Industrial hemp

After a glorious past and the following oblivion that led this plant to be demonized and almost forgotten, there is now a “back to the future” for the cultivation of hemp.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Italy was among the world’s leading producers and the largest in Europe. Then, in the ‘50s, everything changed with the arrival of synthetic petroleum-based fibers on the market and a development system based on the unrestrained consumerism backed by the emulation of the American dream. Nevertheless, things are now changing, albeit slowly, and hemp is becoming an alternative to the rural flight. On this basis, the entrepreneur Rachele Invernizzi founded the “South Hemp Tecno”, a company that promotes research and business projects, where the first hemp transformation center in the southern Italy is to be found. Just a few kilometers from the city of Taranto, where the pollution caused by the steel industry left the land unusable for crops. From there, Vincenzo Fornaro, the Carmine farmhouse owner, decided to move on with hemp cultivation on a two-hectare field. His project arose from the effort not to give up and save his land, indeed, hemp is also able to absorb noxious substances from the soil. There are a lot of possibilities along the whole chain: from paper production and medicinal products, to food and construction products. This cultivation has resumed in many European countries, a sustainable development model that was never abandoned in transalpine countries is the reason why France has become the European leader in the field. Young Italian farmers follow a great tradition, it is no accident that they have been encouraged more by their grandparents than by their parents, who are still strongly influenced by the Prohibition era. A period that made us totally forget that the cornerstone of peasant-farming in Italy was based on a simple, natural and environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Medicinal cannabis

The millennial history of cannabis used for medical purposes hasn’t helped much; indeed, with the rise of Prohibition, most of the knowledge acquired about its healing properties have long since gone up in smoke.

People in poor health, associations and a few enlightened doctors have, for a number of years now, been trying to recover the precious legacy of therapeutic cannabis. From its ability to ease nausea caused by aggressive treatments like chemotherapy, to muscle tightness and dealing with spasms, right up to studies that have been conducted on the anti-tumor properties of one of its cannabinoid constituents (THC), today cannabis is back to being a treatment both promising but, regrettably, difficult to obtain, particularly for sick people in Italy. The lack of raw material is a key factor. The production of the Military Pharmaceutical Chemical Works in Florence is not able to satisfy the internal demand: a mere 10 kilos are produced every year, compared to a requirement of more than 100 kilos. Therefore, Italy like Germany, Finland, Canada and the Czech Republic, is compelled to import Bedrocan, medical cannabis produced in the Netherlands. However, after the long chain of possession, its retail price in the pharmacies soars in cost. Then again, the situation differs from one region to another; Tuscany and Apulia are at the forefront, while many others, including Sicily, are still totally unprepared. There are huge interests at stake that are at the heart of the political debate: from pharmaceutical lobbies to the profit of organized crime. Those who are able to buy it free of charge under medical prescription from pharmacies, as in the case of 34-year-old Alberico Nobile, who was left quadriplegic after a car accident and is based in Talsano, in the province of Taranto, have their own Regional Health Services to thank. Then, there are those who are organizing themselves for self-cultivation, as in the case of Andrea Trisciuoglio and his associates of “LapianTiamo”, the first Italian cannabis social club which aims to produce therapeutic cannabis for Italian patients at a price of 1.55 euro per gram instead of the pharmacy selling price of 35 euro per gram. Alas, to a sufferer of multiple sclerosis in Sicily, like 34-year-old Alessandro Raudino, who consumes about 3 grams of cannabis a day, both government-produced cannabis and that imported from the Netherlands are economically unaffordable and with no Healthcare System exemption, there is absolutely no way of improving his condition. 28-year-old Christian Ferri is in the same situation. He was involved in an extremely serious car accident in 2006, but his disability has not yet been fully recognized. Whilst having a medical prescription to use cannabis for therapeutic purposes, he grows marijuana for himself because he is unemployed with no disability pension so he cannot, and will not, buy cannabis sold by pharmacies at exorbitant prices. Italian patients suffer as a result and they are at a crossroads: either grow it illegally or buy it on the black market. Unfortunately, the advantage of a lower selling price in the street corresponds to a total lack of information regarding the quantity of active substance and the quality of inflorescences, both key factors in therapy, whether it’s consumed via vaporizers, rolled into common cigarettes or used to make oil extracts and capsules. It will be some time yet before Italy is able to heal its failings in cannabis regulation, even if cannabis has, in fact, been treating Italy for a long time already.

