AN Italian court has overturned an ‘absurdly restrictive’ decree which meant hemp leaves and flowers were considered narcotics in the eyes of regulators.
The decision, which was made by the Lazio Regional Administrative Court last week (February 14), means that Italy’s national law now no longer contravenes the 2020 Kanavape ruling of the European Union’s Court of Justice (ECJ).
As hemp and CBD businesses continue to fight for their right to operate freely across a number of EU countries which have chosen to diverge from the ECJ’s decision, Italy’s annulment will serve as the latest weapon in their arsenal.
In May 2022, four grassroots cannabis industry associations – Canapa Sativa Italia, Sardinia Cannabis, Resilienza Italia Onlus and Federcanapa – filed an appeal against a Ministerial Decree issued in January 2022.
The decree in question amended an earlier decree from 2018 regarding the cultivation, harvesting and processing of medicinal plants.
Effectively, the 2022 amendment sought to place the cultivation, processing and marketing of ‘non-narcotic’ hemp flowers and leaves back under the umbrella of narcotics, meaning operators would be required to seek authorisation from the Ministry of Health, or face penalties.
The four groups, which were represented by attorney Giacomo Bulleri and Legance, argued that the decree made an ‘illegitimate distinction’ between various parts of the hemp plant, while stressing the need for a clarification between high-THC cannabis grown for medical purposes and industrial hemp grown to produce leaves and flowers for non-medical purposes.
They also argued that this directly contradicted ‘international, community and national legislation’ including the ECJ’s assertion, which is applicable across the EU, that it should not be considered a narcotic.
According to Federcanapa, during a first hearing on September 7, 2022, the Lazio Regional Administrative Court (TAR) asked the Ministry of Health to provide evidence of the dangers of using industrial hemp in a secondary hearing on January 23, 2023, to which the Ministry of Health failed to appear.
The court subsequently ruled that the decree should be annulled, stating: “The national legislation of each member state may restrict the use of plant parts only if such restriction is strictly necessary to protect the right to public health, provided that this does not exceed what is necessary to achieve it…
“Yet, in the present case, no evidence about the need for protection of the right to health, even from the perspective of the precautionary principle, was provided by the respondent administrations, which merely invoked such principles without, however, providing any concrete data or scientific element with respect to the case at hand.”
In a joint press release, the four associations said: “Today we have definitive confirmation that without valid scientific evidence it is not possible to limit this agricultural supply chain. The THC-free hemp plant is not part of the international conventions on narcotics and for this reason its market and industrial and medicinal applications cannot be limited.”
The group added that it was happy to have faced these challenges, as moving forward ‘it will never be possible to limit the applications of hemp without valid reasons’.
Notably, the Italian ruling directly referenced a similar case in France just weeks earlier, in which the country’s highest court scrapped an attempted ban on the sale of flowers and leaves of low-THC hemp.
Mr Bulleri commented: “It is precisely by referring also to the French Council of State that the (Lazio Court) today established that a general and absolute ban on the marketing of cannabis leaves and flowers with a THC content lower than the legal limits is not justified by the risks to public health. Italy also aligns itself with the recent ruling by the French Council of State on the issue.”
Just as the Italian associations were able to use the French ruling to strengthen their case, subsequent battles over the legality of hemp will be able to reference this ruling to strengthen their own.
Lorenza Romanese, Managing Director of the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA), which helped support the groups involved in the case, told BusinessCann: “The Italian ruling brings more clarity on all parts of the plant.
“We are super happy and have encouraged and supported the lawyers (who are members of our advisory committee) since the beginning in collaboration with Federcanapa (a national association member of EIHA).
“We would like to stress that the main need of our sector today is to ensure a clear and common regulatory framework at European level. Too often, the lack of clarity regarding the legality of hemp and all its parts has encouraged diverging policies at national level, despite the ECJ ruling of 2020 and more recent national courts’ rulings.
“This approach necessarily results in a loss of competitiveness of our farmers, breeders, seed multipliers, and processors. Moreover, it slows down investments in our value chain, at a time when hemp could provide a bio-based raw material for the manufacturing industry (construction, textile, non-woven, paper, packaging, plastics, etc.), a source of high-quality proteins and ingredients for the food and cosmetics industry, while providing positive environmental, social, and economic externalities for our rural communities.”
Impact on the wider Italian cannabis industry
While the development is great news for the hemp industry both in Italy and across wider Europe, domestic circumstances mean it is not expected to have a significant impact on the wider cannabis industry.
Tommaso Martella, Co-founder and Managing Director of Italian medical cannabis company Revmed, said: “Starting from the assumption that the right wing has taken over, the government will have a conservative attitude, especially towards a delicate issue such as that of cannabis.
“At the moment, and I say this in the light of the recent meetings we have had with the Ministry of Health in Rome, the national need, especially for state authorities’ point of view, is to disseminate precise education on the subject of cannabis through institutional scientific channels.”
However, he says that his company has seen ‘a positive effect in the opening of the ministry towards the importation of cannabis-based products’, alongside progress of ‘the cultivation project in synergy with the defence ministry.’
This suggests that the Italian army’s monopoly on cultivation of medical cannabis in Italy, which has consistently been unable to supply enough product to meet demand, could soon be broken.