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Italy Would Obviously Benefit From Cannabis Legalization

milan italy

A bit of a metaphorical political food fight occurred last week on social media with two lawmakers in Italy having, shall we say, a ‘debate’ about the merits of cannabis legalization and prohibition. According to local media coverage, the back and forth between Elly Schlein and Matteo Salvini began with Salvini posting an image of Schlein with a sticker on her forehead, and the caption (translated to English), “More taxes and more joints, the priorities of the Pd to help Italians. Do we laugh or cry?”

Elly Schlein, a candidate for the secretariat of the Democratic Party, previously expressed support for legalization. Matteo Salvini, who currently serves as Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and appears to be a devout prohibitionist, clearly took issue with that expressed support and used it to take a passive aggressive jab at Schlein. Schlein then stated (translated to English), “In the meantime, we are concerned not to make the mafias laugh. The legalization of cannabis takes away ground from organized crime, while raising the ceiling on cash and dismantling the procurement code makes it easier. They are choices. #BetterLegal”

Putting the pros and cons of each individual as a lawmaker aside, the communications about each other’s position on cannabis policy highlights the ongoing need to reform Italy’s cannabis laws. Just as cannabis prohibition does not work anywhere else on earth, so too is it an abject failure in Italy. Lawmakers in Italy would be wise to join a growing chorus of lawmakers in other countries that are calling for legalization in order to boost public health outcomes.

Prohibition Is Bad For Public Health

Over the weekend I reported on a recommendation by France’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council which called for France to pass an adult-use legalization measure, with part of the recommended measure involving the launch of regulated adult-use cannabis sales. To paraphrase the stated the position of the Council, essentially, cannabis prohibition is more harmful to public health than cannabis legalization would be.

The Council has a point. France has one of the greatest cannabis consumption rates on the planet, with data from 2020 indicating that 46% of adults in France have tried cannabis at least once, and 11% consuming cannabis annually. Nearly all of that cannabis comes from the unregulated market being that France only permits very limited use of medical cannabis, although it is worth mentioning that France did recently lift a ban on CBD products and it’s quite possible that some survey respondents were referring to that type of cannabis, often referred to as ‘cannabis light.’ Regardless, consumers would clearly benefit from products being tested prior to being sold which would occur in a regulated industry.

France is not alone in weighing the public health impacts of prohibition versus legalization. Germany is currently pursuing a similar approach, and in a more meaningful way compared to France. Whereas the Council recommendation in France is not legally binding and is merely just a suggestion, lawmakers in Germany are actively pursuing a legalization model that is geared towards boosting public health outcomes via a regulated system. Leaders in the Czech Republic have also indicated a desire to pursue a similar approach, and leaders in Italy should join them.

An Evidence-Based Approach

At best, when cannabis opponents are challenged they will offer up statistics and studies that, when put into proper context, highlight how little proof there actually is that cannabis prohibition works. Those talking points are big on scare tactics, but little on actual applicability. Cannabis prohibition does not lower consumption rates, nor does it prevent youth access. All it does is ensure that products are less safe compared to products in a regulated system, it helps organized crime profit from unregulated sales, and it diverts limited public resources away from effective public health strategies towards forcing people into the criminal justice system.

One thing that is often lost in the discussion about cannabis policy is the opportunity cost of prohibition. Enforcing failed cannabis prohibition is not free, and, in fact, is very expensive. According to Statista, the average daily cost of incarcerating someone (including for cannabis) is roughly 143 euros, which is up from 2019 when the estimated cost was 131 euros a day. That, of course, does not include the cost of the officers patrolling, the cost of the investigation, the cost of any forensic lab work, and the cost of the court proceedings. Now, multiply all of that times the number of people arrested and prosecuted for cannabis offenses in Italy and the numbers quickly add up. Obviously, not every case involves every component that I mentioned, however, at the macro level it’s still a tremendous sum when all combined together.

Meanwhile, none of those dollars go towards actual public health strategies, such as education. Regulated sales coupled with funding ongoing education campaigns helps mitigate youth consumption rates better than threating youth with possible criminal justice ramifications, as proven by the statistics in some legal jurisdictions like the State of Oregon where I live. The funds saved by no longer enforcing failed prohibition, coupled with the revenues generated by a taxed and regulated industry, can provide governments with funding levels for public health strategies that they currently can only dream about. That would obviously include Italy, but only when lawmakers like Matteo Salvini refrain from making prohibitionist quips, and instead focus their energy on pursuing a sensible approach towards cannabis public policy.