particular, the agreement provides for 1,000 ha (i.e. 10 km2) of farm land between Lucca and Pisa to be dedicated to the production of high-quality hemp fiber, that would then be used in the paper industry, clothing industry, and sustainable architecture.[101] More specifically, the start-up would provide the seeds to the agricultural businesses participating in the project, which would then manage the cultivation of hemp as a rotational crop between the months of March and July, as part of a circular economy model.[101]

See also[edit]

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External links[edit]

Traditional hemp rope making[edit]

Veneto[edit]

Campania[edit]

Sicily[edit]

Italian hemp production[edit]

Italian hemp use[edit]

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