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. 

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