Reportage. ‘We have a precious opportunity to change a law that continues to do enormous damage. We must say ‘no more’ to the criminal market for cannabis, ‘no more’ to the clogged-up courts and overcrowded prisons.’

Italians need half a million signatures to secure a referendum decriminalizing pot

Such a challenge has never been attempted before: to collect the 500,000 signatures needed to call a national referendum in just 20 days. The initial response was also far above all expectations: 50,000 people gave their signatures for the referendum to decriminalize cannabis in just six hours. “We’re making history,” the organizers cheered at 5 p.m.—just a little after they had finished the press conference presenting the referendum initiative.

“We have launched a mad challenge, but it takes a bit of madness to call politics back to its responsibilities on the issue of substances,” said Antonella Soldo of Meglio Legale. The goal is ambitious, but possible, thanks to an amendment to the Simplification Decree approved in the Constitutional Affairs Committee on July 20, which allowed the online collection of signatures for referendums while waiting for the promised government platform. This historic innovation has already given a strong impetus to the referendum campaign for legal euthanasia, which, after breaking through the ceiling of 500,000 signatures, is now aiming for 750,000.

The enthusiasm for that result has given rise to the push to do the same for legalizing the five-pointed leaf, with one difference: for the cannabis referendum, the only place for the collection of signatures is the website

The proposal for decriminalization was submitted to the Supreme Court on September 7 by a group of experts, jurists and activists working against prohibitionist policies. The initiative is coordinated by the NGOs Luca Coscioni, Meglio Legale, Forum Droghe, Antigone and Società della ragione, and supported by the parties +Europa, Sinistra Italiana, Possibile, Potere al Popolo and Rifondazione Comunista.

The proposal consists of amendments to Articles 73 and 75 of the Consolidated Law on Drugs, in which three important innovations are put forward. Two concern criminal law: “decriminalizing the cultivation of any substance” (while cases that go beyond personal use can still be prosecuted), and “eliminating imprisonment as a penalty for any illegal conduct related to cannabis” (while fines still apply, and organizations for the purpose of trafficking are exempted from this provision). The other novelty is on the administrative level: stopping the suspension of driver’s licenses for all cannabis users (while driving under the influence of psychotropic substances remains prohibited).

“We have a precious opportunity to change a law that continues to do enormous damage. We must say ‘no more’ to the criminal market for cannabis, ‘no more’ to the clogged-up courts and overcrowded prisons,” said Riccardo Magi (+Europa).

In Italy, estimates on the use of cannabinoids give a number of around six million users, but the issue is also of importance for those who don’t use hashish or marijuana. The latest annual report to Parliament on the phenomenon of drug addiction states that the Italian narcotics market has a turnover of €16.2 billion, 39% of which depends on cannabis and its derivatives. This is a lot of money that is now feeding criminal organizations, but could end up in the public coffers instead, as is happening in the increasing number of states that have chosen legalization.

According to data provided by Giulia Crivellini (Italian Radicals), 30% of the 53,364 inmates in Italian prisons are there due to violations of Article 73 of the Consolidated Law on Drugs, and 75% of the reports to the judicial authorities related to narcotics are about cannabis. Individuals are suffering the deprivation of personal freedom, while the country bears the social and economic cost of overcrowded prisons and overburdened courts for crimes which are often of little criminal relevance.

On Wednesday, a draft bill got the approval of the Juridical Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, providing for the reduction of the punishments for minor drug offenses, as well as for the decriminalization of domestic cultivation of marijuana. The decision triggered the wrath of the right-wingers, who are promising opposition and obstructionism. “The parliamentary process and the referendum campaign will reinforce each other,” Deputy Magi argues.

The deadline for the collection of signatures is September 30, but the deputy has petitioned for postponing the deadline to October 31 (as for other similar campaigns in progress). If 500,000 signatures are reached in time, after the examination by the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, the referendum vote will take place in spring 2022, at the same time as the other expected referendums: on legal euthanasia and fair justice.

The latter is promoted by parties of an entirely different political orientation: the Radical Party and the Lega, with the support of the center-right. The presence of the three measures together on the ballot could help in reaching the needed quorum. Nonetheless, political shenanigans are to be expected.

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