A Referendum To Decriminalize Cannabis Faces Strong Opposition But May Happen After All

By Enzo Schillaci

The ballot initiative to decriminalize the cultivation of the cannabis plant in Italy was under attack in early November as right-wing politicians tried to suppress the initiative.

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Lega and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) argued that the proponents of the initiative were not eligible for receiving a one-month extension—until October 31—to submit the signatures.

In September, ReferendumCannabis, the group behind the campaign, managed to collect more than half a million signatures in one week. This feat was at least partly due to the recent legislation that allowed to gather signatures electronically.

500,000 signatures are the threshold that the law requires to reach before a measure can go to a ballot. In this case, it would allow Italians to decide whether to grant adults the right to grow a small number of plants from marijuana seeds for personal use at home.

The initiative would also decriminalize the possession of personal amounts of the drug and remove penalties for certain small offenses related to cannabis. An important clause in the petition is to stop revoking driver’s licenses of cannabis users.

The speed with which the signatures under the petition were collected also reflects the shift in public opinion toward cannabis. According to the campaigners, around 6 million people in Italy are active recreational smokers. In 2019, Supreme Court ruled that non-commercial domestic cultivation isn’t a punishable offense. The medicinal use of the drug is also legal in Italy—since 2007.

However, the conservatives are against the further liberalization of cannabis laws. Matteo Salvini, the right-wing Lega Nord leader, opined that drug is a drug and all drugs are death. He kept repeating this sentiment during his campaign for the October elections. Other right-leaning parties support this position.

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At the same time, the pro-legalization sentiments among Italy’s political class are also strong. When Lega and Fdl tried to kill the ballot initiative, their move was rejected by Partito Democratico, M5S, and +Europa. Even Forza Italia, which is Lega and Fdl’s ally, abstained from the vote.

The attempt to block the referendum was based on a technicality. Earlier, all other current ballot initiatives received a 1-month extension of the deadline for the submission of signatures. And all these initiatives began before June 15. The initiative to legalize cannabis cultivation was the only one that started later—in September. So it wasn’t mentioned in the decision that granted the extension to others.

It was enough for the conservatives to argue that it shouldn’t receive the same treatment. While the campaigners themselves were outraged by these “dirty tricks”, Vittoria Baldino of the M5S also called these tactics “shameful” and Giuditta Pini of the PD tweeted that it was an attempt to “prevent the country from expressing itself.”

The trouble for the campaigners began even earlier when they were fighting for the extension in the first place. Without it, municipalities wouldn’t be able to provide voter registration certificates in time. The increased municipalities’ workload before the October elections was the reason why the ballot measures received an additional month.

However, after weeks spent in a bureaucratic quagmire, cannabis advocates got what they wanted and were able to submit more than 630,000 signatures to proper authorities. Now, that the last-ditch effort by the conservatives to sabotage their initiative has been thwarted, the referendum stands a chance.

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The petition can be now submitted for approval to the Supreme Court of Cassation which will verify whether all signatures are legitimate. Then it will be up to the constitutional court to check if the language of the initiative complies with the country’s constitution.

Setting up the date of the ballot is the job of the president who will issue a special decree. If everything goes as planned, the vote will take place between April and June next year. To be valid, it must achieve a quorum, meaning the majority of Italian citizens must take a stand. The majority of ‘yes’ votes is also needed for the initiative to pass.

Advocates of cannabis reform see this proposal as an opportunity to deal a blow to criminal groups that have long been profiting from trafficking illicit substances, including cannabis.

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