The Red Thread Linking Euthanasia, Cannabis And Youth Participation

Even with a lot of signatures, the Constitutional Court decided that the cannabis and euthanasia initiatives did not meet constitutional standards for a ballot. This might lure the youth further away from politics.

Referendums Cannabis Euthanasia
Cannabis on a table. Photo: Shelby Ireland on Unsplash.

It’s quite ironic that two deeply controversial issues like the cultivation of cannabis for personal use and euthanasia, the termination of a life made unbearable by ongoing suffering, should meet in a single sentence. They are perhaps two different aspects of living — the right to make life less grim and enjoy it and the right to end life when it is irrevocably devoid of everything that constitutes living, in other words when it’s the anti-chamber of death.

The recent Italian referendum petitions on both were part of eight petitions put to Italy’s Constitutional Court for approval on both the format and the legality of the request following which a direct consultation on the questions via referendum would follow in 2023. The Constitutional Court is charged with looking into whether referendums will conflict with the Italian Constitution, the country’s fiscal system or with international treaties to which Italy is a party. Advocates were confident that the proposed reform would satisfy legal standards, the 15-judge Court disagreed.

Tough calls

A petition calling for the partial revocation of Article 579 of the Italian Criminal Code — which outlaws active euthanasia — has garnered over a million signatures, passing the 500,000 threshold needed to trigger a referendum on the matter. At present, Italian law does not allow for active euthanasia, defined as the deliberate administration of drugs by a physician to end the life of a terminally ill patient and while Article 580 outlaws assisted suicide and specifically forbids “anyone from causing the death of a person, with their consent.” The current penalty is six to 15 years of jail for the former and five to 12 years for the latter. But passive euthanasia — where life-saving treatments are intentionally withheld from an incurably ill patient — is legal and enshrined in Italy’s constitution, which asserts that “nobody can be obliged to receive a specific health treatment except if requested to by law.”

While Italy is a secular state, the country is deeply entrenched in its Catholic roots, which permeate many aspects of the country’s society, culture and attitudes. Euthanasia — a practice strongly condemned by the Church’s teaching — has long been a smouldering issue. According to the Catholic Church — which directly addressed the matter in 1980 – euthanasia represents a “crime against God and life,” and an “intrinsically evil act.” This is due to the ‘sanctity of life’ principle which lies at the heart of Catholic doctrine, whereby each human life is deemed to be sacred and inviolable. It is unsurprising, therefore, that euthanasia should be a controversial issue in a country where almost 80% of the population identifies as Catholic.

Referring to abortion and the growing calls to legalise euthanasia across various European countries, just this month it was considered normal that Pope Francis’ statement should be covered by state media. “This throwaway culture has marked us. It marks the young and the old. It has a strong influence on one of the tragedies of today’s European culture.” Indeed, a study from December 2019 showed that many Italian doctors were against the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide stating that the primary emphasis should be on providing palliative care to those in need.“When it’s impossible to cure someone, treating them remains a duty.”

The right to end life

Opposing the efforts of the pro-euthanasia campaigners are the Vatican and a variety of Catholic and other organisations who have heralded it the “defeat of mankind,” as stated by the head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Gualtiero Bassetti, and “the denial of the value of human life in moments of extreme frailty,” according to Marina Casini Bandini, the president of the Italian Movement for Life.

The movement has been campaigning on social and ethical issues like abortion, euthanasia and IVF, since 1975, Bandini lamented in a Euronews interview: “It’s all part of a context of fear, ignorance, loneliness, a lack of aid, a paucity of adequate responses to the real needs of the sick and their families.”

The Radical Party (Partito Radicale) — at the forefront of Italy’s socially progressive battles for decades — had repeatedly called for the right to active euthanasia, but without success. They, too, ask for that same dignity for people that the anti-euthanasia lobbies want, dignity being the operative word and public opinion on the matter has shifted over time, to the point that, in 2019, 68% of Italians declared themselves to be in favor of euthanasia compared to 58% in 1997.

Furthermore, following the case of Fabiano Antoniani (DJ Fabo), a disc jockey who was left severely disabled following a car accident in 2014 and chose to die at a Swiss clinic three years later, the Constitutional Court on 25 September 2019 allowed for assisted suicide in certain specific and extreme cases, thus muddying the waters and setting a new precedent.

