Italy Marches Bravely into 20th Century: Government Proposal Would Recriminalize Drug Possession, Including Marijuana 12/5/03

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Ten years ago this April, Italians voted to decriminalize simple drug possession. Now the rightist government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants to undo that, and then some. A proposal floated by Deputy Prime Minister Giancarlo Fini, leader of Italy's former neo-fascist party, and approved by Berlusconi and his cabinet in mid-November, would make possession of even the smallest amount of drugs an offense, and possession of more than the "daily minimum dose" of even marijuana could lead to a six-year prison sentence.

People arrested with amounts varying with the drug, but in all cases less than a half gram, of cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, or even marijuana would face administrative penalties including confiscation of their passports and loss of drivers' or arms-carrying licenses. Foreign residents arrested with small amounts would lose their residency permits.

The announcement of the government proposal was followed by a series of high-profile raids in Rome targeting celebrities in sports, the media, and political circles. Among those arrested was 82-year-old former prime minister and Senator for Life Emilio Colombo, busted as an alleged cocaine consumer.

While, contrary to perceptions among some in the US, Europe is not a truly "drug tolerant" continent, the Fini proposal would, if adapted, give Italy some of the region's toughest drug laws. For one thing, it abolishes the distinction between "soft" and "hard" drugs, treating marijuana as if it were as dangerous as cocaine. It is also part of an emerging prohibitionist trend among rightist European governments. The Spanish government of Felipe Aznar is moving to suppress pro-pot publications, and even the current conservative Dutch government is moving to restrict access to coffee shops by foreigners.

The proposal is particularly harsh on marijuana. It allows administrative sanctions instead of criminal penalties for people caught with 500 milligrams of cocaine, 300mg of ecstasy, but only 250mg of marijuana. And, taking a cue from US drug warriors such as Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), who is preparing to introduce a bill with similar provisions (, marijuana penalties will be based not just on weight but on the amount of THC in the seized drug.

And although the proposal has aroused a storm of criticism in Italy, where, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction ( nearly 10% of Italian young adults smoked marijuana in the last year, and must still clear parliament, it appears assured of success. All four parties in Berlusconi's governing coalition, which controls both legislative chambers, support the proposal.

"Taking drugs is not an innocuous exercise of freedoms that cannot be curbed, but a rejection of the most elementary duties of the individual towards the various communities in which he or she actually lives," said the cigarette-smoking Fini, providing a concise lesson in neo-fascist values. "The joint of 10 years ago had an active ingredient of not more than 1.5%. Today, you can find them with as much as 15%," he added, using a page from the US drug czar's playbook. "That is how the devastating and progressively less reversible effects of cannabis on physical and mental health are being multiplied."

But while the government is behind the proposal, not everyone agrees in a country where soft drug use has been increasingly tolerated and one guest on a prime time TV program recently lit up a joint to press for less, not more, restrictions on marijuana. One of that program's hosts, Paolo Kessisoglu, told the Guardian (UK) the government would have a fight on its hands. "It's plain as day that, even if the law gets through, it's going to be impossible to enforce."

And while some segments of the Catholic Church, which is heavily involved in drug treatment in Italy, welcomed the proposal, others, including some involved in drug treatment were harshly critical. "The philosophy underlying the bill is that of the authoritarian father who doesn't know how to cope with his son, so takes a strap to him," Monsignor Vinicio Albanesi, president of the Capodarco treatment community, told the Guardian.

Marco Cappato in Mérida
The Italian Radical Party, which sponsored the 1993 referedum decriminalizing drug possession, is preparing to fight. "We do not accept this proposal, it is a piece of totalitarian statecraft" said Marco Cappato, Member of the European Parliament and coordinator of Parliamentarians for Anti-Prohibitionist Action at the European Union. "First, there will be a confrontation in the Italian parliament," he told DRCNet. "There is still a chance to modify this proposal's most repressive aspects -- there are some critics even within the government. But there are also people in the opposition parties who support the proposal, so it is entirely possible it will pass as is."

Parliamentary action will be matched with civil disobedience, Cappato said. "We will try to combine this with CD actions," he said, "perhaps handing out hashish in various cities. We also want to show the harm this has done and will do," he added. "With these raids, they are trying to show that the law is the same for everybody, they are trying to show a hard line and show the public the people they have destroyed. But when they arrested Emilio Colombo, who admitted using cocaine for two years for therapeutic purposes, that caused a big stink."

And if all else fails, there could be another referendum effort, Cappato said. "It would be a huge task, and more difficult than 10 years ago because we now have no access to the media on these issues. But the Italian Radicals are preparing for that eventuality," he added.

Cappato also had a cautionary note for drug reformers in the US. "Americans need to understand that yes, the war on drugs is worse than the tolerant climate in Europe, but that tolerance came from left-wing governments and is not here to stay," the anti-prohibitionist said. "Stopping at tolerance is short-sighted. Without legalization of some sort, being tolerant eventually gives an opening to the political opposition to attack you as soft on drugs or soft on crime. If you don't stand firm for legalization, sooner or later you are on the defensive. That is what is happening now in Italy, and Holland, and Spain."

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