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CNN  — 

Italy will likely decide whether or not to decriminalize cannabis in a referendum next year, after campaign groups managed to gather the required 500,000 signatures in a week.

Popular referendums in Italy can be called if 500,000 signatures are obtained, and campaigners were able to obtain the necessary amount well before the September 30 deadline.

If the public votes to decriminalize cannabis, the purchase, sale and cultivation of the drug will all become legal under Italian law.

“More than 500,000 online signatures in just a week for the #ReferendumCannabis,” the campaigners wrote on their official Facebook page. “We celebrate them by thanking you one by one, because this is a first and not just in Italy.”

The consumption of cannabis is not criminalized under Italian law and marijuana for medical purposes is permitted. However, buying, selling and mass cultivating the herb is illegal and dealers could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

“It’s a paradox, as if the state blames the whole phenomenon on organized crime,” campaigners argued.  “Legalizing does not mean promoting consumption but making it safer and more informed.

“If cannabis were legal, it would put an end to unnecessary trials for small amounts of the drug and ensure that patients who use it to relieve their excruciating pain will never have to face a court again,” they added.

The group further argued that legalizing cannabis would generate thousands of new jobs and increase tax revenues for the state, putting the approximate value at 7 billion euros or $8.2 billion.

 They will continue to gather signatures before submitting the referendum proposal to the highest court of appeal, the Supreme Court of Cassation, for approval. If it goes through, the petition will be sent to the Constitutional Court for review and to evaluate whether the law would comply with the Italian Constitution. If successful, the Italian President will set a date for the referendum.

“So with a smile we will continue to share, explain, take to the streets and discuss because we know perfectly well what we want – legal cannabis and an Italy free from the mafia!” campaigners said.

Although Italy initially decriminalized the recreational consumption of cannabis in 1993, a 2006 law imposed penalties on consumers and tripled prison sentences for cultivating, selling and possessing the drug until it was altered in 2014.

Italy has taken a more liberal stance than some of its European counterparts, with the UK and France among those continuing to criminalize the recreational use of cannabis.

On September 8, Italy decriminalized the cultivation of small amounts of cannabis for personal use, although maximum jail time for dealing the drug increased from six to 10 years, according to local outlet Ansa.

Although under current laws consumers can still be fined and have their personal documents suspended, it is sellers and cultivators who stand to benefit most from a potential law change, with jail time no longer a prospect.

Campaign organizers say there are 6 million cannabis users in Italy. The 2021 European Drug Report, issued by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said around 1.8% of adults aged 15-64 in the European Union used it daily.

The report showed that cannabis accounted for 74% of drugs seized by law enforcement officials in the European Union, with cocaine accounting for 11% and amphetamines for 5%.