Drug consumption between public debate and political reforms in post-war Italy

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Maria Elena Cantilena, a PhD student in History at University of Trieste (Italy). Her research focuses on drug consumption in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s, exploring how its image changed in public opinion and medical debate, in the context of new legislative approaches.

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Maria Elena Cantilena

On 5th May 1954, the Italian writer Dino Buzzati published «Il Morfinomane» (The Morphine Addict) in the newspaper «Il Corriere della Sera». In this short article, he described the morphine addict as a decent man who is hanging around the city looking for night-shift chemists, using these words:

«He is an old man, elegantly behaved, old-fashioned, he could be a duke, a notary or a judge. … He is a regular there, he is decent and indifferent. Chemists know him already; they call him ‘Commander’ and treat him like a high-value client».

On 23rd 1954, the Socialist congressman Giuseppe Alberti declared in the Senate:

«Drug consumption is a madness made by people who live in idleness, who long for idleness, who poisoned themselves because of laziness. In such clubs, there are no workers coming after a ten, twelve hours shift, no farmers who have woken up before dawn, and there are no clerks who have to come to terms with restricted extra-pay».

Within the Italian public debate, drugs were seen as a vice-related with upper-middle-class and show business, which in the public eye consumed morphine and cocaine because of boredom and transgression. In 1954, a new drug law was approved: consumers and drug dealers had an equal status and were punished in the same way with jail time. If a drug user declared to be a drug-addicted, he could avoid jail, but he had to be admitted in a mental hospital. 

About a decade later, descriptions of drug users in newspapers were rather different. On 26th July 1967, again «Il Corriere della Sera» published an article titled «La droga: vizio, moda o filosofia?» (Drug: vice, fashion or philosophy?) alarmingly informing readers about the increase in consumption of hashish and LSD among Italian teenagers. The journalist argued that:

«Once drugs were an artificial paradise for adults, who hoped to gain greater sex appeal… Today are the young people who use drugs, for ‘idealistic’ reasons. I mean, as usual, they use it to express a new way of protesting against adulthood». 

How did this change happen in the public opinion in within a decade? There had been an evolution both in drugs usage and in the consumers’ social profile. Indeed, during the mid-Sixties, Italy was reached by news about the  American beat generation, Dutch Provos and Swinging London. Italian newspapers began to write about some youths who met in Rome and Milan hanging around and spending their days idly. Newspapers called them «capelloni», beatniks, a derogatory way to stress their habit to let their hair grow. «Il Corriere della Sera» described them as «those guys apparently men who wear long hair like women». 

Using an image fossilized over the years, «capelloni» were depicted as dirty, vicious, immoral drug users and communist youth, both male and female. Some right-wing newspapers, like «Il Tempo», explicitly claimed that Communist China, aiming at weakening the West, was causing the increasing drug consumption among its youth. Widely speaking, drug consumption seemed to embody all adults’ fears related to a youthful world in turmoil. Drugs started to be associated with women and homosexuals’ sexual liberation, with the rejection of family, school and religion, and more broadly with the Sixties’ political activism .

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Between the Sixties and Seventies, some Italian underground magazines and fanzines began to be published. They were inspired by the American underground press, from which they got the psychedelic myth and the idea of drug usage as a way for achieving inner liberation. They contained counter-information on drugs and psychedelic experiences, gave pieces of advice about alternative way of travelling, buying, establishing communes, and organizing free music festivals. Since 1971, «Re Nudo», the most widespread and long-lasting Italian underground magazine, organized annual music festivals, citing Woodstock and Wight as models, although during the Parco Lambro Festival (Milan, June 1976), the circulation of heroin caused tensions among the audience.

Over the years, this underground press has asked for the legalisation of hashish and hallucinogens but has been against amphetamine and heroin consumption, calling these «fascist drugs». It was claimed that heroin spread among revolutionary youth movements because of a conspiracy engineered by the CIA, to neutralize domestic oppositions to the system. In this regard, the Black Panthers’ end and the widespread use of heroin among American black ghettos were always quoted as the most fearful examples of how this conspiracy unfolded. For this reason, during Parco Lambro 1976, the audience and the festival organizers discussed what to do concerning the widespread heroin circulation: some wanted to kick out the heroin dealers but not the heroin addicts, because they needed to be helped by comrades, stopping them from shooting up or just socializing with them without rejection. Others wanted out both the dealers and the heroin addicts because they could be “a source of infection”. 

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Heroin consumption, indeed, was spreading increasingly despite the information campaigns against it, organized by both national newspapers and underground press. Since 1973, overdose victims began to appear. The 1954 drug law was recognized as obsolete. Drug consumption could no longer be considered just as a public order problem, but it needed to be seen also in a social and health perspective. For years, an intense public, political and medical debate has taken place about this. Political parties realized that heroin consumption was spreading among young people from every social class, not only the bourgeois students but also the workers in factories and the underclass living in the suburbs. In 1975, Parliament approved a new drug law that distinguished between drug dealers and consumers punishing them with different penalties. The law also recognized to the drug addicts the “right to care”, which had to be carried out outside of mental hospitals.

The adoption of this principle was a very important step; the mental hospital ban for curing drug addiction was a result that was achieved after a decade-long debate between psychiatrists, best represented by the work of Franco Basaglia and Democratic Psychiatry, and which in the end brought the permanent closure of mental asylums in Italy in 1978. The drug law also provided for the establishment of local free public services where drug addicts could ask for care, but its real application has been slow and uneven throughout the national territory. In any case, the public image of drug users changed, shifting from a deviant to punish to a patient to be cured. Different opinions remained about how to carry out treatments, though. Was a psychosocial rehabilitation through a community better than a pharmaceutical therapy through controlled methadone administration? The debate, therefore, did not end in 1975 and has since unfolded more and more, during the 1980s, leading to increased harm reduction policies.

In conclusion, the 1975 law can be considered as an example of a beneficial reform achieved during the Seventies. This decade has been characterized by economic crisis, political violence and terrorism, but also by important institutional reforms, realized thanks to the activism carried out by social movements. Indeed during this period important social and civil rights have been acquired in Italy, such as the approval of the Workers’ Statute, of divorce and abortion rights, the creation of the National Health Service , the institution of  family counselling centers, and the closure of mental hospitals. During that time, the debate about drugs involved not only the institutions traditionally responsible for their control (police and psychiatrists), but also the wider civil society, something that contributed to change sensibility and views on the subject. The new legislative approach, based not only on repression but also on the principle of social-health care, can be considered an achievement of social activism, which contributed to the emergence of greater democratization in post-war Italian society.