Salvini declares war on cannabis, threatens to bring down government

Italy's deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini during a press conference. [EPA-EFE/CARCONI]

Italy’s hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced his intention to close every legal cannabis shop in Italy “one by one”, saying he would even consider toppling the government if his coalition ally, the Five Star Movement, refuses to back him.

“From today, I’ll go to war on cannabis street by street, shop by shop, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, city by city,” Salvini said on Wednesday (8 May).

The leader of the ruling far-right Lega party elevated the war on drugs as a new national emergency, calling on the government to use all legal methods to close “these places of mass miseducation.”

Legal cannabis retailers have mushroomed in Italy over the past few years, with an estimated turnover of €6.5 million in 2018. More than 300 additional stores were opened in 2018, a 75% increase on the previous year.

These shops sell mainly cannabidiol or CBD, a lighter chemical compound derived from the cannabis plants but containing less than 0.2% of the active substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Similar shops have also started opening in Belgium since July last year, with so far no reported problems. But contrary to Belgium, Italian lawmakers have so far only regulated the level of THC in weed, not the retail and marketing of CBD products. A judgement from the Supreme Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal in Italy, is expected at the end of the month.

The day after Salvini’s announcement (9 May), three cannabis shops were closed by an police order in the city of Macerata, in the centre of Italy. The police seized the products, some of which contained THC levels exceeding the legal limit.

Salvini hailed the police operation, saying he will push “Macerata’s model” all across the country with a directive.

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Tensions with Five Star

“We should not give wrong information, because cannabis shops don’t sell drugs,” replied Italy’s Health Minister Giulia Grillo, who is affiliated to the Five Star Movement.

As health minister Grillo said she is committed to prohibiting the sale of CBD products to vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and minors.

“I can assess only the health aspect. However, it should be stressed that the concentration of the active ingredient in those products is not such as to have narcotic effects on consumers,” she insisted, saying there was no place for free drugs in Italy.

The war on drugs risks opening a new front between the far-right Lega party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which currently rule the country in a coalition.

In a TV debate, Salvini said he would not hesitate to bring down the government if the Five Star Movement attempted to legalise cannabis.

Five Start deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio reacted abruptly. “Enough,” he said in a note sent to the press. “We are all against drugs, but now Italian citizens are tired of these threats to the government,” Di Maio said.

In January, a Five Star senator, Matteo Mantero, filed a draft law allowing citizens to grow up to three marijuana plants for recreational self-use. Salvini said he expected the draft law to be withdrawn.

Italy’s hardline interior minister also wants to clamp down on hemp or cannabis fairs. “They’re havoc, this must be stopped,” Salvini stressed, saying he was not the minister of a drug-dealer state.

After Salvini’s declarations, the organisers of the hemp festival Sativa Torino Expo decided to cancel their event which was supposed to take place from 17 to 19 May in Turin.

“Now it is difficult to make people understand that our expo is not a party that aims to promote soft drugs but to make clarity and divulgation over these new products,” said Claudia Ottone, marketing director of the agency that organises the event.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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