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Italy’s Hemp Sector Fights Back Against Government Ban, Seeks EU Intervention

Italy’s hemp industry has called on the European Commission (EC) to intervene after the government moved to ban the cultivation, production and marketing of hemp.

A number of Italian cannabis and agricultural trade groups have written to the EC arguing that a recent amendment to the country’s Security Bill could ‘violate European Union law on free competition and movement of goods.’

The groups have called for the amendment to be cancelled by the EC, stating it would wipe out the country’s entire hemp industry, leading to the closure of some 3000 businesses and the loss of 15,000 jobs supported by the sector.

It marks the latest attempt by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s administration to crack down on the ‘cannabis light’ industry, following numerous so-far failed attempts since her election to power in 2022.

What happened?

Late last month, the government proposed an amendment to the Security Bill on ‘measures concerning hemp inflorescences and products derived therefrom’.

The amendment is now being considered by the Chamber of Deputies, where it will examine the amendment and hear expert opinions before it is debated, voted upon and potentially sent to the Senate for a final vote.

In what leading Italian hemp trade group Federcanapa described as a ‘grotesque crackdown’ on the industry, the amendment would effectively render all commercial activity surrounding industrial hemp, even that with THC below 0.3%, illegal in Italy.

Article 13-bis of the Security Bill, which covers a range of issues far beyond hemp, would prohibit the ‘importation, processing, possession, transfer, distribution, trade , transport, dispatch, delivery, and sale to the public for consumption, even in semi-finished, dried or shredded form’.

This would not only wipe out the flourishing ‘cannabis light’ industry, which has long been a target for Meloni’s government, but would effectively wipe out the entire agricultural supply chain, making the production of hemp-derived products like cosmetics, herbal medicine and food supplements a criminal offense.

The CIA-Agricoltori Italiani, one of Europe’s largest trade organisations working to protect the agricultural industry with over 900,000 members, said the bill threatens to close thousands of agricultural companies ‘in a continuously expanding sector with significant growth rates’.

Furthermore, it states that the amendment could further restrict the industry by banning the graphic symbol of the hemp plant, effectively blocking advertising ‘dedicated to excellent industrial and artisanal products such as green building, textiles and cosmetics.’

Appeal to the European Commission 

Following the proposed amendment, cannabis trade groups, including Canapa Sativa Italia (CSO) and Federcanapa, penned a letter to the EC raising their concerns about the ‘restrictions on the cultivation and trade of hemp inflorescences and derived products’.

The CSI states in their complaint that the move could violate EU law on free competition and movement of goods, a principle that allows goods legally manufactured and marketed in one member state to be freely sold in any other member state, even if they comply with slightly different national regulations.

Furthermore, the CSI argues that the Italian government may have violated EU rules by failing to consult with the Technical Regulation Information System (TRIS), a mandatory step for regulations which could impact other single-market members.

In a separate letter, Federcanapa cites two recent European legal cases that provide precedent for their arguments that Italy’s ban on hemp production violates EU law.

Firstly, it cites France’s 2023 decision to ‘recognise the right to use the entire hemp plant for industrial uses’, and grant ‘temporary licences for the trade of CBD food supplements’ amid ongoing delays to the Novel Foods process.

“We cannot understand the determination with which Italy tends to demolish a vital national industrial sector which offers thousands of jobs, when even the European Court of Justice and the Lazio Regional Administrative Court have recognised full legitimacy of the use of the industrial hemp plant ‘in its entirety’”, the organisation stated.

Azione Collettiva per Difendere la Canapa Italiana

In November 2020, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that CBD is not a narcotic, that a member state cannot restrict the free movement of CBD products, and that CBD can be derived from the hemp flower.

In February 2023, an Italian court overturned an ‘absurdly restrictive’ decree that meant hemp leaves and flowers were considered narcotics in the eyes of regulators.

The Lazio Regional Administrative Court ruled that, as the government could not provide any evidence that industrial hemp was dangerous, the decree should be annulled.

According to the CSI, the EC’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development has announced that it will examine the complaint, meaning it will now conduct a detailed assessment of whether EU rules have been breached.

If the EC finds that Italy has violated EU law, it may send a ‘letter of formal notice’ requiring Italy to respond within a set deadline. If Italy’s response is unsatisfactory, the commission can issue a ‘reasoned opinion’ and, if necessary, refer the matter to the ECJ. The ECJ will then determine if a violation has occurred, and it will be up to Italy to comply with the ruling.

In addition to EU-level procedures, there are national tools like appealing to the TAR for legislation suspension and referral to the Constitutional Court. A stay can also be obtained from Europe pending the ECJ’s final judgment. The CSI also says it is seeking damages for regulations violating antitrust laws.

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