Marco Perduca is a leading cannabis reform advocate in Italy and he was one of the first civil society representative who spoke up against the drug conventions at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. We interviewed him about the prospects of cannabis law reform in Italy.
Drugreporter: You have been fighting for cannabis law reform in Italy for many years. How have political and social attitudes and laws evolved concerning cannabis in the past decade in your country?
Marco Perduca: Marco Pannella, the founder of the Radical Party, who passed away at 86 last May, was usually greeted in the streets with a “legalizzala Marco!” (legalize it Marco) shout by young kids. Those young kids were born in the 1990s, when Italy voted on a national referendum, in 1993, that depenalised personal use and possession of all illicit substances. Some 12 million Italians endorsed the proposal of the Radical Party to reform one of Europe’s most prohibitionist drug laws. Before and after that referendum, Marco Pannella and scores of members of Radical Party staged acts of civil disobedience, distributing hashish in public rallies, in market squares and on TV, A creating a positive, and joyful, political climate to promote the structural reform of drug and laws and policies. Over the years, dozens of Members of Parliament, and some key ministers, like Dr. Umberto Veronesi, or intellectuals and writers, like Roberto Saviano, or singers, like Vasco Rossi, have spoken out against prohibition, calling for comprehensive reform in the field of drug control. Twenty years of Berlusconi in and out of government polarised political debate, but now the situation seems to be different, and also newspapers and TV station that belong to Berlusconi’s conglomerate often speak about the failures of prohibition. A new generation of mafia experts have also insisted on the fact that narcotics have been the mobs’ most lucrative business. Without prohibition, that added value would be significantly diminished. When Matteo Renzi ran a campaign to win the primaries within the Democratic Party a few years ago, he spoke in favor of decriminalisation. Only the Church has consistently remained opposed to any change in the law, even if some of the most active grassroots priests dissented and even if, in general, no major representative of the Vatican has advocated harsh penalties for “addicts”.
DR: What is the current legal regulation on cannabis? How is the law enforced?
MP: Italy’s punitive law, adopted in 2006 was struck down by the constitutional court in 2014. Since then, Parliament has adopted a few changes that have almost eradicated penalties for first-time offenders, and reduced those for recidivists. Personal cultivation and possession of “unreasonable” amounts of illicit substances, and the circumstances of the seizures (presence of scales, scissors, little plastic bags) can cause you to be considered a dealer, liable to five, if not seven, years in prison. So it has been substantially decriminalised, but for some people can still incur harsh penalties. The law is enforced in a way which targets the most vulnerable groups, young people and immigrants. With the first group, the objective is to scare them and “stain” their criminal record; with the second, it’s to let them know that they can be expelled from the country, for collaborating with criminal organisations. Access to justice is also quite problematic for poor or foreign people. The White Book recently published by a group of NGOs, coordinated by Società della Ragione, clearly shows that the law is still quite punitive for some, and indicates that some 25% of inmates are in prison for drug-related crimes.
DR: What do we know about the deterrent effects of this law? Does it prevent young people from using cannabis?
MP: Quite the contrary. Drugs, all drugs that is, have been ever-present on Italian streets for the last decade. So no deterrence, and no particular social and medical assistance for those whose use is problematic.
DR: Still, many people oppose cannabis reform. What are their fears and how can we mitigate those fears?
MP: With the passing of times, Italians have come to the conclusion that cannabis is not dangerous. Not only do some four million people use it regularly, according to the annual government report to Parliament, but recent polls show that only 30% of Italians are totally opposed to changes in the law, with the rest in favour of a relaxation of penalties or full legalisation. The main concern is that, once legal – or totally decriminalised – minors will become hooked. Even if there is no consolidated national or international literature on the issue, this remains the most emotional argument used by the conservative fronts, and finds a soft spot with parents of young children. I believe that the most effective way to counter those fears is to produce scientific studies that on the one hand clarify the potential impact of cannabis use on young people, and on the other, show how the market has reacted in places where penalties have been reduced for production, commerce and consumption.
DR: What is the attitude of the police and law enforcement in general? Is it changing?
MP: Like all over the world, in times of economic crisis, police departments have also suffered significant cuts, and mechanisms have been created which channel funds to the most active precincts. Nothing is easier than a dragnet in front of a crowded disco on a Saturday night, to demonstrate that the police (or carabinieri) office is active and pursuing dangerous pushers. Despite the fact that busting petty drug dealers is not a priority all over the country, over the summer in particular we have seen a surge in arrests and also confiscation of small amounts. This may also be a consequence of the fact that, with crime at its lowest-ever level in Italy (392 homicides last year, in a country of 60 million people), law enforcement agencies need something to occupy their time.
DR: After several deputies and senators stood behind a proposal to make cannabis legal, do you think there is historic momentum now for drug policy reform in Italy?
MP: The so-called Cannabis Legale inter-group is growing by the day, we now have the support of 240 out of 630 Deputies and 80 out of 315 Senators, which means that almost a third of Italian legislators not only favor legalisation, they have actually sponsored legislation to achieve this. This is unprecedented in Italy, and, to the best of my knowledge, the world over! By the end of September the Senate should finally adopt a bill to re-legalise industrial hemp (in the 1950s, Italy was a world leader in the field), which I am sure will add arguments to the re-inclusion of that plant in the national tradition. At the end of September, the government will issue its annual report to Parliament, and we understand that it will show an interesting shift in approach. At the same time, the National Anti-Mafia Office, the President of the National Anti-Corruption Authority, and the Secretary of the largest police trade union have all endorsed the idea of legalising cannabis. We know that several members of government are, personally, in favour of legalising all illicit substances, and the Minister of Justice, who at UNGASS said that the UN should abandon ideology and pursue effective and pragmatic policies, has told the press that he is looking forward with an open mind to the parliamentary debate. So yes, Italy has reached a point of no return on, at least, the question of legalising cannabis.
DR: What is your view on the international drug policy reform arena, what do you see as the future of the global prohibition regime?
MP: If Italy continues to change its laws; if another four or five U.S. States legalise in November; if other European countries, like the Czech Republic or Portugal also make progress; and if Canada, next spring, manages to legalise cannabis – the global prohibition regime, as such, will no longer exist. There will be a serious need to promote some regional and international thinking, because if big states, like California, and countries like Italy and Canada decide to go beyond the infamous “flexibility” promoted by the 2016 UNGASS on drugs, which falls short of tolerating legalisation, the problem will become political and the UN will have to find a way to live with this new scenario. Last but not least, Hillary Clinton recently said that she would not oppose the rescheduling of cannabis for medical purposes. At the end of the day, there is no sanctioning mechanism within the three UN conventions on drugs, so a diplomatic solution will become necessary.
Interview by Peter Sarosi