Italian court blocks referendum on cannabis laws

Italy's constitutional court on Wednesday rejected a request to hold a referendum on legalising cannabis cultivation despite a corresponding petition garnering a large number of signatures.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.
Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

The referendum proposal sought to legalise the growing of cannabis for personal use and ease sanctions on other related crimes, with offenders no longer risking prison sentences for selling small amounts of the drug.

Constitutional court president and former prime minister, Giuliano Amato, told a news conference that the referendum would have been sufficient “to make (Italy) violate multiple international obligations.”

The ruling came on the same day the court blocked a referendum bid to decriminalise assisted suicide, judging that it would not guarantee the “minimum protection of human life in general, particularly with reference to weak and vulnerable persons.”

READ ALSO: Is smoking and growing cannabis at home now legal in Italy?

One of the advocates for liberalisation, Benedetto Della Vedova of the centrist +Europa party, countered that the court’s ruling would “deprive Italy of a public debate and of a process of electoral reform on freedom and responsibility.”

The organisers of the planned referendum had garnered more than 630,000 signatures, arguing that cannabis was no more than dangerous than other legal substances like tobacco or alcohol.

And liberalising the law would have eased overcrowding in prisons, they said.

Currently, the penalty for growing cannabis is a prison sentence of between two and six years.

Opponents of the referendum, including the head of the anti-immigration far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, argued that liberalisation would encourage the use of both soft and hard drugs.

Cultivation and sale of marijuana has been illegal in Italy under legislation dating back to the 90s but inconsistent court decisions since then have caused confusion around the law.

READ ALSO: Why farmers in Puglia have turned to cannabis

In late 2019, Italy’s parliament voted to legalise the production and sale at tobacconists and other specialist stores of a weaker form of cannabis dubbed “cannabis light”, containing less than 0.3 percent of the psychotropic compound THC, only for the Italian Senate to block the legislation a few days later.

A December 2019 Cassation Court ruling also established that cultivation is not a crime if it is “of minimal size and carried out in a domestic form, through rudimentary practices and on a scarce number of plants” – but did not specify exactly what constitutes small-scale cultivation or how many plants could be considered legal.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Italy since 2013. In 2020, the region of Sicily passed a decree making it available free of charge to all patients who had been prescribed the drug to treat conditions such as chronic pain, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.