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Ten years without a National Conference on drug policy in Italy: the demand for change is led by civil society

A national conference on drug policy reform, led by civil society organisations, will take place in February 2020 to resist the harms of 30 years of prohibition and punitive drug policy in Italy. The convening takes place 10 years after the last government-led National Conference, despite clear legislation that the government is required to organise a convening on national drug policy every three years.


The call to civil obedience


The 2020 “self-summoned” national conference, taking place at the Camera del Lavoro Metropolitana in Milan, is described as an act of “civil obedience” by its organisers, who are concerned that the Italian government has neglected its duty as outlined in the Italian Constitution, article 1, clause 15 of the law 309/90 to address drug policy and its impacts.

The government’s National Conference is meant to bring together politicians, experts on drugs and drug policy, civil society associations and other non-governmental organisations to assess the government’s current drug policy and examine its efficacy in terms of predetermined objectives, methods and strategies. The National Conference is also meant to be used to evaluate potential negative consequences – which, with regards to drug prohibition, have been many and egregious in character all over the world.

However, what could initially be considered a lack of due diligence on the part of the Italian government has now transformed into de facto law-breaking, resulting in the stagnation of both the public debate around drugs and national drug policy and law. Without regular National Conferences, the drug policy debate at the governmental and public level has waned, with impact assessment and evaluation much more difficult to carry out and ascertain. It is clear that this is a major limitation hindering improvement and reform of drug policy.


Stagnating drug policy


The last National Conference, convened in Trieste in 2009, was considered by many grassroots organisations to be of little relevance to their urgent concerns about the impact of the war on drugs in Italy. The last conference of any relevance, at least in terms of reforms proposed and the value of the debate, took place in Genoa back in 2000.

The Genoa conference contributed an active anti-prohibitionist thrust to the debate, with proposals from civil society organisations and even some government members ranging from the decriminalization of all drug use to the introduction of heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) and the legalization of cannabis. But following Genoa – with the Italian PM at the time declaring no agreement on the matter – the public debate came to a halt.

Only two conferences have been held since, and they both revolved around the measures projected in the ‘Fini-Giovanardi’ law (49/2006), the infamous piece of legislature criticized for being highly repressive towards people who use drugs (PWUDs) and for significantly contributing to the overcrowding of prisons in Italy.

Law 49/2006, in fact, abolished the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs (with cannabis equaled to cocaine and heroin, a huge increase in arrests followed) and introduced “quantitative thresholds in order to effectively distinguish between consumption and trafficking” (while drug possession, on paper, was decriminalized, the actual thresholds were derisory: 0.5g for cannabis; 0.25g for heroin; 0.75g for cocaine). Moreover, it reintroduced administrative sanctions for personal use, like suspension of a passport and/or driving licence, but for longer periods and in addition to other penalties like detention and community service, rather than instead of them.

Concisely, it was brutal on the drug users and street suppliers alike. It produced an unseen increase in incarceration rates, especially for non-violent offences. It wasted infinite resources for the tribunal, police and penal systems focusing on low-level offences with no significant impact on the illicit market.


Tough on crime


In 2005, a conference was held in Palermo in order to find support for the Fini-Giovanardi Law, which was then introduced the following year. The 2009 conference was summoned in Trieste a few years after the law came into force to show that “it worked”.

It was deemed necessary to find legitimacy for the new law and its punitive methods, but also for the new government: bear in mind, a coalition of right-/centre right-wing parties won the elections just the year before (2008). By showing a net increase in numbers of drug users, dealers and traffickers behind bars since the legislation (which was proposed by two members of their coalition), they made very clear – echoing a USA style narrative –  that they were the “tough-on-crime” party (or in this case, coalition).

Additionally, the measures and strategies conveyed at the National Conference in Trieste were never ratified at the regional level, meaning they never technically came into force. Nevertheless, they have been renewed and reiterated ever since regardless of their harmful consequences, their legitimacy only ever questioned by civil and human rights advocates and NGOs.

Considering the growing number of nations who are increasingly questioning the efficacy of prohibition and often re-assessing their approach to drugs, the Italian stagnation on the matter seems inexplicable and the sustained non-convening of the National Conference by the government ever more unjustifiable.


