Somewhere in northern Italy, there is a warehouse full of drugs called the Florence Military Chemical-Pharmaceutical Plant. The secure site acts as the private pharmacy for the Italian armed forces, but it also helps thousands of citizens each year who are in need of “orphan drugs”. These are medications for orphan diseases that are too rare for private pharmaceutical companies to take notice.
The facility has been in operation since the 1800s, and has provided medication for people all over Europe. When a giant radioactive cloud loomed over the continent in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, the Italian military supplied the victims of radiation sickness with 500,000 potassium iodide pills.
Today, the military is filling the gap for another neglected medicine: medical marijuana.
In 2013, the Italian government legalized medical marijuana, making it available to a reluctant population. When the program first launched, the social stigmas surrounding the drug prevented doctors from offering prescriptions and only 12 patients signed on to receive it.
But the fear of being perceived as a criminal or degenerate is not the only thing that makes medical marijuana difficult to obtain in Italy. Though doctors are allowed to prescribe it, cultivation of the drug remains illegal, creating an awkward system in which the country must import 100 pounds each year from the Netherlands. At an outrageous rate of $45 per gram, the price has proven to be the most prohibitive factor. As a result, many patients prefer to purchase their medicine from the black market. And in a country where one in five people are smokers and 60 per cent of the population supports legalization, the illegal market doesn’t seem to be declining in usefulness and popularity.
Antonio Medica, a colonel in the Italian army, is overseeing the operation. In the past few months, he and his team have had to learn the ins and outs of growing. They are trying to replicate a similar strain as the Bidiol they’re currently importing from the Netherlands.
General Giocondo Santoni (left) is the director of the Military Chemical Pharmaceutical Institute pictured with Colonel Antonio Medica (right)
“The aim of the operation is to provide users with a product that is not always easily available on the market, at a more competitive price,” Medica told Corriere della Sera.
The ultimate goal is to see the price drop to $17, and eventually even as low as $5 per gram.
In the meantime, the government has been working toward decriminalization of the drug for recreational use. A group of lawmakers known as the Intergrupo Parlamentare Cannabis Legale, has provided a proposal for legalization which was signed by 218 members of parliament, including the vice president of the Chamber of Deputies, Roberto Giachetti.
The new law would allow Italians to grow marijuana freely within cannabis clubs of up to 50 people who could share the crop among themselves. They would also have the option of growing individually in their own homes, and while the sale of marijuana would still be illegal, a sure way to drop the price on the black market would be to have grow-houses distributing the drug freely to 50 Italians at a time.