On a bustling street in downtown Rome, a mere feet away from tourist sites like the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and Campo de’ Fiori, is a narrow storefront. If it weren’t for the neon green sign above the door, an outline of a marijuana leaf, it’d be hard to distinguish Erba Di Roma from its neighbors. Unlike the other shops on the street, fluorescent lights don’t fill the tiny space; instead, green mood lighting gives the place a sickly glow, casting a haze on the jars full of hemp buds in the glass case in the back of the store.
It’s a cold Friday night in when a trio of men in puffer coats enter the boutique. They don’t speak Italian and the 18-year-old working behind the counter is unfamiliar with the shoppers’ native tongue. In broken English, one of the puffer coat men asks about the selection and points to the glass case. Manuel Guccini, the 18-year-old who’s been working at Erba Di Roma since he was 16, describes the three strains of hemp sold, each with incredibly low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol—or THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. But the strains do have much higher levels of cannabidiol (CBD), another compound which, in the United States, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy and lacks the psychoactive effects of THC. Erba Di Roma also sells weed-flavored cookies and brownies infused with CBD, but not THC.
“You can buy but not smoke,” Guccini tells the group.
The puffer coats grumble amongst themselves. A few seconds later, they shuffle out of the door empty-handed.
This sort of exchange happens rather frequently at Erba Di Roma, according to owner Paolo Molinari. “I understand them,” he says. Most out-of-towners who come into his shop, he continues, are looking for a product that will get them high. Molinari’s hemp buds and oils, however, with their low THC levels, won’t. After all, who would spend 14 euros on one gram of weed that won’t give them a buzz if that’s what they’re seeking?
We have a law. It doesn't say exactly what we can do and what we can not do.
And legally, Molinari and his employees must tell customers the products they’re purchasing are not for human consumption. Think of it as a souvenir, a collector’s item. The song and dance is all a byproduct of an unclear law, passed in December 2016 which legalized the production of hemp (Italy was once a major cultivator of the crop, used in textiles, food, and construction materials) with THC levels below 0.2 percent. In the two years since the law’s passage, farmers have reaped the benefits of the revamped hemp industry, but another market has emerged: legal cannabis stores. Nicknamed “cannabis light,” these low-THC strains are legal to sell but, as Guccini said—and as every other salesperson countrywide must mention—not to smoke or eat. Of course, whatever anyone does with their cannabis items once they leave the shop is their own responsibility.
The United States recently legalized the production of industrial hemp with December’s Farm Bill, expected to ignite a surge for the industry. Growers will need to register with the United States Department of Agriculture and quality of products will be regulated. While the United States aims to shrink the grey area surrounding commercial hemp, and thus the popular CBD, Italians see their country’s roundabout hemp production regulation as a venture pushing customers (both recreational and medicinal) toward dealers who sell illegally, Molinari says: “In Italy, if you’re in pain or if you want to have fun, you have to go in the black market.”
Prior to December 2016, Erba Di Roma was simply just another Roman bar. After hemp production was legalized, Molinari sensed a business opportunity and transformed the bar into a 24-hour coffee and hemp shop, selling hemp flowers he grows himself just outside of Rome on land owned by his grandfather. Still, in the two years since the legislation, Molinari still considers his line of work a business risk, mostly because of the directive’s ambiguity. “We have a law,” he says, “it doesn't say exactly what we can do and what we can not do.”
Medical cannabis, with THC levels higher than 0.2 percent, however, was legalized in 2007 to treat nausea from chemotherapy, chronic pain, and cancer. The medical cannabis is both cultivated by the country’s army and imported from abroad—making it expensive and difficult to get ahold of, even with a prescription. As a result, some are turning to the illegal black market to get their weed.
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Lorenzo Carrozzo aims to fill this void between low supply and high demand—and usher people away from the black market—with his 24-hour cannabis light vending machine at his shop L’Oracolo Di Bob. Repurposing an old cigarette machine, Carrozzo, who personally prefers alcohol over cannabis, vends 15 strains of cannabis light packaged in one gram-size baggies. Though research is scant regarding the therapeutic effects of CBD—and the hemp he sells has much lower THC levels than medical cannabis—Carrozzo says many of his customers buy his products to help alleviate stress and insomnia. Since L’Oracolo Di Bob opened in March, Carrozzo has cultivated a customer base of professional men in their 40s, embarrassed to enter a cannabis shop but who stealthily retrieve their goods from the vending machine at night.
Despite the frequency of hemp shops throughout Rome—there’s even a store in a major shopping mall—the general public still hasn’t come around to recreational cannabis. With the Vatican nearby and lack of education around cannabis’ risks and benefits, a stigma remains. In addition to running the cannabis supply company Easyjoint, Federico Valla and Luca Marola are invested in spotlighting the economic and cultural shifts surrounding legal hemp production.
An early entrant to the cannabis light market, Easyjoint was founded in June 2017 and supplies Italian shops with hemp grown from farms throughout the country. Playing into the law’s gray areas, Easyjoint thrives on “a little bit of civil disobedience mixed with the need to talk about something we consider important,” Valla says.
Since they were one of the first companies to produce cannabis light, Valla and Marola have used their status as media darlings to the industry’s advantage, touting the benefits of potential cannabis legalization: more tax revenue, economic growth. “In the younger generation, it’s way less of a stigma around cannabis but we still have a big part of the people voting in Italy who don’t know what cannabis really is,” Valla says. So they’re using their platform to help sway the tides.
However, public perception means little when it comes to the enforcement of an opaque law, says Daniele Conti, owner of Zerosei Collection, a specialty cannabis light chain with stores in Rome, Milan, and Terni. In April, the police confiscated 50 kilograms of Zerosei’s hemp flowers to test if they were under the legal THC limit, Conti says through a translator. By his own lab testing, the flowers were legal; according to the police’s analysis, they were not. While this loss in product would’ve hurt smaller businesses, Conti says Zerosei Collection was back up and running the next day. He’s currently awaiting a court date to settle the dispute but is still able to operate the business. He’s confident the court will rule in his favor.
While Molinari and Carrozzo say they’ve avoided confrontations with the authorities, the cannabis light scene is a business wrought with confusion and complications. Should he ever be questioned regarding the THC levels in his hemp, Carrozzo keeps a copy of the results of THC testing for on hand as a safeguard. Molinari gives his sales pitches by the book: no mention of flavors or effects of the hemp if consumed. Conti plays up how the law has turned hemp into a “collector’s item”: All of his shops have signs reading “I am a chronic collector.”
Still, Italy has a long road ahead if the country is to ever legalize cannabis. “We still have a big part of the government that consider it drugs,” Valla says. The cannabis retail market is still young, he continues, so it’s hard to predict where the industry, and the country, would go under more comprehensive decriminalization legislation. “I think we still need a few years, maybe five-to-seven, in my opinion, to have the understanding what will be actually legalization here. But we’re getting there.”