The impact of civil society: drug policy


Civil society, nonetheless, has at times been able to effectively participate in the political process. And this has certainly been the case in Italy with regard to grassroots organisations’ involvement in the assessment of the harmful impacts of the current drug policy measures.

The tenth edition of the ‘Libro Bianco sulle Droghe’ (‘White Book on Drugs’), for example, written and edited by ‘Società della Ragione’, ‘Antigone’, ‘Forum Droghe’ and other civil society organisations, is testimony to this.

The White Book reports in detail on the past 30-year history of Italian drug legislation and past National Conferences, examining the impacts on the justice and prison systems, and supporting its arguments with data that show the harms of the Italian prohibitionist approach to drugs. For instance, it illustrates how overpopulation in Italian prisons is mostly attributable to non-violent offenders arrested for drug-related crimes (35,21% of the total prison population) and people addicted to drugs (27,94%).

Some positive reforms have occurred over the past decade – as a result of civil society rather than successive governments.

In 2014, after academics and civil rights’ defenders appealed to the Italian Constitutional Court, law 49/2006 was declared unconstitutional and successfully repealed.

A legislative loophole in a 2016 law concerning industrial hemp allowed for the selling of “cannabis light”, hemp flowers with high levels of Cannabidiol (CBD, the non-psychoactive element of cannabis) and low levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive, illicit element of cannabis). This unintended liberalization of cannabis laws did not increase the occurrence of reported crime and produced an overall decrease in the confiscation of other drugs too (in particular hashish and marijuana with higher levels of THC), while also resulting in a consistent loss of revenue for organized crime.

Finally, in October and November 2019 the “Radicali Italiani” (Italian Radical Party), alongside Associazione Luca Coscioni, a “non-profit social promotion association” dedicated to civil and human rights’ advocacy, presented a draft law of popular initiative (68,000 signatures) on cannabis legalization to the “Camera dei Deputati” – which constitutes, together with the Senate, the Italian Parliament.

The same political party and civil society organisation also mobilized in Rome in front of the “Camera” and presented an appeal with 25,000 signatures sustaining the popular initiative bill “Legalizziamo” (“Let’s legalize”). This legislative proposal has yet to be addressed by Parliament; however, the legal procedures to address cannabis legalization might finally resume next year, perhaps induced by the very impetus of civil society.


The impact of civil society: harm reduction


Civil society has also had a significant impact on harm reduction initiatives in Italy, which have been active since the end of the century, ranging from opioid-substitution treatment (OST) and ‘needle-and-syringe’ programs (NSPs) to the free provision of naloxone (a drug that is used to reverse opioid overdoses) by community-based harm reduction services and its availability for a modest price in most pharmacies.

Nevertheless, such harm reduction initiatives have always taken place in the shadow of abstinence models that, far from condoning drug use, still heavily condemn and stigmatise people who use drugs.  Consequently, despite much evidence-based research showing the benefits of such facilities, drug consumption rooms (DCRs) are yet to be implemented in Italy.

Accordingly, HAT has never been made freely available in Italy: the focus is still on methadone – a drug that has similar effects to heroin, without giving to the user the ‘high’ feeling – which, as with all treatment, works with some but not with others. Harm reduction is indeed acknowledged, yet not considered the priority, nor the real objective: HAT is seen as facilitating and consenting to drug use, DCRs even more so. This all relates back to the enormous stigma on drugs and drug use in Italy, which Fascism, the Christian Church and conservative governments have helped establish and reinforce.


Looking forward


Drug policy has the potential to cause great harm, or reduce harm greatly. Just because the government doesn’t respect the 3-year commitment, it doesn’t mean civil society has to. The 2020 national conference will bring attention to the government’s failure to comply with its legal duty. But perhaps more urgently, the civil society national conference will galvanise political participation for experts, NGOs, civil society associations and individuals with the aim to foster a fair and evidence-based debate around drugs and drug policy in Italy.


For more information on the 2020 National Conference, visit: https://www.conferenzadroghe.it/


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