When the Italian state accidentally legalised so-called light cannabis products in 2016, both Big Pharma and the mafia made losses as the public increasingly turned towards using light cannabis for medication.
According to a study from researchers at York University, “a legislative void” allowed for the unintended liberalisation of light cannabis – really just CBD oil derived from hemp, sometimes called a ‘low-THC’ product because it typically contains less than 0.2% of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
The researchers called the trend of people buying light cannabis for medical purposes “Do It Yourself Medicine”. This was in stark contrast to the observation that “patient response to new drugs and therapies is usually heterogeneous and sluggish because of typical risk aversion”.
The researchers looked at statistics on monthly drug sales in parts of Italy where light cannabis was available and found that the hit to pharmaceutical sales was noteworthy. Sales of anxiolytics fell by 11.5%, sedatives by 10% and antipsychotics by 4.8%. Sales of opioids, anti-migraines, anti-epileptics, antidepressants and antipsychotics also fell.
And the mafia (not Big Pharma) suffered losses of €160-200m a year.
Predictably, the Italian state has recently moved to take the small bit self-empowerment it had accidentally granted to the people and put that power back into the hands of Big Pharma and the mafia. At the end of May, the country’s top court, the Court of Cassation, ruled that selling derivatives of cannabis sativa – notably oils, resins, buds and leaves – is illegal.
The new ruling states that selling cannabis derivatives is a crime “unless they are effectively devoid of narcotic effects”. It’s not clear whether that definition applies to the low-THC varieties currently on sale all over Italy.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the hard-right League party, which presents itself as ‘anti-establishment’, recently declared “war” on cannabis light shops, which he classes alongside drug dealers. It was possibly a case of more bark that bite on display as his warning came in the build up to the European elections. The Italian state is running on a threadbare budget as it is, after all.
But shop owners are worried. One in Sanremo has already announced plans to launch a class action against the court’s ruling. “It’s like cracking down on alcoholism by banning alcohol-free beer,” he told the press.
People who buy cannabis derivatives, meanwhile, are not in danger of being prosecuted.
Commenting on the story and the wider crackdown on CBD products in Europe, Ian Hamilton, Senior Lecturer in Addiction and Mental Health at the University of York, told UKCSC.co.uk: “In some ways it is surprising to see how popular these products have become. However it also points to the limitations that many traditional medicines have in their effectiveness and the side effects people experience. Many people will view cannabis products as natural and safer than pills and medicines generally. They might have been influenced into using cannabis products by the considerable media coverage there has been of the potential these products offer.
“It is important that people are given choice but that needs to be based on up to date evidence of how effective or not cannabis-based products are for particular conditions. Unfortunately much of that evidence is not available as yet, or if it is not in a format that is accessible to a lay audience. There also appears to be some prejudice within the professional community, particularly those who could prescribe these products. For example, some doctors have expressed concern that these products could be diverted onto the black market. This is clearly not likely to happen as it wouldn’t make economic sense and the medicinal market is very different to the recreational one.
“There is clearly an opportunity for those responsible for policy across Europe to explore better ways to regulate cannabis products and ensure equitable access to them. At the moment it appears it is only those with money that are able to secure cannabis products through legitimate channels. That seems grossly unfair.”