Pubdate: Thu, 16 Oct 2014
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2014 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Steve Scherer, Reuters
Page: 11A


Although Legal, Cannabis Is Still Taboo In A Country Where The 
Catholic Church's Sway Is Powerful

ROVIGO, Italy - Italy legalized marijuana for medical use last year, 
but the high cost of buying legal pot in a pharmacy meant few people 
signed up. Now, the government has found a solution: get the army to grow it.

Starting next year, a high-security lab in a military compound in 
Florence will grow cannabis for Italy's health care system in an 
experiment the government says could bring safe, legal and affordable 
marijuana to suffering patients.

The new army supply should allow the government to lower the price 
for consumers, who now have to pay up to 10 times as much at a 
pharmacy for marijuana officially imported from Holland as they might 
for a bag on the street from a local drug dealer.

Regional health authorities are expected to offer it to qualified 
patients cheaply or for free, helping to put mafia-linked drug 
dealers out of business. But whether large numbers sign up will 
depend on cultural factors in a Catholic country with a historic 
stigma against drugs.

About 40 miles from Venice, Italy's top cannabis expert, agricultural 
scientist Gianpaolo Grassi, is trying to grow the perfect pot plant 
on his 70-hectare research farm, the only place in the country 
authorized to grow marijuana outdoors with more than 0.2 percent of 
the psychoactive chemical THC.

His breeds, also blooming indoors under powerful lamps and behind 
armored doors, are expected to be grown in the Florence military lab, 
which already produces so-called "orphan drugs"  to treat rare diseases.

The powerful odor from flowers in full bloom permeates the air at 
Grassi's farm. A 10-foot high, barbed wire-crowned fence surrounds 
the fields, and video cameras peer along the perimeter. The 
sophisticated system was installed a few years ago to keep out 
thieves who raided the farm and slashed the walls of the greenhouses 
to steal the plants. "All kids,"  chuckles Grassi.

Until the 1960s, this was hemp country, where a variant of cannabis 
was grown for centuries to make rope, cloth and paper.

The 57-year-old researcher fondly recalls the hemp fields of his 
youth. Later as a scientist he became fascinated with the versatility 
of the plant.

Since 2002 Grassi has experimented with about 330 different strains 
of medical-grade cannabis, which for millennia was used to treat pain 
and illness until being outlawed in most of the world in the 20th century.

For now, the military pot plan is still defined as a "pilot 
project,"  with details on who will qualify for treatment still to be defined.

Italian officials have made very clear that they don't plan to follow 
in the footsteps of the United States, where medical marijuana laws 
have been followed by full-blown legalization of pot in some states, 
including for recreational use.

Italy wants to make sure that "curing sick people does not become an 
excuse to expand the use of the substance,"  said Senator Carlo 
Giovanardi, an outspoken Catholic anti-drug campaigner. Legalization, 
he added, would lead to "a society of zombies."

Free Pot

Because of the bureaucracy of obtaining import permission, ensuring 
purity and overseeing sale, legal cannabis from Holland now costs 
about 38 euros a gram in Italian pharmacies, compared to as low as 5 
euros for illegal pot on the street.

Even when a doctor prescribes it, the state does not cover the cost, 
which could run to around $1,200 a month for a typical patient. As a 
result, when legalized medical marijuana arrived last year, only a 
few dozen people signed up.

Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin said that should change once the 
military production begins. The army should be able to produce 
marijuana at a high enough standard to satisfy regulators for less 
than half the cost of importing it, allowing the government to offer 
it to patients at subsidized prices.

At a news conference last month announcing the army project, the 
minister said it would be up to Italy's regional governments, which 
manage the federal healthcare system, to decide how much to charge 
patients. So far, about half of Italy's 20 regions have pledged to 
provide it for free.

There are no official estimates of how many people may end up taking 
medical marijuana in Italy once it becomes free, or cheap enough to 
compete with illegal pot. If everyone who could benefit from it 
signed up, the number could be in the millions, according to Grassi, 
the researcher.

Yet some aren't so sure that the stigma of taking a drug has worn 
off. Francesco Crestani, an anesthesiologist and president of Italy's 
Association for Therapeutic Cannabis, predicts the takers to be in 
the thousands, because of caution within the medical community and 
because marijuana is generally prescribed only after a patient fails 
to respond to other medicines.

Medical marijuana is a controversial idea in a country where the 
Catholic Church has powerful influence and preaches against drugs. 
Only in recent years, for example, have doctors warmed to prescribing 
opiates, and Italy still uses fewer opiate-based drugs than most 
European countries.

Cannabis "is a very effective medicine, but since it's also a drug... 
there's always fear to use it,"  said Umberto Veronesi, a former 
health minister and one of Italy's top cancer physicians. "The same 
thing happened with morphine, which for years no one would prescribe 
for the poor patients who were suffering terribly."

Laws against marijuana in Italy are severe, with selling or growing 
it a crime that could lead to imprisonment. Pope Francis has spoken 
out against "every type of drug use,"  including pot.

Logical Solution

Grassi, the agricultural expert, said putting marijuana production 
under military security was a "logical solution"  to the political 
problem. "Some political decisions are tied to country's Catholic 
mentality... This makes growing medical cannabis agreeable for everyone."

His work should benefit people like 36-year-old clothing designer 
Elisa Bertero, who has a prescription to take medical marijuana to 
relieve her fibromyalgia, a syndrome that causes body-wide pain in 
joints, muscles, and tendons.

Bertero said she tried many medicines to seek to alleviate her pain 
when the condition began four years ago. None worked. So after doing 
online research, she tried cannabis on her own as "an experiment," 
and it was so effective she never stopped.

But Bertero said she then ran into resistance by some 10 doctors who 
were unwilling to prescribe marijuana even though it was legal as of 
last year. Eventually she went to anesthesiologist Crestani, who 
examined her, listened to her story, and prescribed cannabis.

"For a long time I took it every day. It was the only thing that 
allowed me to get out of bed in the morning,"  said Bertero. She now 
takes it only a few days a week, making marijuana tea in the morning 
or inhaling with a vaporizer in the evening.

Bertero says that while cannabis makes her feel "happy and light," it 
does not get in the way of her work measuring, cutting and sewing 
garments. Sometimes she even pays the official cost of 38 euros per 
gram, even though it is so much cheaper on the street.

"When I have the money, I buy it from the pharmacy,"  Bertero says. 
"But since I'm not a millionaire, I often arrange to buy it for 5 
euros a gram."

Regional health authorities are expected to offer marijuana to 
qualified patients cheaply or for free, helping to put mafia-linked 
drug dealers out of business.

A production assistant collects a cannabis plant in a state-owned 
agricultural farm 40 miles from Venice.

Doctors have warmed to prescribing opiates, but Italy still uses 
fewer opiate-based drugs than most European countries.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom