Inside a Flourishing—and Conflicted—Weed Industry

Hemp and marijuana have been legally grown in Italy for centuries but new challenges are emerging.

While Matteo Bastianelli was photographing, he would sometimes work 30 hours straight.

When he embedded with police in Lecce, the white-stone city in southern Italy, he found himself riding along on stakeouts, watching operations to intercept drugs, and chasing leads around the clock. He watched four tonnes of seized marijuana be incinerated, and an armed confrontation to recover illegally trafficked drugs.

A staff member of the military's chemical and pharmaceutical plant in Florence looks inside a greenhouse where about 120 medical cannabis is being grown. Florence, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

An indoor cannabis plant is cultivated for therapeutic use. Unable to buy cannabis produced by the state at the pharmacies where it is sold for 30 euros per gramme, many patients are forced to grow it illegally or buy it on the black market, Bastianelli says. Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

These plant cuttings growing at the military's chemical and pharmaceutical plant in Florence were supplied free of charge by the CRA-CIN centre in Rovigo, which is financed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Policy. Florence, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Medical cannabis is stored in a vault at the military's chemical and pharmaceutical plant in Florence. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Policy determines the price for patients buying from pharmacies. Florence, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Young men are defoliate inflorescences (the complete flower head of the plants) from the cultivated field for the “Saracinesco in Canapa” project. Saracinesco (Rome), Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Young men work before the start of the seed planting party in a field devoted to the cultivation of vegetables and the sowing of hemp seeds. Castiglione d’Otranto, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Vincenzo Fornaro, owner of the Carmine farmhouse, helps a farm worker pour hemp seeds into a precision-sowing machinery. Vincenzo decided to remediate a two-hectare field through hemp cultivation. Taranto, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Eugenio Durante, a hemp-grower for the past five years, spins raw hemp fibre in his home. Bastianelli says that Eugenio, along with his brother Leonardo, have been experimenting with the use of hemp for the realisation of handmade fabrics, paper, and building materials. Bassano Romano (Viterbo), Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Industrial hemp inflorescences sit in the curing and drying room for the “Saracinesco in Canapa” project. Saracinesco (Rome), Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Christian Ferri stands in front of a cannabis plant in his home. Ferri was involved in a serious car accident in 2006 and suffers from anxiety. Though Ferri has a prescription, Bastianelli says, he grows marijuana for himself because he is not able to afford medical cannabis available from the pharmacy. Rome, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Andrea Trisciuoglio, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, relaxes in his mother’s living room. Bastianelli says that Andrea’s annual physical exams have shown that since he started using cannabis for therapeutic purposes, the progression of his disease has slowed. Foggia, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Fabio Tamburlani, founder of the “Cannabis Cura Cori” association, is hidden behind a cloud of smoke. Cori (Latina), Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

A group of friends smoke cannabis for recreational purposes. Bastianelli says according to the 2016 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 83 million Europeans have used cannabis at least once in their life. Rome, Italy, 2017.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

A young man smokes marijuana at a cannabis fair. Naples, Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Other days were slower. He’d sit with Italian people at the centre of his latest work. He’d hang around in their apartments, and follow them on errands. “When I work on long-term projects, and I have to slip into other people's lives, I need to feel accepted,” Bastianelli says.

His most recent work, Green Gold, was recently featured on the cover National Geographic Italia and chronicles the many roles of cannabis in Italy: as the centrepiece of a flourishing industry, as an illegally trafficked good, and as a consumable product used both medically and recreationally.

36-year-old Alberico Nobile, who became quadriplegic after a car accident, smokes cannabis in his house with the help of his friend Vincenzo. Due to his condition, Bastianelli says, Alberico’s parents and friends roll cannabis cigarettes every hour to give him his therapy. Talsano (Taranto), Italy, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Italy is one of the best places to study cannabis. The country was one of the world’s top producers in the first half of 20th century before growers and consumers were undercut by prohibition and synthetic materials. A series of regulations from the Italian government over the years have offered conflicting approaches—alternating between heavy or light enforcement—with conflicting results. In recent years, 23 percent of teenagers between 15 and 19 have admitted to using cannabis, according to Italy’s Department of Antidrug Policies. And police only seize a fraction of what’s traded illegally. The rest enriches organised crime rings, which see 70 percent of their profits come from drug trafficking.

Still, the legal industry persists. In fields near Castiglione d'Otranto, in Apulia, Bastianelli met young farmers who said they preferred to live off their land by growing cannabis rather than seeking higher-paying jobs in cities. Bastianelli met with farmers and with patients using marijuana to cure their illness. He met with local associations advocating less regulations and followed police officers as they hunted traffickers. Every stakeholder seemed to have distinct goals.

Members of the Counter-narcotics Group (G.O.A) are in charge of searching and confiscating illegally traded marijuana.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Marijuana is often wrapped by traffickers to prevent it from getting wet during transport. Members of the Counter-narcotics group will incinerate an entire load of marijuana that is seized in a counter-narcotics operation.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

Some people who use marijuana therapeutically wanted to be photographed. “Many feel badly represented by the media that often confuses them [with recreational users],” says Bastianelli. “If these issues aren’t approached seriously and with the right in-depth analysis, it’s easy to confuse an ill person with someone using recreationally.”

In Italy, while it’s legal to buy marijuana in drugstores with a prescription, too much regulation often leads to spiking prices, and many see the black market or simply growing it themselves as more affordable. Andrea Trisciuoglio, a 38-year-old with multiple sclerosis and one of Bastianelli’s subjects, had tried different treatments for years; but since he started using marijuana 10 years ago, he’s been able to walk again. Alberico Nobile, 36, affected by quadriplegia since age 15, needs marijuana every other hour. Trisciouglio started an advocacy group LapianTiamo to push for easier access for private medical use and to publicly correct misconceptions of the drug.

Changing focus, Bastianelli next aims to focus on international cannabis trafficking, incorporating Albania and Morocco’s roles in trade. Ultimately, he’ll collect his work into a book and a travelling exhibition geared especially toward students.

“Education can help disseminate works that aren’t sensationalist, that want to impress but also pose questions: about who we are, what we want to be when we grow up, our relationship with the environment,” says Bastianelli. “It can help us understand all the realities that surround us.”

Header Image: Antonio Cerozzi, owner of a farm that produces cereals, fruit and vegetables, walks with Rachele Invernizzi among his industrial hemp plants on a five-hectare field. Torremaggiore (Foggia), Italy, 2016. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTEO BASTIANELLI

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