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Cannabis light: the confusing illusion of legal marijuana in Rome

Oh, the classic sights of Rome: ancient Roman ruins, cobblestone streets, picture-perfect restaurants, quaint leather shops, and… weed dispensaries.

Tourists in the Eternal City may be taken aback by a recent addition to the ancient cityscape: legal marijuana shops. They’re hard to miss, with storefronts plastered with bright green marijuana-leaf decals and the occasional flashing “LEGAL” sign.

Despite appearances, Rome is no Amsterdam. In 2016, Law 242 was passed in Italy, legalising the sale of cannabis products with a low level of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Thus, so-called “cannabis light” was born, and cannabis light dispensaries took Rome by storm.

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What is cannabis light?

“Cannabis light” is a strain of cannabis that has a very low level of THC. AP News aptly describes cannabis light as the “decaf coffee” of marijuana. Though it is marketed as a marijuana-style product, it is more closely related to hemp. The common differentiation between hemp and marijuana is found in the THC level, as they are both similar looking (and smelling) subspecies of the cannabis sativa plant. Hemp usually has around a 0.3% THC level, whereas marijuana THC levels range from 4% to 20%.

The common THC level of cannabis light is 0.2% to 0.6%.

In Italy, cannabis light is sold in a dried form that looks identical to marijuana– so much so that it must be labelled as a collector’s item to evade laws regarding the sale of marijuana, and every package comes with a “not suitable for smoking” sticker.

There are many “strains” of cannabis light, with various names, colors, and characteristics. In many ways, the culture surrounding cannabis light mimics that of typical marijuana counter-culture, with one key difference: cannabis light probably won’t make you high.

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Why is cannabis light legal?

In 2016, Law 242 was passed to ease growing restrictions on industrial hemp farmers and encourage agricultural sustainability. Hemp cultivation is good for the environment for a variety of reasons: it grows quickly, requires little water, absorbs toxins and replenishes soil, and captures carbon dioxide more effectively than trees.

Hemp is a versatile plant that can be used to make food products, beauty products, clothing, paper, building supplies, and more. With the passing of Law 242, Italian lawmakers were setting the scene for a more environmentally-friendly agricultural landscape.

Here’s where cannabis light comes into play: because hemp naturally contains trace amounts of THC, a very low-level of THC was declared acceptable by law. Law 242 declared that hemp was legal for production and sale, and farmers would not be penalised for growing hemp with a THC level up to 0.6%. The comical side effect of legalised hemp production was the cannabis light industry, an industry with all of the talk and none of the walk of illegal cannabis.

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Nonetheless, cannabis light took Rome, and all of Italy, by storm. Hundreds of companies have been created since 2016, selling cannabis light and cannabis flavored and themed items, such as energy drinks, T-shirts, candles, and pipes. Some Italians quit their jobs or ended their businesses to open cannabis light dispensaries. The cannabis light industry has generated an estimated 40 million euro in revenue. Labeled “weak” at best and “useless” at worst by customers, cannabis light and cannabis light dispensaries still managed to spark political backlash.

In 2019, cannabis light was put on trial at the urgency of conservative politicians who had a moral objection to the cannabis light industry. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League political party, said, “It is neither possible nor acceptable that in Italy there are 1,000 shops where there are drugs legally, in broad daylight.”

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The Supreme Court ruled that cannabis light and other cannabis sativa derivatives in the form of flowers, buds, leaves, and oils, could not be sold unless they did not produce a narcotic effect and were clearly not meant for human consumption–a confusing ruling considering the nature of cannabis light. For now, the issue seems to be on hold, and cannabis light dispensaries can still be found all over central Rome and all of Italy.

Is Italy on track to legalise marijuana?

In late 2019, Italian courts ruled that cannabis could be grown domestically, but only in small amounts. As of 2020, marijuana is decriminalised for possession and legal for medical use, but it is still illegal to sell and grow on a large scale.

Despite the buzz surrounding cannabis light, it is unlikely that marijuana will be legalised in Italy in the near future due to pressure from conservative political parties, such as the League and Forza Italia.

Where are cannabis light dispensaries located?

