The first time I smoked cannabis in Italy it was in 1987 at a Peter Gabriel concert at the (Roman) Arena in Verona (a great venue for rock shows; I saw the “So” tour, one of the many times I saw him perform in my late teens and early 20s). I was 20 years old.
Back then, even small amounts of cannabis were illegal in Italy. Although I never heard of anyone getting arrested for possession or for smoking in public, my stoner peers made it abundantly clear that we risked arrest and possibly jail if we were caught by authorities.
At the same time, pot smoking was ubiquitous among young people: in the dorm where I lived in Padua and at rock shows I attended, my fellows weren’t shy about consuming cannabis — by any means.
After I started chatting with some of the concert-goers and explained my weedless predicament, they generously shared their terra cotta chillum. Back then, you couldn’t find “bud” (what is known in contemporary cannabis parlance as “flower”) in Italy. You could only find hash (a cannabis derivative), which users mixed with tobacco before consuming.
The concert was awesome… And I learned that pot culture in Italy and Europe in general was very much alive, rich, and vibrant.
In Saturday’s online New York Times, one of the paper’s Italy correspondents, Elisabetta Povoledo, published a piece titled “Cannabis Flowers Are Legal in Italy. You Just Can’t Eat or Smoke Them.” In her article, she describes Italy’s nascent legal cannabis trade. I highly recommend it to you.
- Italy’s cannabis mania, as it has been called, exploded after a December 2016 law regulating hemp production went into effect, a series of norms meant to help revive a crop that was once widely cultivated in the country. In the 1940s, Italy was said to be the world’s second-biggest producer of industrial cannabis, after the Soviet Union…
- The law was created for farmers growing industrial hemp, which has commercial uses like food, fabrics, clothing, biofuel, construction material and animal feed, but has minute levels of a psychoactive compound. But it did not regulate the use of cannabis flowers, also known as buds, and an entire economy emerged from the legislative void.
The marketplace for cannabis flowers, as she notes, has “exploded” in Italy since January 2017 when it became legal to sell flowers (buds) with less than 0.6 percent THC content (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the component that makes users feel “stoned”).
Elisabetta actually reports that the flowers can have only up to 0.2 percent. The 0.2 percent limit applies to legal edibles, oils (like CBD oil), and infusions (teas). But as long as they are sold exclusively for “ornamental use,” the flowers can have up to 0.6. (This is due to a legal loophole in the law that absolves growers from responsibility for how their products are used as long as said products are not sold for consumption; read bullet point 7 and following gloss in this link from the Italian Senate website.)
I photographed the window sticker above at the Rovato train station, a small-town stop in Lombardy, last week. The station tobacconist, like countless others across the country, sells “cannabis flowers” (infiorescenze di canapa) for “technical use” (uso tecnico). The labels state clearly that “combustion is forbidden.”
Whether it’s 0.2 or 0.6 percent THC content is besides the point. At those levels, the THC is imperceptible and the effect is purely analgesic (i.e., relaxing and therapeutic but not hallucinogenic and not a “high”). The average THC content for recreational cannabis in the U.S. is around 18 percent. And some flowers can have up to 30 percent. (I speak from personal experience.)
But the big takeaway here is that Italian cannabis growers have positioned themselves on the forefront of the growing cannabis culture in Europe.
In my three decades of traveling to Italy and interacting with Italians, I’ve found that pot doesn’t have the same stigma that it has here in the U.S. (thank you, Richard Nixon!). It’s not socially unacceptable like it is in certain circles in our country. And no one, at least in my experience, is shunned or dismissed as intellectually inferior because of it.
The U.S. is the hands-down world leader when it comes to progressive cannabis regulation. California, my home state, is the most populous in the nation and recreational cannabis became legal there this year. Even in regressive and “reliably red Texas, cannabis entrepreneurs expect some green soon,” wrote the editors of the Dallas Morning News last month.
Italy’s not far behind. And I can also tell you from personal experience that many grape growers are planning to launch legal cannabis production this year. Stay tuned…