Reuters International

By Isla Binnie

ROME (Reuters) - Italian lawmakers on Monday began discussing whether to legalise recreational cannabis, a fiercely-contested proposal likely to spark parliamentary battles.

Loosening Italy's marijuana laws is divisive, supported by those who say regulating the drug's production and sale would strip mafia groups of an important source of income, but opposed by conservative groups and the Roman Catholic Church.

Before the bill, backed primarily by deputies from Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, even arrived for discussion in the lower house, opponents lodged more than 1,300 amendments.

Possession of cannabis for personal use can currently be punished by the confiscation of personal documents like passports, but the new bill would allow people to carry five grammes on their person or keep 15 grammes at home.

A person growing cannabis would no longer risk imprisonment but be able to cultivate up to five plants and form social groups of up to 50 growers. State-licenced producers would sell cannabis and its derivatives.

But privately selling any quantity of cannabis, and smoking in any public space inside or outside, would remain prohibited under the proposed law, whose vocal advocates include Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Benedetto della Vedova.

"Legalise cannabis to take profits from the mafia, free police to do other work, control substances that are in circulation, fight consumption among adolescents, move money from traffickers' accounts into the state's coffers," Della Vedova wrote on Facebook.

Pope Francis has been a vocal opponent of legalisation. In June 2014, he told a drug control conference in Rome that he said "No to every type of drug use".

"Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called 'recreational drugs', are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects," he said.

Most of the amendments were demanded by a parliamentary grouping including the New Centre Right (NCD) party, which governs in coalition with Renzi's PD and has clashed with the premier over social issues including gay civil unions.

"We are absolutely opposed to this legislation, to the message it puts across: that anyone can freely smoke a spliff," prominent NCD deputy Maurizio Lupi in a statement.

Supporters of legalisation say it would help Italy, still struggling to patch up an economy pummelled by three years of recession, save money on prosecuting people for related crimes, and allow the state to profit from regulated sales.

Proponents wrote in the draft bill that estimates of the value of the illegal cannabis market in Italy ranged from 7.2 billion euros ($7.91 billion) to more than 30 billion euros.

Top anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor said earlier this year that Italian mobsters and Islamic State have teamed up to smuggle hashish, and decriminalising cannabis sales would deal a blow to them.

After Monday's initial discussions, lawmakers will re-open debate in September, PD deputy Walter Verini said.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie)

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