You’ve probably spotted them around the stations and high streets of the peninsula’s major cities. Easily recognisable by their blown-up hemp leaves, tie die logos and emoji-plastered windows, Italy’s thousand or so ‘cannabis shops’ are by now a fixed part of the urban landscape. But how legitimate are these colourful businesses? What’s the legal status around buying and selling canapa? How popular is it? How safe is it? And what does the new government make of it all? 

First things first, is cannabis legal in Italy?

Marijuana has been decriminalised in Italy as a precondition for its cultivation for medicinal purposes. Nevertheless, it remains illegal under international law and is considered ‘offensive’ outside of heavily regulated contexts. Possession of small quantities, for recreational use, is usually policed by the confiscation of official documents and a formal warning. Selling any quantity is a criminal offense and carries a penalty of up to 2-6 years imprisonment and a EUR 75,000 fine.

Graffiti Erba buona Erba cattiva[Photo credit: Giovanni Dall, via Wikimedia Commons]

So how come I can find shops selling it? 

In 2016 a controversial law was passed (Legge 242) dictating that hemp products with low levels of THC, the main psychoactive component in cannabis, should not be considered as intoxicants. The law was originally conceived to encourage the cultivation of the plant for clothes, bags and textiles. An ‘unexpected’ result, though, has been the explosion of a new ‘cannabis light’ industry, based on the commercial sale of hemp flowers, resins and oils but also biscuits, shampoos and a whole range of novelty products. 

Cannabis cream with marijuna

Why would someone want to consume this stuff? 

The hemp that is legally on sale in Italy contains minimal THC. It does, however, contain CBD, another, milder cannabinoid. While THC is usually associated with ‘trippy’ experiences, CBD is usually considered to be less potent, but nevertheless provides a so-called ‘relaxing effect’. Most of the Italian market is made up of recreational users. Some claim it helps them manage conditions like epilepsy, as well as anxiety and panic disorders though scientific research into this matter remains inconclusive. 

Where can it be purchased? 

Cannabis light can be purchased at many tabaccherie, at automatic machines, specialist chain stores, and organic cooperatives. Some cities are home to online delivery websites which offer services much like Foodora. 

What’s the argument in favour of cannabis light? 

Proponents of cannabis light point to the product as a safer alternative to the ‘weed’ that is purchased on the street. Another common case revolves around the economic benefits. Unlike the illegal drug trade, cannabis light provides real jobs and revenue to the state through tax. This also takes business away from the illegal market and, by extension, organised crime. 

What’s the argument against it? 

Critics retort that cannabis light is bad for decorum in city centres and represents a degradation of Italian culture in general (degrado). Another common criticism is that it encourages drug use among young people. Rather than converting pot smokers to lighter alternatives – as defenders claim – some argue that cannabis light is getting a whole new group of people involved in cannabis use that otherwise would not have been. 

What are the conditions for users at the moment? 

Cannabis light is, in theory, sold for ‘collection’ purposes only and as such can only be consumed at home. Being caught, say, smoking it in a piazza, is considered the same offence as consuming any other cannabis. Containers must remain closed when in transit between the point of purchase and the home, and the product cannot be sold-on. 

It seems like there are still a lot of grey areas. What are the latest legal developments? 

In May 2019 a new clarification of Legge 242 was put in place to further regulate the cannabis light sector. According to the latest interpretation, cannabis shops cannot market goods that suggest the hemp plant be used in any manner akin to drug taking. The dominant meaning of the law is now taken to be that oils, buds and resins are unacceptable, while bags, t-shirts and other non-consumable products are unproblematic. 

How is this ambiguity affecting the trade of cannabis light? 

As part of his anti-drugs agenda, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s current interior minister, has pledged to close all of Italy’s cannabis shops. The capacity for implementing such a vision, though, depends largely on how local authorities interpret the law and the wording around it. In Le Marche several shops have been closed down (in Macerata, Porto Recanati and Civitanova Marche). By contrast, little change has been seen in the major cities. Lawyers agree that the sector itself is likely to remain in the ‘grey area’ until more substantial legislation regarding cannabis use in general is put in place.