Cannabis light dispensaries can be found all over central Rome, and all of Italy. Many are stationary shops, while others come in the form of discreet vending machines.

Legal low THC marijuana has stormed Rome and can be found in many stores across the city. What is it, why is it legal and where can it be found.

Cannabis Flowers Are Legal in Italy. You Just Can’t Eat or Smoke Them.

ROME — For the past year, small jars of cannabis flowers have been flying off the shelves of Italian specialty shops: a phenomenon that’s described as a “green gold rush.”

The hemp flowers — with names like K8, Chill Haus, Cannabismile White Pablo and Marley CBD — are sold under the tag “cannabis light” because their level of the psychoactive compound that makes people high is a tiny fraction of that typically found in cultivated marijuana.

But there’s a catch. The aromatic hemp flowers must not be smoked or eaten. Seeds, should there be any, must not be cultivated. As the jars’ labels sternly specify, the products are for “technical use” only and “not for human consumption.” Instead, they are sold — as countless salesclerks will explain with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink smile — as “collectors’ items.”

Such is the current, perplexing status of legal cannabis in Italy.

Italy’s cannabis mania, as it has been called, exploded after a December 2016 law regulating hemp production went into effect, a series of norms meant to help revive a crop that was once widely cultivated in the country. In the 1940s, Italy was said to be the world’s second-biggest producer of industrial cannabis, after the Soviet Union. (Statistics for China, also a major producer, do not exist.)

The law was created for farmers growing industrial hemp, which has commercial uses like food, fabrics, clothing, biofuel, construction material and animal feed, but has minute levels of a psychoactive compound. But it did not regulate the use of cannabis flowers, also known as buds, and an entire economy emerged from the legislative void.

In the past year, companies packaging cannabis light have blossomed, dozens of shops selling cannabis products have opened, franchising brands have taken off, and many farmers have rotated fields to produce one of the 64 varieties of industrial hemp certified by the European Union.

Farmers’ associations see wide-scale hemp production as one solution to Italy’s agricultural slump.

“We created an awesome phenomenon,” said Luca Marola, who is widely credited with kick-starting the cannabis-light boom, thanks in part to extensive media coverage of his company, Easyjoint Project. As of February, he said, he had sold 17,000 kilograms, over 37,000 pounds, of flowers — a project that Mr. Marola, a longtime activist for marijuana legalization, calls a “form of civil disobedience.”

In the past century, marijuana and cannabis became associated with the word drug, effectively wiping out generations of tradition, said Gennaro Maulucci, the main organizer of a hemp-based trade fair in Rome. “We want to dismantle that defamatory reputation,” he said.

“It’s a new economy, it feels like Silicon Valley,” he added during the fair, Canapa Mundi, which drew more than 30,000 visitors over three days in February. And in this process, he said, “even cannabis light can contribute to the normalization of cannabis.”

The level of tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC, the compound that makes people high — is under 0.2 percent in cannabis light, a small fraction of the 15 percent to 25 percent or more that is typically found in cultivated strains of marijuana, whose street-level quality can be significantly lower in Italy. It has varying levels of cannabidiol, or CBD, which proponents say has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, without the psychoactive effects.

Some aficionados working for marijuana-promoting magazines have described the effects of cannabis light as a taking-the-edge-off kind of buzz, without actually getting stoned.

Easyjoint’s website specifies that its products must not be burned or eaten, and that they are not medicinal. But in an interview, Mr. Marola said cannabis light had properties that could be effective in various instances.

“Fortunately, more people suffer from insomnia and panic attacks” than Lou Gehrig’s disease, for which medical marijuana is often prescribed, he said, adding that medical marijuana should be reserved “for those who really need a product with high THC content.”

The scientific community is still out about the medical properties of cannabis light. Medical marijuana, on the other hand, has been increasingly popular in Italy since it was approved in 2006, and demand now greatly dwarfs supply.

Thousands of Italians use medical cannabis to assuage the symptoms of issues like post-chemotherapy nausea, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, anorexia and anxiety, even if many doctors hesitate to propose the treatment out of concern for potential legal liabilities.

The new cannabis product has created a booming but unregulated economy in Italy. Is it a bubble waiting to be burst?