Monday morning, 9 am – the sky is blue over Via Zamboni and the surrounding neighbourhood, where most of the University of Bologna department buildings are located. Francesca* is late for her first class, but she would have liked to smoke a bit before starting her day. Unfortunately, she finished her stash yesterday and there's not a soul in sight on Piazza Verdi. Too bad, she'll have to ask one of her uni classmates. Marco* usually sorts her out. Worst comes to worst, she'll have to find some later on in the day.
Finding cannabis in Bologna isn't hard. Despite having a small city centre, there are three main areas for suppliers: the Pratello district in the west, the Montagnola park near the station and the Piazza Verdi in the east where the main student centre is. Not far from there, on Via Indipendenza, there's a slogan on the ceiling of one of the city's many archways: "Panis vita, cannabis protectio, vinum latetita" [NB. "Bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is joy"]. The inscription is a reference to the historic production and trade of hemp in the region, and could easily become the motto the province Emila-Romagna's capital city once again.
Since the 16th of May, it has been legal to consume 'light' weed in Bologna. Thanks to the shop Qui Canapa (meaning "Hemp Here") that has been open since February 2016 and selling marijuana legally since May 2017, curious and newly-converted clients have been visiting the shop weekly. It is the first of its kind in Italy. In the shop, which feels like an organic supermarket, weed can be found in many forms: dried, liquid, oil... A bag of 8 grams costs 17 Euros, and many cannabis-based products are temptingly laid out on the shelves and display racks.
The shop was set up by Easyjoint, a local company, after 15,000 people attended the major cannabis show in Bologna last May. Qui Canapa's aim is to become the epicentre for everything weed-related in Italy. The company also describes the shop as "an informative place", which it is. The large information posters stuck to the mauve walls along with the information that is found on their website all focus on the various uses of hemp; anything from cosmetics to textiles. The very same website also encourages those who are keen to open their own Qui Canopa shop. The staff highlight the serious nature and expertise of the company ("15 years of experience in the industry"), and boast that they have received nearly 2,000 orders after their attendance at the exhibition last May. Since then, similar shops (and competition) have sprung up in the Red City as well as other parts of the 'boot', like Milan and Naples.
But what is 'light' weed? It's Eletta Campana, a variety of hemp that has been used for a long time in Italy – especially in Emilia-Romagna's textile industry – with a THC [NB. Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychotropic element of cannabis] level that is under 0.6% (the legal limit). Unlike Indian hemp, 'light' weed has no psychotropic effects but enhances relaxing, calming and sedative effects. The Easyjoint company hopes that selling this kind of weed will encourage the smooth passage of legalising the sale and consumption of cannabis in Italy.
"I switch my brain off"
Fracesca could queue up outside Qui Canapa to restock, but the 25-year-old is not a big fan of the legal weed. "I've always been fascinated by hallucinogens in general," she says, "so this aspect of the drug [the psychotropic effect] is essential for me. Otherwise, I might as well just have a cigarette." Like most of the other young people in town, she prefers to go looking for weed – the real stuff – in the winding streets of the Red City, where you can find a gram for 10 Euros.
Hundreds and sometimes even thousands of students come to Bologna every month to spend money on their weed needs. Given that the sale of cannabis is illicit, it's hard to determine an exact figure on the size of the market. At any rate, cannabis consumption in Bologna is estimated at over 60 daily doses per 1,000 inhabitants, which is well over the national average. Francesca "smokes to pass the time", and her consumption has always been "a pleasant activity," without her every becoming "too dependent". Leonardo*, however, smokes almost every day; too much stress, too afraid of failing his academic year. When he thinks back to his university years, the 23-year-old Apulia native recalls having lived in a cloud of smoke during his sound-engineering courses. "Smoking is a way for me to take my mind off of my obsessions," Leonardo confides, "It gives me a break. At uni, there are moment where you risk a complete psychological breakdown. So smoking weed gave me a moment of peace, calm and relaxation. Basically, I switch my brain off."
Leonardo doesn't really look like a typical panicked student. He's a young man with dark, curly hair, a soft look and a smile on his lips. If the former student had cold sweats about his upcoming exams, it was due to the daily pressure. According to a PISA report published in April 2017, Italian students are amongst the most stressed in the world. 86% of young Italians worry about not getting good grades, contrasted to 66% on average in OECD countries. 56% admit to being nervous when revising for an exam, and 70% to being "very anxious" while taking it.
