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How an Ailing Artist Helped Unite Italians Around Cannabis

Fabrizio Pellegrini is a 47-year-old street artist, pianist, and painter from Chieti, a small town central Italy’s Abruzzi region. For years he’s treated his fibromyalgia with cannabis and yoga. But while medical cannabis has been legal in Italy since 2007, Pellegrini and thousands like him are still suffering under political indifference. The artist’s case has garnered an unprecedented wave of solidarity and support — and it could mark a turning point for the country.

Fibromyalgia is an autoimmune disease that causes headaches, fatigue, mood and sleep disorders, and severe pain in a person’s muscles and joints. Long before medical cannabis was legalized in 2007, Pellegrini made medicine himself and saw benefits from his homemade therapy. But despite the fact the Abruzzi region has a medical cannabis law on the books that’s considered quite user friendly, local authorities have long delayed its implementation.

The grim reality is that Pellegrini could obtain legal medical cannabis if only he were able pay for it at the pharmacy, but he can't afford it. Living in a small, extremely conservative provincial town (nicknamed the city of chamomile), doesn’t help Pellegrini’s situation. He could get his medicine for free if a specialist from a public hospital would prescribe it to him, but none will. 

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Pellegrini has been arrested numerous times for growing his own medicine, most recently on June 8. Because of earlier convictions for cannabis cultivation, he was locked up. The case seemed quite desperate, with no real possibility of appeal or referral to the European Court of Justice. Pellegrini's former lawyers hardly communicated with each other. The local press branded him as a commercial grower, claiming “he was cultivating in order to sell” and was arrested in “an operation specifically aimed at the prevention and combat of drug dealing.”

In a European country where medical cannabis is legal but still largely inaccessable, it should have been easy for a decent lawyer to prove that being in prison is incompatible not only with Pellegrini's health situation but also with common sense. His circumstances parallel those on a recent German case in which the court ruled that patients who depend on medical cannabis in some cases have the right to cultivate their own plants. 

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Pellegrini's situation is also strikingly similar to the case of Huanito Luksetic, a Croatian multiple scleroses patient who was arrested in 2014 and brought to court for cultivating cannabis to treat his condition. The story was widely covered in Croatian media. It was considered a travesty of justice and led to an outpouring of support that pushed the country to enact a law last year allowing the use and sale medical cannabis — a law that was swiftly implemented. 

Fabrizio Pellegrini is sick and poor. Whether it is because or in spite of this, his story spoke to the Italian people and fueled an unprecedented wave of solidarity throughout the country. In early August, Justice Minister Andrea Orlando intervened: Pellegrini was released from prison, and his sentence was changed to house arrest pending a review of his case. The times seem ready for a change, and Pellegrini is helping drive it.

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