Is Italy about to become the “New Netherlands”?

The traditional Italy might soon wind up on the podium of liberalism, after 218 members of the Parliament from left and right wing parties have supported a proposal that would largely legalise production, distribution, sale and consumption of marijuana. Anyone over the age of 18 would be allowed to grow up to five marijuana plants at home and people would have also the possibility of opening “cannabis social clubs”, where they would be able to collectively manage up to 250 plants. Nevertheless, the consumption would remain interdicted in public places.

This U-turn may definitely result unnatural for a country that, although mainly for political reasons, just ten years ago approved a draconian anti-drug bill that placed hard and soft drugs on an equal footing, toughening up the sentences both for pot smokers and heroin addicts.

The question is why this leap? How could the country change its position on marijuana in the short time range of ten years? Italy is currently struggling to get out of an economic crisis that has left the government desperate for money. In May, the Italian public debt skyrocketed to US$2.4 trillion, 132% of its gross domestic product. Thus, the government has probably decided to start thinking outside the box and considering the alluring prospective of fresh income from taxation and licensing marijuana, especially taking into consideration data coming from overseas countries.

In the four US states where marijuana is completely legal, local society and economy experienced several positive outcomes. In Colorado, for instance, the legal trade of soft drugs and derivatives racked up approximately US$70 million, creating more than 160,000 jobs. In 2014, the profit taxation amounted to US$76 million, expected to reach US$90 million in 2015. This revenue is then reinvested in law enforcement and education. But it is not necessary to look overseas: Portugal is the European example of a country that was able to successfully shed prohibition and treat addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal one, although still adhering to prohibitionist policies on the supply side.

If Italy indeed did join the list of the “weed-friendly” countries, would it be possible that the rest of Europe slowly follows its example? Given the actual state of many European economies, it easily would.

However, the proposal may have passed at the Parliament but in Italy it is particularly difficult to pass a bill if the Government does not back it. Although the liberal party has been largely favourable to the bill, Prime Minister Renzi has not given his direct opinion on the issue yet, and neither has the Vatican, still a strong and powerful force in the Italian political establishment. Supporters, however, remain hopeful.