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Italy's New Hard Line On Soft Drugs Sparks Row

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ROME -- Furious argument erupted in Italy yesterday over plans by Silvio
Berlusconi's hard-right government for a sharp u-turn on drug control.

A bill drawn up by the deputy prime minister and leader of Italy's former
neo-fascists, Gianfranco Fini, abolishes distinctions between "hard" and
"soft" drugs and introduces stiff penalties for possession as well as

Cannabis users caught with more than a few days' supply face jail
sentences. Clubbers found with a single ecstasy tablet could have their
passports impounded.

Mr Fini said: "Taking drugs is not an innocuous exercise of freedoms that
cannot be curbed, but a rejection of the most elementary duties of the
individual towards the various communities in which he or she actually lives."

Monsignor Vinicio Albanesi, the president of the Capodarco community, which
takes in drug addicts for rehabilitation, condemned the proposals. "The
philosophy underlying the bill is that of the authoritarian father who
doesn't know how to cope with his son, so takes a strap to him," he said.

While several European countries are edging towards decriminalisation of
cannabis, Italy has chosen to follow a tougher, US-style approach. Mr Fini
said a new policy was needed because of the increasing strength of the
cannabis derivatives reaching Italy.

"The joint of 10 years ago had an active ingredient of not more than 1.5%.
Today, you can find them with as much as 15%. That is how the devastating
and progressively less reversible effects [of cannabis] on physical and
mental health are being multiplied," he said.

While penalising all forms of drug-taking, Mr Fini's law reintroduces the
concept of a "daily minimum dose", which was struck out of the Italian
statute book by a referendum 10 years ago. The new possession thresholds
are 250g of cannabis, 300g of ecstasy, 200g of heroin and, somewhat
surprisingly, 500g of cocaine.

Unless the bill is modified in parliament, possession of more than these
amounts will be a crime punishable by up to six years in prison. Possession
of smaller amounts will also be an offence, but with non-custodial penalties.

Offenders risk having their passports and their driving and arms licences
suspended; foreigners, including European Union citizens, would lose their
residents' permits.

Mr Fini's bill has come as a shock to a society in which cannabis smoking
has become quite widely accepted. Surveys show that the number of users
runs to several million and that a third of all university students have
tried soft drugs.

Not long ago, a guest on a prime-time television show ostentatiously lit a
very obvious spliff. One of the programme's co-presenters, Paolo
Kessisoglu, said yesterday: "It's plain as day that, even if the law gets
through, it's going to be impossible to enforce."

The composer of a new song aimed at the prohibitionist lobby, who goes by
the stage name of J Ax, sounded a similar note. "What are they going to
do?" he asked an interviewer from the newspaper La Stampa. "Arrest
six-and-a-half million Italians?" His song notes that Mr Fini is himself a
smoker - of tobacco.

However, with 14,000 Italians undergoing treatment for soft-drug abuse, not
all those involved in therapeutic work oppose the bill. Father Pierino
Gelmini of the Incontro community, which helps victims of drugs and
alcohol, said: "All drugs do harm. Joints scramble the brain. Is that what
we want - to bring up an army of demented youngsters?"

Pubdate: Sat, 15 Nov 2003
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Contact: letters@guardian.co.uk
Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/