Fight against drug trafficking

Italy has become a dump for marijuana produced in Albania. Every year, hundreds of tonnes cross the Adriatic Sea by speed boat towards the Salento coast.

There, the drug is collected and taken to to different storage places set up in the Apulian countryside where it is monitored by armed men. According to the U.S. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR): “Albania remains a major source for marijuana, as well as a transit route for shipment of cocaine and heroin destined for European markets”. Members of the Counter-narcotics Group (G.O.A.) in the tax unit of the Lecce financial police try to intercept drug lots while at sea whenever possible. Otherwise, they need to find the link between the Albanian underworld and Italian drug dealers by intercepting the couriers: work carried out in the shadows. It involves telephone tappings, stakeouts, undercover operations, night-watches. Despite the hard work, sacrifice and the risks the military has to take, only a small portion of the loads destined for the European drug dealing areas are intercepted. Its consumers risk serious damage to their health caused by marijuana containing pesticides, methadone, hairspray, fibre-glass and lead. Toxic chemicals are also added to increase the effects and the weight of the weed, as well as to increase its market value. The Vietnamese seed is the latest thing: maturing after 50 days, it allows organized crime to have more harvests per year. This is the way the Albanian weed sector works: from producer to consumer via drug smugglers. Every bag, well wrapped and vacuum-packed by traffickers to prevent the narcotics from getting wet during the sea crossing, is labelled with sorting information and the initials of the addressees, so that no mistakes occur with delivery. This is because the drug smugglers are often clumsy and inexperienced: desperate people looking for easy money but who often end up in a lot of trouble. All sequestrated goods seized by the military under the direction of the commander of the Organized Crime Investigation Group (G.I.C.O.) are huge, but the Albanian production exceeds 1 thousand tonnes per year and swamps the whole European market. Albanians can do everything on their own, the United Sacred Crown can’t compete with such a business and the Italian mafia stands by watching the huge profits of the green gold produced in the Land of the Eagles.

Recreational cannabis

A lot of people of all ages use it, but there are few who are willing to acknowledge the fact when it comes to marijuana for recreational purposes. Their reason is twofold: it’s illegal and there is still a strong social stigma around being a cannabis user.

However, what everyone should fear is, above all, the toxicity of the weed sold by drug dealers on the street. Indeed, the recreational use of cannabis leads smokers to run a lot of risks. And, that’s one of the main reasons underlying the marijuana legalization debate in Italy. Over 200 parliamentarians from different political parties support the draft legislation, currently still held up in Parliament along with more than 2 thousand amendments. According to the 2016 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 83 million Europeans have used cannabis at least once in their life. The monopoly of the green gold business belongs to organized crime, which sell up to 3 thousand tonnes of cannabinoids a year, for the value of around 7 billion euro. This is, therefore, a very thriving market, never questioned by Prohibition. Legalization would be a serious blow to the various mafias and, moreover, the National Anti-Mafia Directorate also recognizes that “we have to record the complete failure of repressive action”. Added to that, State expenses resulting from thousands of trials mostly regarding drug users and low-class dealers, significantly burden the Italian justice system in terms of costs, time and human resources. According to a study carried out by the University of Harvard that has been cited in the legislative proposal, the state treasury would earn 10 billion euro each year from the legalization of cannabis through tax revenues deriving from sales and the saving on trial costs, raids and imprisonment. Such resources could be invested in full-size operations against drug trafficking, like those the financial police (GDF) carry out to stop illegal cannabis shipments coming from Albania and Morocco. In conclusion, there would be benefits both for the State and the average consumer who would prefer to buy a legal and certified substance rather than depend on the black market.

GREEN GOLD (2016-2017)