marijuana plants burn
Italy could be on the verge of marijuana legalization. Above, police in Albania burn 1.6 tons of cannabis, which authorities said was seized as it was being transported out of a producing area near the Greek border in the country's south. Reuters/Arben Celi

Italy may well be on its way to becoming the largest country in Europe to legalize marijuana. An Italian tracking group has found that more than 250 lawmakers from across the political spectrum have given their support to a proposal that would largely decriminalize production, distribution, sale and consumption of marijuana throughout the nation.

The leap may appear far-fetched for a country that just 10 years ago voted in a draconian anti-drug bill that removed any distinction between hard and soft drugs, increasing sentences for pot smokers and heroin addicts alike.

But the legalization movement recently gained momentum, with one of the world's most progressive legislative proposals on marijuana being submitted to the Italian parliament. Drafted by the Intergrupo Parlamentare Cannabis Legale, the legislation would allow anyone over the age of 18 to cultivate as many as five plants at home. Italians could also team up to form a "cannabis social club," with each having a maximum of 50 people growing as many as 250 plants.

In both cases, the product would have to be consumed or shared by the farmers, who would be banned from selling and profiting from it while notifying authorities about their activities. All other individuals would be allowed to store as many as 15 grams of marijuana at home and carry as many as 5 grams, with higher quantities being allowed for medical use.

Meanwhile, people who do not follow the new rules would not be subject to criminal charges, but would instead face administrative sanctions. Smoking in public areas would remain strictly prohibited, as would advertising, exporting and importing all cannabis products.

Larger-scale production and sale would be controlled by a state monopoly, with the government regulating the sale of licenses. Retail sales would be restricted to dedicated stores, similar to the cannabis coffee shops in Netherlands.

marijuana smoker amsterdam
The Italian Christian Avarello lights up a joint made of marijuana at a coffee shop in Amsterdam. Reuters/Michael Kooren

The Recent Italian History Of Cannabis

Italy's pro-legalization movement began in the 1960s with the anti-establishment Radical Party, which, among other things, has distinguished itself for its successful campaigns to introduce abortion and divorce, and for getting the first porn star elected to parliament, Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina.

Its histrionic leader, Marco Pannella, 85, has been the face of Italian anti-prohibition for decades, routinely getting arrested for distributing marijuana as an act of civil disobedience.

However, the party has largely remained a fringe force, backed by the liberal intelligentsia but shunned by the masses. It has never won more than 4 percent of the vote, with the exception of the 1999 European elections, when it garnered 8.5 percent.

Despite the attempts made by Pannella and his colleagues, repression has long been Rome's favored response when it comes to drugs. Its tendency peaked in 2005, with the approval of the aforementioned law equating soft and hard drugs by the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. (The legislation was declared unconstitutional in 2014.)

Meanwhile,the Radical Party has served over the years as a training ground for several young politicians who have since moved on to more successful political ventures. Among them is Benedetto Della Vedova, an undersecretary in Italy's foreign ministry and the chief promoter of the proposed cannabis legislation, which was unveiled this month.

"I believe there is a majority of senators and deputies in parliament that support the measure," he told International Business Times UK.

The bill has already been endorsed by more than 250 of Italy's 945 members of parliament. These include MPs in Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party and Berlusconi's Forza Italia, as well as in the leftist SEL, the populist Five Star Movement and the centrist Scelta Civica of former Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Cannabis plants grow on a state-owned agricultural farm in Rovigo, Italy, about 40 miles from Venice. Italy legalized marijuana for medical use in 2013, but the high cost of buying legal pot in a pharmacy meant only a few people signed up for it. Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

So, how did cannabis all of a sudden become so popular in Italy's two chambers of parliament? Well, it didn't happen overnight, but the practical reasons in favor of legalization appear to have struck a chord with many MPs.

Why Go Green? To Fight Organized Crime

The Italian proposal came as the prohibition model entered a period of global crisis, with its benefits disputed by experts and governments.

For example, a 2014 London School of Economics report urged the United Nations to drastically change its hard-line approach, saying that despite increased spending prohibition has failed to yield results.

"The pursuit of a militarized and enforcement-led global 'war on drugs' strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage," the report read. "These include mass incarceration in the U.S., highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilization in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication, and the propagation of systematic human-rights abuses around the world."

Similar views were recently expressed by authorities when legalizing cannabis in Uruguay and several U.S. states, including Colorado and Washington.

In Italy, the turning point came this year, when the National Anti-Mafia Directorate (DNA), the authority in charge of fighting organized crime, indicated reforms to decriminalize cannabis-related crimes were needed. In its annual report, it said security forces could no longer afford diverting resources to the fight against cannabis as consumption was spreading despite security forces' "best efforts," noting that repressive action was to date "a total failure."

According to the report, as many as 3,000 tons of cannabis are illegally sold each year in Italy, enough for each citizen, children included, to smoke two to four joints a week. It estimated the total market value as much as $33 billion. And this appraisal is based on the amount of drugs seized by police, which is believed to be a small fraction of the total amount in commerce. From June 2013 to June 2014, the DNA said it intercepted close to 1,900 pounds of heroin, a little less than 10,000 pounds of cocaine and more than 32,000 pounds of cannabis, making marijuana by far the most popular -- and most seized -- drug in the southern European nation.

