By Filippo Carchedi

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 – 9 years before the government’s last National Conference.

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.