Italy's Feuding Populists Won't Chill Out, Not Even Over Weed

(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s populist government, an oddball coalition of two parties with virtually nothing in common, predictably spent much of its first year arguing over taxes, budgets, infrastructure and the environment. But nobody saw this one coming: a tussle over cannabis.

League party chief Matteo Salvini, who doubles as interior minister, wants shops that legally sell reduced-strength marijuana to be closed immediately. That’s caught the Five Star Movement, his coalition partner and frequent rival, flatfooted in the run-up to European Parliament elections this month.

Smarting from his worst political defeat yet, when he was outmaneuvered by Five Star and forced to agree to oust an aide, Salvini has seized upon the legal-weed trade as a potent new campaign issue -- even if the version of the drug on offer is far from potent itself.

Salvini’s initiative puts Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio in a bind. Drawing in voters from across the spectrum, his party is far from united on the cannabis issue. While many party members oppose decriminalization, Five Star’s Matteo Mantero in January proposed following the lead of countries like Uruguay and Canada and legalizing production for personal and recreational use. Di Maio at the time called it “a good idea.”

And while Five Star has since tried to shift the discussion away from decriminalizing pot to targeting the mafia for its role in the illegal-drug trade, Salvini, who knows a winning campaign theme when he sees it, appears to be setting the tone of the debate.

“This is not in our government pact, the state shouldn’t become a smuggler,” Salvini said Thursday, adding that police under his command have already started closing some shops selling cannabis products. “We’re going to war on drugs, street by street, shop by shop,” he said.

“Light” cannabis, defined as having tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of 0.2 percent or less, has been legal in Italy since 2016. Shops have cropped up across the country offering low-test weed -- in burnable form and as an ingredient in food, cosmetics and home products. The products are also sold online.

An online poll by television network Sky TG 24 at the end of last year found that Italians would overwhelmingly favor a more relaxed policy on recreational drug use.

“I don’t see any reason to close” the shops, Five Star lawmaker Carlo Sibilia said in remarks cited by Ansa news agency. “The state should support small and medium-sized businesses,” said Sibilia, who just happens to serve as undersecretary in Salvini’s interior ministry.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.