In the United States, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Other states are currently considering a vote in November on allowing recreational cannabis, among them Arizona and Massachusetts.
Americans are not the only ones contemplating full legalization of marijuana use. The Italian parliament in Rome just started debating the legalization of recreational marijuana. As in the U.S. there are passionate opinions on both sides, so a long legislative battle and numerous amendments to the current proposal are expected.
There are some interesting differences to the regulations in effect in the four U.S. states. In Colorado, adults 21 or older can grow up to six marijuana plants, legally possess all the cannabis harvested from the plants if it isn’t transported elsewhere and legally own up to one ounce of marijuana while traveling. Oregon, Washington, and Alaska have almost identical rules.
The first big difference in the Italian bill is age. If the proposal is adopted, Italians 18 and older will be able to use marijuana legally. This is important because many addiction experts believe that marijuana use is especially dangerous for younger people with brains that are still developing.
Many opponents to full legalization in the United States fear that cannabis will be more available for teenagers despite the age 21 threshold. There is a growing collection of evidence that heavy marijuana use can alter the young brain. For example, a 2014 study by the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas in Dallas found that heavy marijuana users had different brain shapes and lower IQ than non-users. And the earlier someone started, the worse the results.
Scientific research suggests that most people’s brains don’t reach full maturity until 25, so allowing recreational use of marijuana at 18 could have serious negative consequences. Even the American threshold at 21 falls short in that regard.
The other important difference in the Italian approach is the maximum amount of cannabis that users would be allowed to carry with them. In the aforementioned U.S. states that amount is one ounce or 28.35 grams. The Italian proposal calls for an allowance of only 5 grams to be carried and 15 grams at home, a little over half an ounce.
Many decriminalization laws in the United States treat one ounce of cannabis as a “small amount” not worthy of legal prosecution. It is interesting that the Italian model would only allow much smaller amounts as some American addiction professionals have suggested that an ounce is not really a small amount at all.
“We would leave the table pretty hungry if someone served us a one-ounce steak,” writes addiction psychiatrist Kevin Hill. “In the case of marijuana, it’s a huge helping—enough for five weeks of nearly daily use.” (Marijuana, page 92). Hill considers a fourth of an ounce much more appropriate as a limit for personal use, that’s approximately 7 grams and comes much closer to the amount the Italian regulation would allow if adopted.
Finally, Italian legalization would permit the formation of cannabis clubs currently not allowed under U.S. legalization. Italians would be allowed to cultivate up to five marijuana plants (six in the U.S.) and form social groups of up to 50 growers.
But first the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in Rome have to pass the new laws primarily promoted by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. The arguments in favor sound familiar. Legalization will diminish profits for the Mafia, free up the police from enforcing marijuana prohibition, and bring in tax revenue, according to Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Benedetto della Vedova.
The conservative New Center Right party generally opposes legalization and so does the Catholic Church. Pope Francis told an international drug enforcement conference in 2014 that he was opposed to the legalization of drugs—including marijuana—for recreational use.
"The scourge of drug use continues to spread inexorably, fed by a deplorable commerce which transcends national and continental borders," the pontiff said. "Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called 'recreational drugs,' are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce desired effects."
It remains to be seen whether recreational marijuana use will be legalized in Italy and under which limitations. The outcome of the expected votes on marijuana in Arizona and other U.S. states in November is uncertain as well.