Reportage. Overcrowded prisons, clogged courts and millionaire mafia bosses are the (non-collateral) effects of prohibition.

The war on marijuana also claims non-smoking casualties

One afternoon in March, five years ago, Marco (not his real name) went into an antique dealer’s shop to meet a worker who was supposed to fix some antique furniture for him. He came out several hours later, surrounded by four carabinieri. The officers, who were keeping an eye on the shop in the centre of Rome, raided it while he, the antique dealer, the worker and another person were inside. They found some jars with a few grams of marijuana in storage. All the customers were subjected to home searches.

“I had four marijuana plants,” says Marco, 63 years old, with a background in Egypt serving the Italian government. The agents found plants in a second house and other modest amounts of substances, for a total of about 130 grams. They all went under house arrest, and the following day they were sentenced to expedited judgment. The first-level court sentenced them to 2 years and 9 months for conspiracy to distribute. “I grew it to avoid fueling the criminal market, and now they say I’m a drug dealer. These trials ruin your life, they turn you into an outcast: in the world of work, politics, in front of your own children,” says Marco.

Roberto had the carabinieri enter his house on March 14, on the same Via Prenestina in Rome. “Someone had reported a strange smell that was felt from the street,” says the young man, 36 years old, a cook and anthropologist. In his room they discovered 28 grams of marijuana and hashish on the table and four plants hanging to dry in a cupboard. After a night in jail, he ended up in court.

“The carabinieri were embarrassed. They told the judge that they had not noticed any coming and going of people from my house, that the money found in the house did not come from dealing and that I had been very cooperative,” he recalls. However, the plants were found to have a very high content of THC and by a bizarre formula they are considered equivalent to 2,200 doses. Roberto refused the plea bargain. “I am risking between 3 and 8 years in prison, but I want to prove that I’m innocent. I grew it for personal use,” he says. “I just wonder how much the state will have spent for surveillance, arrest and trial at the end of this story. For four plants.”

Filippo Blengino has grown his seedling live on Facebook. 21 years old, he is the secretary of the Italian Radicals of Cuneo. On September 1, he filmed himself in a video next to the flowering branches of the plant to announce a course on cannabis self-cultivation, organized in Piazza Foro Boario on the 18th. “DIGOS came and took me to the police station. I was reported for incitement to crime and drug use. My gesture was one of civil disobedience against an absurd law,” he said.

The stories of Marco, Roberto and Filippo are among those of thousands of people who are directly affected by the war on drugs, and more specifically by the war on cannabis. In 2020, 74% of the 32,879 reports for possession of psychotropic substances and 43% of the 31,355 reported for drug-related crimes had to do with hashish and marijuana. Since 1990, 1,312,180 reports have been made for possession of drugs for personal use, of which nearly one million (73.28%) were for cannabis derivatives.

These numbers can be read in the latest Annual Report to Parliament on the phenomenon of drug addiction in Italy and in the twelfth White Paper on Drugs. These figures reflect the social dimension of the criminalization of cannabis and show how the problems caused by prohibition aren’t only of concern to users.

In addition to the time and resources spent by law enforcement agencies and courts on cases that in most cases revolve around a few plants or small quantities of the product, these studies raise, from different perspectives, at least two other issues: the profits made by organized crime and prison overcrowding. Of the 16.2 billion euros that the narcotics business in Italy is estimated to be worth, 39% is attributable to cannabis and its derivatives. This is money that legalization could direct into the public coffers, perhaps in support of health and social policies.

As of 31 December 2020, of the 53,364 inmates in Italian prisons, 12,143 were behind bars for only one article of a single state law: Article 73 of the Consolidated Law on Drugs (essentially for possession for the purpose of trafficking). Another 5,616 were behind bars for the combination of articles 73 and 74 (conspiracy for the purpose of illegal drug trafficking), while 938 were in only for article 74. In practice, 35% of prisoners are in jail for drug offences—with expenses for imprisonment that are around one billion euros per year.

“Prison overcrowding has a clear origin: it is not a side effect, but the result of the criminalization of people and consumers,” said Franco Corleone of the Scientific Committee of the Society of Reason at the press conference at the Chamber which presented the White Paper on Drugs on June 24.

The document is entitled War on Drugs. 60 Years of Epic Fail. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs dates back to 1961. The agreement that imposed the prohibitionist regime on a global scale, then reinforced at an international level and by individual states, had the objective of eliminating the illegal production of opium by 1984 and that of cannabis and cocaine by 1989.

It was an “epic failure,” since that didn’t happen, while mafia and criminal organizations have acquired more and more political and economic power and even real “narco-states” have developed. For this reason, the authors of the White Paper argue for the urgency of “decriminalising the consumption of all substances, legalizing hemp and taking advantage of the good practices of damage reduction.”

Globally, the winds are blowing in a new direction: more and more countries are decriminalizing the use of psychoactive substances, and Uruguay and Canada have legalized marijuana. The same has taken place in nine U.S. states, the world epicenter of prohibitionist policies.

The referendum for the decriminalization of cannabis, which exceeded 550,000 signatures in just a few days and will soon be submitted to the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court for validation, can be an opportunity to turn over a new leaf in Italy.

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