By Peter Popham in Rome
Rastafarians have always regarded Ethiopia as the promised land, but Italy could rank a close second after its Supreme Court ruled that smoking or possessing cannabis is not a criminal offence but a religious act when the person doing it is a Rastafarian.
Last year, the same court declared that cultivating even a single cannabis plant was a punishable offence. But now Italy’s Court of Cassation has said Rastafarians use marijuana “not only as a medical but also as a meditative herb. And, as such [it is] a possible bearer of the psychophysical state to contemplation and prayer”.
Release, the London-based drugs information service, said that the ruling was a European first.
The case was brought by a man in his forties from Perugia who was sentenced to 16 months in jail plus a €4,000 (£3,000) fine in 2004 for possession of 97g of marijuana. The Supreme Court said the court of first appeal had failed to consider that the man, a Rastafarian, smoked marijuana according to the precepts of his religion, which, the judges said, permits the smoking of 10g per day. Rastafarians smoke the drug, said the court, “with the memory and in the belief that the sacred plant grew on the tomb of King Solomon”.
The government is livid. The judgment “shatters the laws which forbid and proscribe penal sanctions for” the use of illegal drugs, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.
Right-wing politicians were scathing. Senator Maurizio Gasparri said: “Today we learn a Rasta is free to go around with drugs. If somebody belonged to a religion which permitted them to eat their children, would they give them the go-ahead, too?”
But the verdict was received with joy at Rototom Sunsplash, Europe’s biggest festival of reggae music, near Udine, in north-east Italy. “Finally the principle of religious pluralism is beginning to make headway,” Filippo Giunta, president of the festival, said. “This judgment … underlines again the difference between this substance and so-called ‘hard’ drugs, alcohol included.”