Rome, Italy - Wearing marijuana leaf-masks and dancing in front of sound systems blasting reggae music, thousands of pro-legalisation activists gathered in Rome on February 8, hailing the decision of Italy's Constitutional Court to examine a law that harshly punished marijuana possessors and users.
"I was caught with ten grams the day before this law was enacted" in 2006, said Melania, a 30-year-old student and soon-to-be-mother. "With this legislation I would have risked an arrest."
On February 12, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Fini-Giovanardi, a law setting out penalties related to the sale and possession of illegal drugs, was improperly approved, and abrogated the law. Since then, Italy has returned to previous regulations that imposed lighter sanctions on cannabis users.
The complaint against the Fini-Giovanardi was initially made by MP Luigi Saraceni in June 2012, and then brought to the Constitutional Court by the Court of Cassation. The Fini-Giovanardi, supported by the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi, became law in January 2006.
Marijuana = heroin?
From the beginning, the law was criticised for equating "soft" drugs, such as cannabis, with hard ones, such as heroin or cocaine. Illicit substances were divided into two categories, and the quantity seized by police became one of the criteria to separate consumers from dealers.
"If the threshold is 500 mg of active ingredient, and considering the average concentration that we can find in cannabis sold on the streets, the frontier [dividing users from dealers] is set at only five grams, for a value of about 50 euros [$68]," said Riccardo De Facci, president of the National Organisation of Rehabilitation Communities.
However, Senator Carlo Giovanardi, one of the law's co-authors, believes that risks connected with cannabis should be seriously taken into account by the legislature. "In the scientific literature there are no light drugs," he told Al Jazeera. "There is only one UN chart, and only one European chart, and cannabis has always been the front-door entrance to cocaine or heroin."
For their part, prisoners' rights organisations argued that harsh drug laws have created a booming prison population in a system that is already overcrowded. Since January 2013, Italy's prisons have been under the scrutiny of the European Court of Human Rights.
There are about 9,000 people who risk six to 20 years in jail, arrested mainly because they were big cannabis consumers.
As of last January, Italy's prisons held 61,449 detainees, despite a maximum capacity of 47,711, according to the Ministry of Justice. Prisoners' organisation Antigone reported that 38.4 percent of convictions in 2012 were due to violations of Clause 73 of the Fini-Giovanardi, which punishes drug producers and traffickers. Of those convicted, 6,136 violations were related to major trafficking, while 19,891 were related to possession or dealing.
De Facci said he deals every day with consumers whose only mistake was being caught with quantities of marijuana above the limit separating users from dealers. "There are about 9,000 people who risk six to 20 years in jail, arrested mainly because they were big cannabis consumers - maybe producers with just three plants - but they were treated as dealers."
Many cannabis smokers refuse to give up their habits, and are arrested several times for the same crime. Solicitor Lorenzo Simonetti said he has received an average of three new cases every week. "If you are arrested for a second time, you go straight to jail, no matter what happened with the first verdict," he told Al Jazeera.
However, Senator Giovanardi refuted these accusations. "With our law, prison is envisaged only for dealers, because the consumer is considered a patient. In jail there are only burglars, robbers, pickpockets, people who assaulted, robbed, and trafficked."
A new approach?
According to the Anti-drugs Policy Department's 2013 report to the Italian Parliament, there are an estimated 2.3 million drug consumers in Italy, and a declining number of marijuana users. In 2012, 4.01 percent said they smoked cannabis, 1.32 percentage points lower than in 2010.
But the statistics vary. For instance, the Institute of Clinical Physiology of the Centre for National Research found in its 2011 Population Survey on Drug Use that 8.7 percent of Italians had used marijuana in the past 12 months.
Meanwhile, the pro-legalisation protesters were not satisfied with the court's ruling. "We ask for a new political opening; we won't come back to the previous legislation only," said Alessandro "Mephisto" Buccolieri, a spokesperson for the demonstration.
There are currently at least two cannabis-related bills waiting to be discussed in Italy's parliament: One that would allow for personal cultivation of marijuana plants, and another that would allow the medical use of cannabis.
But with the idea of legislation remaining a prickly topic for Italy's major political parties, the likelihood of either bill passing is low.
Follow Michele on Twitter: @MikeBertelli