Cannabis plants are pictured in a state-owned agricultural farm in Rovigo
By Steve Scherer
ROVIGO Italy (Reuters) - Italy legalized marijuana for medical use last year, but the high cost of buying legal pot in a pharmacy meant few people signed up. Now, the government has found a solution: get the army to grow it.
Starting next year, a high-security lab in a military compound in Florence will grow cannabis for Italy's health care system in an experiment the government says could bring safe, legal and affordable marijuana to suffering patients.
The new army supply should allow the government to lower the price for consumers, who now have to pay up to 10 times as much at a pharmacy for marijuana officially imported from Holland as they might for a bag on the street from a local drug dealer.
Regional health authorities are expected to offer it to qualified patients cheaply or for free, helping to put mafia-linked drug dealers out of business. But whether large numbers sign up will depend on cultural factors in a Catholic country with an historic stigma against drugs.
About 60 km (40 miles) from Venice, Italy's top cannabis expert, agricultural scientist Gianpaolo Grassi, is trying to grow the perfect pot plant on his 70-hectare research farm, the only place in the country authorized to grow marijuana outdoors with more than 0.2 percent of the psyochactive chemical THC.
His breeds, also blooming indoors under powerful lamps and behind armored doors, are expected to be grown in the Florence military lab, which already produces so-called "orphan drugs" to treat rare diseases.
The powerful odor from flowers in full bloom permeates the air at Grassi's farm. A 10-foot high, barbed wire-crowned fence surrounds the fields, and video cameras peer along the perimeter. The sophisticated system was installed a few years ago to keep out thieves who raided the farm and slashed the walls of the greenhouses to steal the plants. "All kids," chuckles Grassi.
Until the 1960s, this was hemp country, where a variant of cannabis was grown for centuries to make rope, cloth and paper.
The 57-year-old researcher fondly recalls the hemp fields of his youth. Later as a scientist he became fascinated with the versatility of the plant.
Since 2002 Grassi has experimented with about 330 different strains of medical-grade cannabis, which for millennia was used to treat pain and illness until being outlawed in most of the world in the 20th century.
For now, the military pot plan is still defined as a "pilot project", with details on who will qualify for treatment still to be defined.
Italian officials have made very clear that they don't plan to follow in the footsteps of the United States, where medical marijuana laws have been followed by full-blown legalization of pot in some states, including for recreational use.
Italy wants to make sure that "curing sick people does not become an excuse to expand the use of the substance", said Senator Carlo Giovanardi, an outspoken Catholic anti-drug campaigner. Legalisation, he added, would lead to "a society of zombies."
Because of the bureaucracy of obtaining import permission, ensuring purity and overseeing sale, legal cannabis from Holland now costs about 38 euros a gram in Italian pharmacies, compared to as low as 5 euros for illegal pot on the street.
Even when a doctor prescribes it, the state does not cover the cost, which could run to around 1,000 euros ($1,200) a month for a typical patient. As a result, when legalized medical marijuana arrived last year, only a few dozen people signed up.
Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin said that should change once the military production begins. The army should be able to produce marijuana at a high enough standard to satisfy regulators for less than half the cost of importing it, allowing the government to offer it to patients at subsidized prices.
At a news conference last month announcing the army project, the minister said it would be up to Italy's regional governments, which manage the federal healthcare system, to decide how much to charge patients. So far, about half of Italy's 20 regions have pledged to provide it for free.
There are no official estimates of how many people may end up taking medical marijuana in Italy once it becomes free, or cheap enough to compete with illegal pot. If everyone who could benefit from it signed up, the number could be in the millions, according to Grassi, the researcher.
Yet some aren't so sure that the stigma of taking a drug has worn off. Francesco Crestani, an anaesthesiologist and president of Italy's Association for Therapeutic Cannabis, predicts the takers to be in the thousands, because of caution within the medical community and because marijuana is generally prescribed only after a patient fails to respond to other medicines.
Medical marijuana is a controversial idea in a country where the Catholic Church has powerful influence and preaches against drugs. Only in recent years, for example, have doctors warmed to prescribing opiates, and Italy still uses fewer opiate-based drugs than most European countries.
Cannabis "is a very effective medicine, but since it's also a drug... there's always fear to use it," said Umberto Veronesi, a former health minister and one of Italy's top cancer physicians. "The same thing happened with morphine, which for years no one would prescribe for the poor patients who were suffering terribly."
Laws against marijuana in Italy are severe, with selling or growing it a crime that could lead to imprisonment. Pope Francis has spoken out against "every type of drug use", including pot.
Grassi, the agricultural expert, said putting marijuana production under military security was a "logical solution" to the political problem. "Some political decisions are tied to country's Catholic mentality... This [solution] makes growing medical cannabis agreeable for everyone."
His work should benefit people like 36-year-old clothing designer Elisa Bertero, who has a prescription to take medical marijuana to relieve her fibromyalgia, a syndrome that causes body-wide pain in joints, muscles, and tendons.
Bertero said she tried many medicines to seek to alleviate her pain when the condition began four years ago. None worked. So after doing online research, she tried cannabis on her own as "an experiment", and it was so effective she never stopped.
But Bertero said she then ran into resistance by some 10 doctors who were unwilling to prescribe marijuana even though it was legal as of last year. Eventually she went to anaesthesiologist Crestani, who examined her, listened to her story, and prescribed cannabis.
"For a long time I took it every day. It was the only thing that allowed me to get out of bed in the morning," said Bertero. She now takes it only a few days a week, making marijuana tea in the morning or inhaling with a vaporizer in the evening.
Bertero says that while cannabis makes her feel "happy and light", it does not get in the way of her work measuring, cutting and sewing garments. Sometimes she even pays the official cost of 38 euros per gram, even though it is so much cheaper on the street.
"When I have the money, I buy it from the pharmacy," Bertero says. "But since I'm not a millionaire, I often arrange to buy it for 5 euros a gram."
(Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Peter Graff)