Italy’s deputy president and interior minister has branded cannabis “a national emergency” and launched a clampdown on shops selling “cannabis light”.

Italy has established itself as one of the three biggest medicinal marijuana markets in Europe after legalizing it in 2013. Cannabis is decriminalized for recreational use and shops selling so-called cannabis light – flower with a THC content below 0.5% – plus related accessories have sprung up across the country.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and deputy premier, has decided to wage war on this trend. “I will give instructions to the security men to go and check the alleged cannabis tourist shops one by one,” he said. “They must be sealed one by one.”

Health minister Giulia Grillo hit back, saying Salvini is providing misinformation, because the shops are not selling controlled substances. However, Salvini has pressed ahead with this purge and he proudly announced this week that three stores in central Italy have been shut down.

The stores were in Macerata, Porto Recanati and Civitanova Marche. Salvini said “a war starts today” when announcing the news, and pledged to take the fight across the country, street by street, shop by shop, district by district, city by city, and use tough tactics to achieve results.

Italy is ruled by a coalition government comprising Salvini’s League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), led by Luigi Di Maio. Political manoeuvring is rife between these parties and interior undersecretary Carlo Sibilia – a member of M5S – said he was bemused by Salvini’s drive.

He said it was bizarre to stifle entrepreneurialism among small- and medium-sized businesses. Di Maio added that the League had descended into paranoia after polls showed his M5S party recovering. He accused Salvini of “talking trash” about M5S and claiming it is in favour of drugs in order to win votes.

Salvini has linked cannabis to other drugs and likened a purge on marijuana to a clampdown on the mafia. He found an ally in the Quaestor of Macerata, Antonio Pignataro. Two of the three stores closed down were on his turf and he branded cannabis “the antechamber of hell, the antechamber of heroin and the antechamber of cocaine”.

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