Medicinal cannabis: Italy's state-approved drug baron shares all

By James Reynolds
BBC News, Florence

Media caption,
A look inside Colonel Medica's marijuana lab

Col Antonio Medica is a state-approved drug baron. At the dauntingly named Military Pharmaceutical Plant in Florence, the colonel grows 100kg (220lb) of cannabis a year.

The crop itself is guarded in the depths of the plant by a series of locked doors. All visitors must wear protective clothing and face masks.

Just inside a final heavy door, a line of tape on the ground warns visitors not to go in any further. Beyond the line, several dozen rows of cannabis plants are flanked by lamps and fans.

Italy's logic is simple: in this country, medical marijuana is legal. It is prescribed for pain relief to patients with cancer or multiple sclerosis.

The country has decided that it needs a reliable source of raw cannabis in order to make the medical product. Who better to grow it - and guard it - than the army?

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It is slightly unusual to see a cannabis crop, normally the target of government action, being cared for by the state itself.

"[When the project began in 2014] we weren't familiar with the cultivation of this crop," the colonel admits.

Image caption,
Italy says it needs a reliable source of raw cannabis in order to make medical marijuana

But the army quickly got the hang of it. One soldier checks the plants with a magnifying glass. He wears a shirt with the official title "Master Grower" (a job title which must get quite a response at parties).

In September 2014, the government turned to the army's medical pharmaceutical plant, which has a long history of making medicine.

"The cannabis project has three main goals," said Col Medica, the plant's director: "To produce pharmaceutical-grade cannabis for therapeutic use; to keep down the cost of the final product; and most importantly, to guarantee its availability to patients in Italy.

"We have to underline a real difference between this kind of cannabis and the street cannabis," he adds.

How is the cannabis distributed?

The army sends its finished product to pharmacies across the country.

On 4 January 2017, the Madonnone chemists in Florence began selling the army's product. This pharmacy used to have to rely on imported medical marijuana on special licence from the Netherlands. It was a costly process.

Image caption,
Colonel Medica's growers can barely keep up with demand from doctors and patients

The availability of an Italian-grown product makes everything easier.

"We've had a lot of requests, particularly since people heard about it in the media," said chemist Gianna Acciai. "Doctors are prescribing it - and we've sold almost all of the first batch that we got in early January. The patients also save money in comparison with the Dutch product - it's 30% cheaper in comparison."

Col Medica's growers can barely keep up with demand from doctors and patients. But he is ready to expand.

"Our goal is to have a real answer to Italian needs," he said, "and we have other areas in this plant in which we can expand cultivation."

The project is going so well that Italy's official drug baron has already been given his new orders: to double production of the drug.