Taranto, a coastal city in Italy known for its bustling commercial ports and military activities, is at a crossroads. The third most polluted city in the world is a hub for oil refineries, chemical plants and food processing factories. These establishments also share the land with local farmers who raise sheep and sell cheese for a living.
In 2008, after contaminants from a large steel plant rendered the soil useless, yearly livestock and crop yields plummeted, hitting an all-time low.
That incident crippled the local farming industry; and now, farmers have stumbled upon a solution that could make polluted soil fit for agricultural operations. The process involves planting cannabis (specifically industrial hemp) around the affected area, which should help extract some of the toxic contaminants, such as heavy metals, from the ground.
This practice was also applied after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. During clean-up projects that followed the tragic event, scientists used hemp to reduce high levels of iodine, cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium in the soil.
Farmers based in Taranto are implementing phytoremediation to make land more conducive for plants and animals. Cannabis is suitable for this process because it is extremely resilient, allowing it to grow in rough environments, and its roots are sturdy enough to absorb toxic metals. After absorption, the plant can either store the contaminants or transform the pollutants into something usable and harmless. Hemp’s lifecycle doesn’t end after soil decontamination. The city could turn the green plant into biofuel to support its fleet of naval vessels and commercial shipping operations.
Vincenzo Fornaro, a Taranto farmer currently growing hemp to promote decontamination, believes that cannabis could make the future brighter for the struggling agricultural community.
“We must innovate,” said Fornaro during an interview with CBS News, “and develop in a way that’s ecologically sound.”
Italy’s Growing Interest in Cannabis
Italy has shown renewed interest in cannabis in the past few years. Recently, the country’s military grow site, located in Florence, was featured on various media outlets. The massive indoor facility is home to more than 100 plants, yielding roughly 18 pounds of top-shelf cannabis for medical research and regulated consumption. By the end 2017, the institution hopes to launch four new chambers, which could increase production to 220 pounds. This is great news for the country’s estimated 3,000 patients who rely on medicinal cannabis for natural treatments.
To help streamline allocation, Italy’s Health Ministry released a timely guide for physicians, pharmacists and other medical professionals with authorization to sell cannabis. The guide includes tips surrounding the plant’s side effects, dosing and administration. Italy’s medical-grade cannabis is rich in CBD and contains average to low amounts of THC.
“One thing it [cannabis] works well for is fibromyalgia, a condition for which there is no really effective medicine,” explained Pierluigi Davolio, a Florence pharmacist. “We had a patient here who had sold her car because she was in too much pain to be able to drive. As soon as she started (taking cannabis), she was back at the garage saying she needed it back.”
Italy won’t be the first, but it might become the largest European country to legalize the use and possession of marijuana. At the moment, 250 out of the country’s 945 parliament members have signed bill that would legalize cannabis.
Surprisingly, the support comes across the political spectrum. The bill would, for the most part, decriminalize the distribution, production, consumption and sale of cannabis throughout Italy. Anyone over the age of 18 would be authorized to grow as many as five cannabis plants at home. Citizens also would have the option of forming “cannabis social clubs” where they could collectively manage up to 250 plants.
Larger-scale grow productions would be run by a state-controlled monopoly with the issuance of government licenses. Dedicated stores would be authorized to sell cannabis, similar to the cannabis coffee shops in the Netherlands. Outside of personal growth, individuals would be permitted to possess up to 15 grams of dried plant material at home, and carry as much as 5 grams. Medical cannabis patients would be allowed to carry more.
Those who violate the proposed regulations would be subject to fines rather than criminal charges. Additionally, the income from the fines would be dedicated to educational and rehabilitation programs.
Italy passed an anti-drug bill, about 10 years ago, that eliminated the distinction between various substances. Ultimately, that law significantly increased criminal sentences for cannabis and heroin. How did the country change its view of marijuana so quickly? Many industry experts point towards the prohibition model’s global crisis in terms of effectiveness.
In 2014, the London School of Economics released a report to the United Nations, asking it to revisit its approach to cannabis use due to negative outcomes, which include:
“Mass incarceration in the U.S., highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilization in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication, and the propagation of systematic human-rights abuses around the world.”
Law enforcement authorities from Italy’s National Anti-Mafia Directorate (DNA), an organization currently fighting Europe’s largest drug cartel, agree with this report. The 2005 crackdown seems to have exacerbated the government’s systemic drug problems and overrun the country’s already congested courts and jails.
Perhaps the biggest draw to the proposed legislation is the projected governmental income. According to a DNA report, as much as 3,000 tons of marijuana are sold in Italy on an annual basis. The estimated market value of illegal cannabis alone is $33 billion dollars, and this number is based on the amount of plant matter the organization seized in a year. DNA officials admit this is only a small fraction of the total amount of cannabis in the underground marketplace.
Even with the possible outcomes of helping the country recover from the global recession and reducing the strains on the legal system, supporters of the bill are not sure it will pass this year. Rome Luiss University professor and lobbying expert, Pier Luigi Petrillo stated,
“Our parliament’s recent history teaches that legislations proposed by the parliament without the backing of the government is very rarely approved.”
Prime Minister Renzi has not taken a stance on the issue, and the Vatican, still a powerful political force to the largely Catholic parliament, has also remained silent. Supporters, however, are still hopeful.
Proponents of the legalization of recreational marijuana in Italy made major strides recently when a provisional version of a new proposal passed inspection by more than 200 legislators. The document addresses the limited use, cultivation, production and sale of cannabis.
Under the proposed guidelines, an individual would be able to legally possess up to 15 grams of marijuana. The limit for plants at home would be five. Only marijuana shops with government approval would be eligible to sell the plant, which would be designated as a state-controlled product. The proposal allows for cannabis use in private circumstances only.
Penalties for people who use cannabis today in Italy include fines or the suspension of a passport or driver’s license. Growers, however, generally face incarceration under current law.
The group responsible for coming up with the proposal is Intergrupo Parlamentare Cannabis Legale, a committee formed from legislators of multiple political parties. Lawmakers from both chambers of Italy’s Parliament, 217 members in all, have agreed to support the measure, which now must be reviewed by all 945 members of the Italian Parliament. Proponents who sit on the more radical ends of the political scale include the Greens, Five Star Movement, the Left, and Ecology and Freedom.
Benedetto Della Vedova, a junior minister for foreign affairs, sponsors the committee’s proposal. Della Vedova has stated that the benefits of legalization would be twofold. Legalizing marijuana would both drain control from mafias and alleviate pressure from Italy’s overburdened tribunal process.
Della Vedova has been a voice for legalization for some time. He is a former member of the Radical Party, which has campaigned for over forty years for more liberal laws regarding cannabis. He said,
“This shows that even in Italy, a pragmatic approach, based on a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, is now increasingly popular in the political and cultural debate, not only outside but also inside the parliament.”
An annual report by Franco Roberti, anti-mafia czar for Italy, supported the goals of the proposal by indicating that cannabis use in Italy has become as common as tobacco and alcohol. Roberti expressed his opinion that continued repressive efforts by law enforcement were a waste of resources. He urged politicians to take action toward legalization.
According to an Ipsos research poll commissioned by supporters, 60 percent of the Italian public would favor the changes outlined in the proposal.