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Top court reinstates difference between soft,hard drugs

Opinion divided over ruling on law some called 'useless'

12 February, 20:14
Top court reinstates difference between soft,hard drugs (By Sandra Cordon) (ANSA) - Rome, February 12 - Italy's Constitutional Court on Wednesday threw out as "illegitimate" a 2005 law that equates the possession of soft drugs to heavy drugs and has been blamed as a contributing factor to severe overcrowding in Italian prisons. With the ruling, Italian law reverts to a 1993 provision that includes lighter sentencing for narcotics not considered Class A hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

While some politicians reacted by calling for such measures such as legalizing marijuana, others suggested the government move quickly on a more moderate law on drugs.

"(This is) a decision that was predictable, and amply justified," said Donatella Ferranti, a member of the Democratic Party (PD) and leader of the Lower House judiciary committee.

"It has been among the causes of prison overcrowding, with thousands of prisoners who deserve much better treatment," she added. "After this decision, it is even more urgent to conclude the parliamentary process, already started in the House, for a serious reform, consistent and proportionate in the field of drugs and drug addiction," she said.

The so-called Fini-Giovanardi law, which had been passed by ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) government, had been challenged several times since its inception before Wednesday's definitive ruling.

The most recent challenge came in December when a Milan judge turned over to the Constitutional Court a case of a Tunisian citizen arrested for dealing hashish. Defence attorneys argued he was being tried under a law that was unconstitutional because it violates the European Union legal principle that the punishment must be proportional to the crime.

Another Milan judge recently turned a similar case over to the Constitutional Court, based on the same argument.

Defense attorneys in both cases also challenged the law on the grounds that the government of the day had fast-tracked it by tacking it on to legislation related to security financing for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

Detractors of the law, which was sponsored at the time by then-right-wing MP Gianfranco Fini and centrist MP Carlo Giovanardi, also argued it violates a 1993 popular referendum in which a majority of Italians voted to decriminalize drug possession for personal consumption. "The ruling puts the final word on one of the most absurd laws that parliament has ever passed in recent years," said Alessia Morani, an MP with the center-left PD.

Her PD colleague also hailed the ruling that led to a "useless and damaging" law being thrown out. "The law introduced heavy sanctions, including jail time for small-time dealers," said Teresa Bellanova. "It was devoid of all common sense". Others said the court ruling will help to ease prison over-crowding, which has become a serious problem as Italy has the most overcrowded prisons in the EU, with about 147 inmates for every 100 beds, human rights organisations have said.

That's well above a European average of 105. The European Court of Human Rights in May ordered Italy to dramatically improve its prison system, stop overcrowding and stop violating prisoners' rights.

There are many prisoners who need help with drug abuse rather than punishment, said PD politician Edoardo Patriarca. "The effect of the Fini-Giovanardi law was many people have ended up in prison for holding small amounts of narcotics," said Patriarca. "I am against the legalization of drugs, but in fact our prisons are filled with people who consumed drugs," and weren't necessarily hard criminals, he added.

"We strike with the utmost severity against drug dealers, but we activate all possible paths for recovery for those who have fallen into the abyss of drug addiction". One politician went further, calling for decriminalization of marijuana.

"We cannot forget how much damage was produced," under this law, said Nichi Vendola, leader of the leftist Sel party.

"Now, legalize cannabis".

Meanwhile one of the law's co-authors was defiant and suggested politics had trumped justice in Wednesday's ruling. "(The law) went into effect at the start of 2006," said Carlo Giovanardi of the New Center Right (NCR) party, recently formed by defectors from Berlusconi's former PdL.

"Eight years later, the Constitutional Court overrules parliament...on the basis of a well-orchestrated promotional campaign," said Giovanardi.

Berlusconi loyalist Maurizio Gasparri said Wednesday's ruling showed how "the Constitutional Court was a growing problem in this country".