To grow cheap marijuana, Italy calls in the army

Sun Oct 12, 2014 5:50am EDT
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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.   Continued...

Cannabis plants are pictured in a grow room in a state-owned agricultural farm in Rovigo, about 60 km  (40 miles) from Venice, September 22, 2014.  
 REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi