For many years under the Berlusconi government, Italian drug policy has been directed by ideology.  The government passed a legislative amendment to increase penalties for all categories of drug possession and use, treating cannabis with the same severity as heroin and cocaine.  It has also been consistently hostile towards harm reduction services in domestic and international drug policy forums. However the departure of the minister primarily responsible for spearheading ‘tough on drugs’ policies hopefully heralds a corresponding change in Italy’s approach to drugs.  It was in this promising context that a group of judges, magistrates, politicians, NGOs and academics met to discuss the problems they are inheriting from the outgoing administration, and the emerging opportunities for reform.

We met last week on 23 – 25 February 2012 in Syracuse, Sicily at an international expert seminar co-convened by the International Drug Policy Consortium, Societa della Ragione, and Forum Droghe. Our discussions focused on two key themes: decriminalization and diversion schemes, and harm reduction. We heard from experts on the experiences and lessons learned by countries in Europe, Asia and South America, in order to get a sense of the challenges to tackle and opportunities to grasp in implementing decriminalization, diversion and harm reduction measures. Experts from the UN and academia also shared advice on ensuring effective harm reduction interventions and cultivating supportive environments to sustain those interventions, especially building a positive relationship between law enforcement and people who use drugs.

We all shared a hope that Italy could gradually overcome significant barriers to its implementation of decriminalization, effective diversion and up-scaled harm reduction measures: rising rates of prosecution of drug offences (due partly to inconsistent prosecution practices), and declining investment in needle exchange schemes and opiate substitution treatment. Overcoming these barriers will only be possible with continuing open debate, informed by evidence and international best practice, and increasing investment in the reforms that are appropriate for Italy.

Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert.