Vice Squad
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
 
Italy Rethinks Drug Depenalization


It is hard to be satisfied with any regulatory regime towards potentially addictive drugs.
Italy decriminalized drugs (even hard drugs) for personal use in 1975, and then re-criminalized
them in 1990; come 1993, decriminalization for personal use was reinstated. (MacCoun and
Reuter's book, Drug War Heresies, pp. 230-6, provides a good description and analysis of
the Italian experience. They more accurately refer to the Italian approach not as
decriminalization but rather as "depenalization." Apparently a similar regime is in effect in Spain.)
Now, according to a brief article on page 6 of today's Chicago Tribune (which I could
not find in the electronic version), the Italians are rethinking the decriminalization.
The current situation means that drug users need not fear prison, though substantial
penalties still remain for sellers and traffickers. As a result, according to Deputy Prime
Minister Gianfranco Fini, "Today it is virtually impossible for law enforcement to distinguish
between personal use and trafficking."

It sounds as if the Deputy Prime Minister would be OK with decriminalization for adult users
if it didn't undermine enforcement of rules against trafficking and selling. He practices, to borrow
a phrase from MacCoun, Reuter, and Schelling, "reluctant denial." (The more typical rationale
forwarded for reluctantly denying a drug to adults is that failure to do so might make the drug
too available to children.) The more general issue is, what regulatory distinctions are stable and
enforceable? Can a drug widely available to adults be made unavailable to adolescents?
The cases of alcohol and tobacco in the US give one reason to pause, though it may be that
there hasn't been all that much effort put into enforcing the barrier against distribution of
these drugs to kids -- only in recent years has the ban on kids purchasing cigarettes been
given much attention. (When I was in first grade, my friends were often sent to
the 7-11 by their parents to buy cigarettes.) But it isn't clear that adult prohibition offers
an improvement: despite the limited enforcement of underage alcohol rules, surveys indicate
that marijuana is more widely available to many American high schoolers than alcohol.


The phrase "reluctant denial" is from Robert MacCoun, Peter Reuter, and Thomas Schelling, "Assessing Alternative Drug Control
Regimes." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 15(3): 330-352, 1996.

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