Italian Supreme Court Curtails Cannabis Light

After months of tough talk from one of Italy’s ruling parties and a series of conflicting court decisions, Italy’s Supreme Court may have just killed the country’s ‘cannabis light’ industry.

The news makes for unpleasant reading for Italian entrepreneurs in hemp cultivation and cannabis retail - as well as for the multiple North American firms who have bet heavily on Italy’s cannabis light craze.

On May 30th, the Supreme Court of Cassation ruled that the sale of cannabis derivatives - such as oils, flower and leaves - ‘cannot be sold under any circumstances… unless such products are in practice devoid of effective doping’.

Cannabis light, or ‘canapa’ products have boomed in Italy in recent years, following a 2016 law to invigorate the nation’s hemp industry. Industrial hemp can now be grown without a licence, and the THC level in the plant may fluctuate up to 0.6% without sanction. The law explicitly authorises the use of hemp in food and cosmetics and for industrial materials, but does not specify which parts of the plant may be used or whether hemp derivatives like flower and oils may be sold.

As a result, businesses have operated under the understanding that the regulations permitted the sale of all hemp products, so long as they fell below the THC limit. The marketing of hemp flowers has always occupied a grey area of legal and technical loopholes. Unlike Switzerland and now Belgium, where hemp flowers are regulated and taxed like tobacco products, it is against the law to sell cannabis light as a smokeable product. Instead, products are labelled as ‘not for human consumption’ or ‘for technical use only’ in tamper-proof packaging.

Cannabis products at a shop our team visited in Florence in 2018.

Cannabis products at a shop our team visited in Florence in 2018.

The Italian hemp industry has boomed of late, with cultivation increasing tenfold in the last five years from just 400 hectares in 2013 to approximately 4,000 in 2018. ‘Cannabis light’ stores like the Easyjoint chain have proliferated, with around 3,000 stores generating an estimated €80m a year.

Now however, this may all come to an end. Italy’s Supreme Court has judged that the THC levels given by the 2016 regulations apply only to the cultivated plant, and not the products produced from it. This means that the sale of hemp derivatives are not sanctioned by the 2016 law and fall foul of the country’s drug laws ‘unless such products are in practice devoid of effective doping’.

The Supreme Court’s complete ruling is expected in the coming weeks, and should provide a fuller explanation of their decision and the ‘doping’ provision referenced. It is possible that any threshold applied will be generous enough to continue to allow the sale of some herbal products. However, if it falls much below 0.2% THC (for example, mirroring the 2-5mg/kg limit proposed for food by the Italian Health Ministry) it appears likely that vendors will have no choice but to cease sales of the products.

The ruling was undertaken by an enlarged panel of judges on a ‘united’ Supreme Court board, after separate divisions of the court issued diverging opinions as to the permissibility of ‘cannabis light’ sales in two different cases.

The news also comes after months of threats against head shops and other cannabis light retailers made by the Northern League (LN), a right-wing nativist party sharing power in Italy alongside the populist 5 Star Movement (M5S).

Matteo Salvini, LN’s Interior Minister had previously announced the growth of head shops was a ‘national emergency’ and declared a ‘war’ on cannabis light stores ‘street by street, shop by shop’. He welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, announcing ‘We are against any drug, with no ifs or buts, and in favour of healthy fun.’

5 Star Movement has a more open stance towards cannabis, with a M5S senator recently submitting a bill to legalise personal cultivation. However, while the 5 Star’s Health Minister, Guilia Grillo has held off action against cannabis light, the Minister responsible for drug policy, the League’s Lorenzo Fontana, is also outwardly hostile towards any perceived drug use, including cannabis light.

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