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    Source: Financial Times (UK)
    ITALY SEEKS TO BRING IN TOUGH LAW ON DRUGS

    Italy's centre-right government has approved a proposal making it an offence to possess and use even the smallest quantities of mild narcotics. The move could give Italy some of Europe's most severe anti-drugs laws.

    People caught with modest amounts of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and other drugs will be subject to penalties such as deprivation of their passports and driving licences. Those with larger amounts will face prison sentences of up to 20 years.

    The proposal, adopted by the prime minister and his cabinet on Thursday, must still be passed by parliament. But approval seems likely because all four parties in the coalition government, headed by Silvio Berlusconi, supported it. The coalition controls both legislative chambers.

    The proposal goes further than anti-drugs legislation in other European Union countries by abolishing the distinction between so-called "soft" and "hard" drugs. It also virtually turns existing Italian law on its head by starting from the principle that it is drug use, rather than drug abuse, that must be stamped out.

    In a referendum in April 1993, Italians voted to decriminalise the possession of drugs such as cannabis for personal use. The vote reflected the social reality of a country in which consumption of mild drugs had become increasingly common and whose sunny climate permits extensive cultivation of marijuana, notably in large plantations in the mezzogiorno, or south.

    According to a 2001 study cited this year by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the EU's official body for analysing trends in drugs use, 9.4 per cent of Italians between the ages of 15 and 34 had used cannabis in the previous year.

    An article in Cannabis Culture, a Canadian magazine, estimated in 1998 that at least 2m of Italy's 57m people had used cannabis. "Italy has a one-year mandatory draft, and it is common knowledge that an overwhelming majority of the soldiers smoke joints," it said.

    If the government gets its way, it will no longer be possible - as happened last February - for a court to rule that a 17-year-old student who took 40 joints on a school excursion did nothing wrong because they were for his own use.

    The legislation draws a dividing line between the amounts of drugs that will incur administrative sanctions - such as passport suspension - and those that will trigger prison sentences.

    Administrative sanctions will apply to people caught with up to 500 milligrams of cocaine, 300mg of ecstasy, 250mg of cannabis, 200mg of heroin and 50mg of LSD. Any quantities above these limits will incur penal sanctions. For cannabis the law will consider not the joints' weight but the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol ( THC ), the brain-affecting substance contained in them.

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