Italy’s lone medical marijuana facility is controlled by the military, which officials say helps prevent patients from buying it on the black market. However, the government’s yield can’t keep up with an increasing demand, creating a shortages for cancer patients and others who need treatment. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Meet Colonel Antonio Medica of the Italian army. His mission might surprise you: to grow enough marijuana for all of Italy’s medical needs. He grows it inside this heavily guarded military facility in Florence. He admits all these officers and soldiers wearing lab coats kind of makes it feel like Area 51.
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: Area 51.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But nothing like that going on here?
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: There are no Martians inside.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: No Martians, OK.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: No little green men. Just little green plants. To see up close, we have to suit up like surgeons, so as not to contaminate this artisanal product. The air is thick with the smell of marijuana, despite the mask. Then we have to pass through two air-tight doorways. On the other side, all the marijuana legally grown and prescribed in Italy.
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: Medical marijuana must be grown with extremely high standards, indoors, with no pesticides, and under strict sanitary conditions. That’s why the military is producing marijuana. The army was already responsible for producing “orphan drugs” that treat rare diseases. Because we can guarantee a margin of safety that would be difficult elsewhere. Then the Defense Minister asked us to launch marijuana production in 2014.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Medica and his team do everything in house, from growing and drying, to harvesting and packaging for pharmacies and hospitals. The patients, who are required to have a prescription, pay about 12 dollars per gram.
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: One of our main objectives is to fight the black market. In fact, the final price of our cannabis is lower than the black market’s, precisely to prevent patients from buying it on the streets.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But Italy’s one-and-only medical marijuana facility has a problem: the colonel says it just can’t meet Italy’s growing demand from patients. The Italian government has no data on how many people have cannabis prescriptions. Pharmacists we spoke to estimate tens of thousands. And they’re each fighting for a piece of what the army grows. Last year, that was only 220 pounds.
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: The health ministry and the defence ministry are trying to fix the shortfall, because there’s been a huge increase in cannabis prescriptions and the number of patients who need them.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: You have cancer.
ELENA GALLI: Yeah, I have cancer in lungs. And this is a good method to keep my pain low.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Elena Galli is one of thousands of patients who have run out of medical marijuana. I caught up with her outside a marijuana conference in Rome. She chased down this pharmacist to see if he knew where to find any. He tells her most pharmacies have run out too. For now she’ll have to wait.
GIORGIO NENNA: Here’s the problem: demand is constantly increasing. Last year, Italy responded to the shortfall by importing 440 pounds from the Netherlands, and patients have gone months without being able to fill their prescriptions. This year Italy will import an additional 220 pounds from Canada. But it’s likely we’ll run out again before the end of the year.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: How long has it been since you’ve had any cannabis?
ELENA GALLI: One month.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So one month you’ve been suffering through the pain.
ELENA GALLI: Yeah, yeah.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: She says her only alternative is to turn to the black market. So far, the risks of being caught or getting a bad product have kept her away. For those willing to take the risk, there’s John Doe. He’s asked us not to use his real name or show his face, because he grows and sells marijuana illegally. He says despite the army producing medical marijuana, black-market weed is here to stay. And in his opinion, it’s often a better product.
JOHN DOE: The military is doing a horrible job. Their pot is low quality, and full of seeds, it’s garbage. Plus they’re not producing enough for the people who need it. That opens up the door for the mafia. People have no choice but to turn to the mafia for medical or recreational marijuana. Or independent growers. That’s one reason I produce my own, because I don’t want to support organized crime.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Cafe owner Carlo Monaco uses marijuana to treat his anorexia. He says there’s another good reason to find an alternate source of pot. The government’s isn’t potent enough for some patients, including him. He no longer uses the military’s weed. Instead, his local hospital has to order a more powerful strain from abroad.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: This is what you get from Holland, right?
CARLO MONACO: Yes.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And why do you get it from Holland? Why don’t you get the Italian product?
CARLO MONACO: Because the Italian army doesn’t produce this kind of weed.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And Monaco is right. According to data from the Italian Health Ministry, Dutch medical marijuana is approximately three times as potent when it comes to THC. That’s the compound in pot that gets you high.
CARLO MONACO: The best solution would be if the government let us grow these plants ourselves. I spend 500 to 1,000 euros a month since I was diagnosed with these pathologies. If I grew my own plants, I wouldn’t have to.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Growing your own plants is something neither Italy nor any other EU country allows. Colonel Medica sympathizes with patients who have run out, but thinks amateur pot cultivation is a dangerous idea.
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: This plant absorbs heavy metals from the ground. If it’s not farmed in proper conditions, you run the risk of obtaining a final product that’s highly polluted with heavy metals, that then the patient will absorb. It’s very bad for your health.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But patients say so is a shortage of medical marijuana. Colonel Medica insists that he and the military are narrowing the gap.
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: We’re working on it and over the next two years, we should reach an annual yield of at least 660 pounds.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: That’s triple the current output. Marijuana users owe the predicted increase to a new health bill that will give the army an additional 2 billion dollars in public funding, and make medicinal pot free nationwide.
COLONEL ANTONIO MEDICA: So the cannabis project is now moving to the next phase. Right behind me, there’s another variety that we’ll start distributing this year, which contains almost three times as much THC. Of course we predict demand is only going to increase. We’re nowhere near the ceiling. This is just the beginning.