Tracknum: 8076.012101c3ab2b.ad1b5960.291179d1
Pubdate: Sat, 15 Nov 2003
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: John Hooper
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Cannabis and Ecstasy Users Face Tough Penalties in Crackdown

ROME -- Furious argument erupted in Italy yesterday over plans by Silvio 
Berlusconi's hard-right government for a sharp u-turn on drug control.

A bill drawn up by the deputy prime minister and leader of Italy's former 
neo-fascists, Gianfranco Fini, abolishes distinctions between "hard" and 
"soft" drugs and introduces stiff penalties for possession as well as 

Cannabis users caught with more than a few days' supply face jail 
sentences. Clubbers found with a single ecstasy tablet could have their 
passports impounded.

Mr Fini said: "Taking drugs is not an innocuous exercise of freedoms that 
cannot be curbed, but a rejection of the most elementary duties of the 
individual towards the various communities in which he or she actually lives."

Monsignor Vinicio Albanesi, the president of the Capodarco community, which 
takes in drug addicts for rehabilitation, condemned the proposals. "The 
philosophy underlying the bill is that of the authoritarian father who 
doesn't know how to cope with his son, so takes a strap to him," he said.

While several European countries are edging towards decriminalisation of 
cannabis, Italy has chosen to follow a tougher, US-style approach. Mr Fini 
said a new policy was needed because of the increasing strength of the 
cannabis derivatives reaching Italy.

"The joint of 10 years ago had an active ingredient of not more than 1.5%. 
Today, you can find them with as much as 15%. That is how the devastating 
and progressively less reversible effects [of cannabis] on physical and 
mental health are being multiplied," he said.

While penalising all forms of drug-taking, Mr Fini's law reintroduces the 
concept of a "daily minimum dose", which was struck out of the Italian 
statute book by a referendum 10 years ago. The new possession thresholds 
are 250mg of cannabis, 300mg of ecstasy, 200mg of heroin and, somewhat 
surprisingly, 500mg of cocaine.

Unless the bill is modified in parliament, possession of more than these 
amounts will be a crime punishable by up to six years in prison. Possession 
of smaller amounts will also be an offence, but with non-custodial penalties.

Offenders risk having their passports and their driving and arms licences 
suspended; foreigners, including European Union citizens, would lose their 
residents' permits.

Mr Fini's bill has come as a shock to a society in which cannabis smoking 
has become quite widely accepted. Surveys show that the number of users 
runs to several million and that a third of all university students have 
tried soft drugs.

Not long ago, a guest on a prime-time television show ostentatiously lit a 
very obvious spliff. One of the programme's co-presenters, Paolo 
Kessisoglu, said yesterday: "It's plain as day that, even if the law gets 
through, it's going to be impossible to enforce."

The composer of a new song aimed at the prohibitionist lobby, who goes by 
the stage name of J Ax, sounded a similar note. "What are they going to 
do?" he asked an interviewer from the newspaper La Stampa. "Arrest 
six-and-a-half million Italians?" His song notes that Mr Fini is himself a 
smoker - of tobacco.

However, with 14,000 Italians undergoing treatment for soft-drug abuse, not 
all those involved in therapeutic work oppose the bill. Father Pierino 
Gelmini of the Incontro community, which helps victims of drugs and 
alcohol, said: "All drugs do harm. Joints scramble the brain. Is that what 
we want - to bring up an army of demented youngsters?"