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.
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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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.