Well above the average of their European neighbours, these numbers (which concern 15-year-old pupils) could equally be applied to university students, given the state of the Italian job market. In fact, the employment rate amongst young Italians is 37%. 16% of graduates will find themselves unemployed at the end of their studies. With 385,000 inhabitants, Bologna is by no means the most populated city in the country. However, it has one of the highest levels of students in Italy. According to statistics from the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR), 78,026 students were registered at the University of Bologna while only 60,134 were registered in Milan and 64,886 in Turin.
Does the concentration of students in the Red City make it a giant stress ball? Whatever it is, there are people there to create a zen space, according to Leonardo. "Bologna is a strange reality. At 10 pm, if you go down to Via Zamboni, Piazza Verdi or Via Petroni, it's very likely that you'll be asked at least three times if you want something to smoke. IF you want weed, there's someone who can supply it every hundred metres." If you walk around during the day, you might not notice these little groups of dealers who more or less blend in with the crowds at Piazza Verdi. In the evening, though, it's different story. Via Petroni comes alive when the bars open and students tussle for vodka shots and spritzers for 2 Euros. Street vendors shout "beer, beer!" and more and more dealers emerge, ready to supply the partying students in the darkness of the city's archways.
"We're talking about a serious issue"
People who buy from the streets are mostly one-time smokers, Erasmus students, first years or passing tourists. These first-time customers attract the least trustworthy dealers and give Piazza Verdi a bad reputation of having unsmokeable weed. That's partly why Francesca doesn't like buying from dealers, she usually gets her weed from friends or acquaintances: "I've always tried to avoid those kinds of places. The weed is cut with harmful substances and the quality is rubbish," she whispers. What's more, the areas in Bologna known for selling poor-quality weed feed an ecosystem that in turn attracts an increasing amount of hard drugs.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiciton (EMCDDA), around one in five Italians between the ages of 15 and 34 consume cannabis, which puts the country in second place just behind France. But in Bologna, the territory is also suitable for other kinds of drugs: heroin, ketamine and amphetamines. On the 18th of July, a gang mainly made up of Pakistanis was arrested in possession of 3.3 kilos of heroin. Every gram was destined for dealing in the strongholds of Bologna.
The pressure of increasingly prolific and increasingly dangerous dealing is also worrying the neighbours. The Serendippo organisation, created in 2007 in the little Viccolo de’Facchini street, a few metres from Piazza Verdi, aims to promote dialogue between local residents. The founder, Etta Polico, is familiar with the problems linked to pockets of dealing activity. The street her organisation works in is considered as being "at high risk of deterioration." Dealers, fences and addicts have gradually ruined the image of what was once a peaceful district. "Bologna is an example of a city where you can find drugs anywhere, anytime," Etta Polico explains, "Everyone finds themselves mixed up in it to varying degrees, from the students, to doctors, to professors."
Last year, during a workshop on reclaiming public spaces, Etta met a 17 year old schoolgirl who was interested in the campaign. During their conversation, the girl blithely confessed that she earned some pocket money selling ketamine and weed on Friday and Saturday nights. “As if it was the most natural thing in the world. She added that many of her friends did the same,” Etta Polico continues, “That’s just one of the stories about kids and the impact of illegal drugs in Bologna.”
“We are talking about a serious issue here, which is too often and too easily conflated with an immigration issue,” Serendippo’s founder goes on. “The ones who are vilified are usually the weakest links in the chain like the North Africans dealing in Via del Guasto and Piazza Verdi. But in fact they are not the ones who are responsible for this.” Then who is? Etta can't give details but she knows what the city isn't doing. Her organisation has been talking to the city's authorities for 10 years. “Bologna does very little. You can find intelligent people in the local authorities, but most people who work there have a bad habit of not ever going out onto the actual streets. You can stay in your own little corner concocting theoretical approaches, but if you never get up close to the people involved you’ll never get great results,” she explains in detail. According to her, the police are turning a blind eye. “That makes me laugh,” Leonardo confesses, “There’s at least one patrol a week at Piazza Verdi, by the theatre. Their brief is to watch the building, and just the building, never mind if two guys are killing each other 50 metres away. Occasionally they’ll give someone a bit of hassle but it’s just to maintain the illusion of being in control.”
And what if Bologna’s apathy reflects the beginnings of a political change at a national level? For quite a while, Italy has been on the verge of legalising cannabis, while never taking the final step. This is because of the church, according to some, or alternatively the mafia according to others, or because of the government’s lack of ambition according to many. One thing is certain: for many of Bologna’s citizens, legalising cannabis would be a breath of fresh air. “I think if we legalised cannabis, criminal behaviour would reduce massively,” Etta Polico states. Gianluca, a teacher, even thinks that “soon cannabis will not even be considered a drug.” That would perhaps give Bologna back what it used to have: the title of the “European hemp capital” where “Cannabis is protection.”
* These names have been changed