DNA recommendations on drug policies are not easily ignored in Italy, as this is the authority waging war in Europe against the largest drug cartel, the 'Ndrangheta, and other organized-crime groups that plague the country.

The DNA also pulls considerable political weight. For example, Pietro Grasso, the current Senate president, the second highest office in the nation, is its former chief.

Critics say the post-2005 crackdown on drugs has exacerbated systemic problems, engulfing Italy's traditionally congested courts with a wave of low-profile cases that went on to strain the country's overcrowded jails.

Why Go Green? Money

Italy is currently struggling to get out of an economic crisis that has left the government desperate for cash. In May, its debt touched a record $2.4 trillion, 132 percent of gross domestic product, which is expected to grow 0.7 percent in 2015 after years of recession. Thus, the prospective of fresh income from taxation and licensing is quite alluring to the government.

"I believe this is the strongest argument in favor of the bill," Pier Luigi Petrillo, a professor of comparative law at Rome's Luiss University and an expert on lobbying, told IBTimes UK. "Particularly so now that the government has pledged to cut taxes and has to find revenue elsewhere. Most reforms are done with an eye to the wallet and this one creates revenue, not costs."

According to a study published last year, new business generated by the law could result in an increase of GDP fluctuating between 1.20 percent and 2.34 percent. "Thousands of new jobs could be created," said Della Vedova, the chief promoter of the proposed cannabis legislation. "State income would be absolutely remarkable and quite higher than, for example, that granted by the controversial first-home tax, which today is worth about $3.7 million."

Benefits could be even greater, as the figure doesn't take into account resources now allocated to fight cannabis-related crimes, which could be diverted elsewhere.

The level of taxation on marijuana has not been defined, but Della Vedova explained a balance will have to be found so as not to fuel a black market, while not encouraging consumption by making marijuana very cheap.

Benedetto Della Vedova Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

According to the bill's text, the state would reinvest 5 percent of all revenue from licensing and taxation in anti-drug projects and all income from fines in education and rehabilitation programs.

Last but not least, the measure would slash prison sentences handed down according to the 2005 law by two-thirds, an amnesty that is likely to sensibly reduce the inmate population.

Is It Going To Pass?

"Our parliament's recent history teaches that legislations proposed by the parliament without the backing of the government is very rarely approved," Luiss University's Petrillo said. "So chances are quite low unless the government decides to take responsibility for it."

Although many MPs who threw their weight behind the proposal are members of the governing coalition, legalization is not a government priority, and indeed not a government plan at all, as the prime minister has not expressed himself on the subject yet. Renzi is quite sensitive to public opinion, which remains volatile.

The far-right populist Northern League party is opposing the plan. Its firebrand leader said legalizing prostitution would be a better option because "sex does no harm, cannabis does."

Also against the proposal are some drug-rehabilitation groups, such as the San Patrignano community. Its social committee coordinator Antonio Tinelli told IBTimes UK that based on its hands-on experience, legalization will reduce the risk perception connected to weed, eventually creating more addicts.

"For example, since gambling has been legalized, there has been an expansion of the problem, and we are currently treating a dozen betting addicts," he said, adding that "98 percent of people we help have started out with drugs smoking a joint."

Does Public Opinion Count?

Della Vedova said opinion polls show a majority of Italians favor alternative approaches. A survey by pollster Ipsos found 77 percent of interviewees said Italy should follow the path taken by Colorado and other U.S. states.

Researchers have found a way to separate medical benefits of marijuana from its side effects. In this photograph dated Dec. 31, 2013, a fully budded marijuana plant ready for trimming is seen at the Botanacare marijuana store ahead of its grand opening on New Year's Day in Northglenn, Colorado. Reuters/Rick Wilking

"Today, negative views on prohibition's failure have more weight than in the past," Della Vedova said. "There is no favorable opinion towards hashish and marijuana consumption, which is still viewed with suspicion and fear, but this is getting less and less relevant in the face of a reality that tells us prohibition favors the spread of cannabis instead of hindering it."

Interestingly, the Vatican and its Italian Episcopal Conference, which is traditionally quite vocal on Italian political matters touching on morals and ethics, have not voiced any opinion yet.

"The options are two: They are studying what position to take or they have been told not to say anything," Petrillo said.

The latter option may be the result of the more progressive course laid out by Pope Francis, who has already steered the Roman Catholic Church in the direction of a more open position toward homosexual people, and recently drank a tea made from coca leaves during a trip to South America.

"This silence certainly strengthens the bill's hopes," Petrillo said. "Many MPs are also Catholics, and I'm not sure they would have signed the text if the pope had spoken against it."

Among the strongest endorsements given the measure was an opinion piece written for Corriere della Sera, Italy's largest circulation newspaper, by Umberto Veronesi, a highly regarded oncologist who is a former health minister.

"The question is not whether marijuana is detrimental to health or not: it surely is," Veronesi wrote in the article. "Tobacco use is also widely recognized as one of the most severe social and health issues globally. Cigarettes however are not banned. If we are not able to dissuade our children from smoking cigarettes and joints, at least let's not throw them in the arms of the mafia."

Parliamentary discussion on the proposal is likely to start after the summer, and it might take as long as two years for a text to be approved by both chambers.

Della Vedova is nevertheless optimistic: "So far, more than one-fourth of all lawmakers have signed the bill, these include more than [a] third of the deputies sitting in the chamber. So there is a concrete possibility that this proposal will be approved."