Spearheading the pro-euthanasia side is the Luca Coscioni Association founded in 2002 by its namesake, Radical Party politician Luca Coscioni who himself died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2006 at the age of 38, along with a variety of socially liberal and progressive parties, organisations, celebrities and public figures. According to Marco Cappato, the treasurer of the Luca Coscioni Association and a former Radical MP and MEP, the numbers signing the pro-euthanasia petition is a sign of just how strongly the issue resonates with the public. “The success of the Referendum Eutanasia Legale has been extraordinary,” he added. “It’s a sign that the public is ahead of the curve on civic rights and freedoms compared to politicians.”

Cappato was indicted and later acquitted by Italian courts in 2019 after he assisted Fabiano Antoniani on his euthanasia journey to Switzerland. Assisted suicide is a costly affair, with those wishing to leave the country to die in a clinic, especially in neighboring Switzerland, have to pay around €10,000.

Nevertheless, lawyer and constitutional expert, Marco Ladu — himself in favour of legal euthanasia — was right when he noted that, even with 750.000 signatures, the road to a public vote might not be as smooth as many would believe. The petition did not clear the Constitutional Court hurdle but it nonetheless represents the biggest outpouring of public support for euthanasia in Italy and has undoubtedly brought the country one step closer to its legalisation. The ongoing debate is unlikely to end any time soon.

The right to enjoy life

As drafted by the proponents, the petition to legalize cannabis would have legalized the cultivation of several plant-based drugs, but it would leave in place the prohibition on processing them. Marijuana and certain entheogenic substances like psilocybin don’t require additional manufacturing, and thus would effectively be made legal. By contrast, even hashish would be banned because it requires processing raw marijuana to some extent. On the cannabis ruling being blocked by the country’s Constitutional Court on the basis that the law would have forced Italy to violate its international obligations to prevent drug trafficking, critics said that the Court had stifled the democratic process after a petition gained 630,000 signatures, well above the threshold to trigger a referendum on the issue. Benedetto Della Vedova, secretary of the Centrist Political Party + Europa, said that despite the fact that activists turned in hundreds of thousands of signatures that were validated by a separate court last month. The Constitutional Court had “deprived Italy of a public debate and an electoral process for reforms on freedom and responsibility.”

Late last year, activists collected over 630,000 signatures which would have also legalized personal cultivation of other psychoactive plants and fungi like psilocybin mushrooms. Part of the reason activists were able to gather so many signatures so quickly is a policy change that allowed them to collect signatures online instead of in-person only. Separately, Italy’s House Justice Committee advanced a separate reform last year that would decriminalize small-scale home cultivation of marijuana for personal use. Even with sufficient signatures, the Constitutional Court decided that the cannabis and euthanasia initiatives did not meet constitutional standards for a ballot for voters to decide. Proponents hit back on social media saying “This is not a defeat for us. Today is a defeat for the Institutions that are no longer able to comprehend a large part of this country. Only the mafia wins today,” they said. “Now we’ll take a few days to figure out how to relaunch the fight for legal cannabis and we promise you: we won’t stop this time either.”

The court decision

Giuliano Amato, the President of the Court, argued at a press conference that the measure’s broad multi-drug scope could “make us violate multiple international obligations which are an indisputable limitation of the Constitution.” “This leads us to ascertain the unsuitability of the aim pursued,” he said. “The referendum was not on cannabis, but on drugs. Reference was made to substances that include poppy, coca — the so-called hard drugs.”

Advocates argued that the court’s justification for blocking the referendum was partly due to a misunderstanding about which sections of the country’s drug code the proposal would amend.

The impact of the Court’s decision on future political debate

For many observers and concerned citizens, the decision of the Constitutional Court is a demonstration of the integrity of Italy’s institutions and the democratic process, and for people dealing with the day-to-day grind of making ends meet in these trying times, these two issues are not uppermost in people’s minds. At the same time, young Italians increasingly find issues such as euthanasia and the legalization of the cultivation of marijuana for personal use interesting and decisive when it comes to making political choices. Unfortunately, the examples they’re seeing aren’t all that appealing to their wish to create their civic spirit and nurture what should be a healthy curiosity about what they can contribute. What we adults are now seeing more and more is indifference among the future generations of first time and would-be voters. Indifference as to what’s going on different but not incompatible spheres of interest. And complacency, resignation even, about the likelihood of things ever changing.