By Roland Sebestyén
Following a successful campaign, Italian cannabis advocates gathered more than 600,000 signatures to trigger a referendum on cannabis liberalisation next year. Will they succeed? Is Italy ready to embrace legal cannabis use? What’s going to happen to those convicted of cannabis or drug-related crimes?
We spoke to Marco Perduca, a former senator, from the Luca Coscioni Association and current chair of the Legal Cannabis Referendum Promoting Committee.
Your name has been in the news recently because of the upcoming cannabis referendum in Italy. When and why did you become a cannabis campaigner, advocate and activist?
My interest in cannabis, and all the other illicit narcotic substances, started at the beginning of the 1990s when Italy adopted one of the most prohibitionist drug laws in the European Union. I have been actively promoting anti-prohibition proposals, not only at a national level collecting signatures on another referendum that was won in 1993 and that depanelized personal possession, but also at the international, ever since.
I have long been fighting for the decriminalisation of personal use, cultivation and possession of all illicit substances. At the same time, I’ve campaigned to assess the impact of the UN Convention on drugs in terms of human rights and administration of justice, but also the economic costs that the prohibitionist approach has created over the last 60 years.
What is the main reason you want to go ahead with this referendum?
MP: The reason for this referendum is linked to the fact that Italy has changed its drug laws a few times over the last 30 years. The current law is responsible for our prisons being massively overcrowded.
In percentage, Italy has possibly one of the smallest penitentiary circuits in the world. Our prisons are designed to host 45,000 people in a country that has 60 million people. Over the years, in particular, after the 1990 law was toughened in 2006, the new law was responsible for the incarceration of 38% of the people behind bars.
While not a single change has been proposed by the government, at the same time, a lot of people have decided to use illicit substances – mostly cannabis. There are some eight million drug users in Italy and at least a third of the population have tried illicit substances in their lifetimes.
Is this an attempt to stop unjustified incarcerations then?
MP: Well, even though personal use and possession have been ‘de facto’ decriminalised over the years, as these offences are not considered a priority for the police to pursue anymore, personal cultivation has the same status – one can, in some circumstances, be sentenced up to seven years in prison.
Our referendum will touch the law in three parts: one, we are taking away all criminal sanctions for cultivations not only for cannabis but also all the other plants. We think one thing is to cultivate the plant, and another thing is to change the plant into something else. According to our proposal, while growing cannabis will be decriminalised, the transformation of the plant will still remain a crime.
So you’re saying that hashish, for example, will not be decriminalised.
MP: Exactly. However, if you can grow coca leaf for personal use, you would not be punished – the same goes for psilocybin use. “Magic mushrooms” will be decriminalised as well.
What is the second part of your proposal?
MP: The second part of the law we’d like to change is the penalties for the personal use of substances in one of the four schedules – this, of course, includes cannabis and benzodiazepines (a type of psychoactive drug). However, trafficking will still be a crime under our proposal. The amount of cannabis being cultivated and used should be reasonable in order not to violate the [proposed] laws.
It is really important to note that we are not inciting drug use; we would only give a different kind of response.
And the third part is…
MP: In Italy, if you’re caught using or in possession of cannabis, you can lose your driving licence for up to three years. Just to be clear: even if you’re not driving, you can lose your driving licence – it doesn’t make any sense. In other cases, your passport or traveling documents can also be suspended – or you can be blocked from applying for citizenship or a working permit.
No one would ever argue against punishing those driving under the influence of any drugs, and in fact our referendum would not take out those penalties. But what is the point of taking the driving licence of a person who was smoking cannabis in a park?
You said there are an estimated six million users in Italy. What do the recent polls say? Would the referendum be successful if it were held today?
MP: Two recent polls – one in May, the other in September – concluded that the Italian electorates were in favour of legalisation. Support is growing: while in May 56% said they would support a change in the laws, by September it was 57%.
Moreover, the second question of the polls aimed to understand how much the public knows about cannabis. Two-thirds of those that reported knowing a lot were in favour of legalisation. This suggests that the more educated [the public is] on the topic, the more likely they are to support liberalisation.
Also, during the campaign, we had to get at least 500,000 signatures in three months – we had 500,000 signatures in six days! I think it gives you the dimension of how popular cannabis is in some circles.
How was this possible?
MP: Italy introduced an online signature platform in August, which was crucial. At the same time, we indeed had the support of a few very popular influencers too.
The last number I saw was more than 600,000. I think you’ve already submitted the signatures to the Cassation court. How satisfied are you?
MP: Very much so. Usually, you need an extra 10% to ensure that you hit the threshold to avoid some invalid signatures. The good news is we got well over 20%, and all the necessary documentation, so we are hopeful.
When do you think the referendum could be held in Italy?
MP: The Cassation Court will have to double check the signatures. Once they’ve done that, they will send it to the Constitutional Court in either January or February.
If everything’s going accordingly, then it’s going to be up to the government to fix a day, which should be between April 15 and June 15. The last obstacle is the quorum, which basically requires 50% [of the population] – plus one – to turn up and vote otherwise the result of the referendum will not be valid.
That’s a lot of people.
MP: The quorum was introduced given the peculiarity of our referendum, a unique opportunity for the people to become legislators. In this way those advocating for a “No” vote have two options; one is to stay home. However, next spring there is a possibility that our referendum will be one of nine referendums on different issues; so it could help us a lot to be among them.
Of the other eight referendums will be to legalise euthanasia and a limitation on hunting. I think those themes will attract a lot of people as well.
Italian reports stated that there was a “coup” by the right-wing parties a few weeks ago. Do you think the danger is gone, or do you expect another attack by those opposing your proposals?
MP: They are done. They exhausted every chance they had to block the process.
You’re a former Senator in Italy. Do you have any help from political parties or politicians?
MP: Everybody was encouraged to join our campaign, but we tried not to affiliate it to any political party because we thought that would’ve ruined our chances. Of course, it was open to anybody and a lot of parties from the centre left liked the idea – even though only informally – but Beppe Grillo, the former leader of the Five Stars Movement supported the cause from day one. We didn’t ask him, he just posted it on his blog. That blog is super popular in Italy, so he contributed to the success of the campaign.
What happens if the referendum fails?
MP: There are two ways to fail. The first is not reaching the quorum. If that happens, we will have to understand how many people turned up and what the result was. The second is that if we reach the quota, but we don’t reach the 50% plus one vote.
If the referendum fails, we may look into other substances because, maybe cannabis alone is not able to trigger that many people as it’s, as I said, de facto decriminalised already as the police are not bothered by it anymore.