BORGOSESIA — In Valsesia, a picturesque chain of Alpine valleys in northwestern Italy, cannabis has been a traditional crop for over five millennia. The first records of cultivation date back to 3,500 B.C., though the practice was largely abandoned in the 20th century. A few years ago, however, a local association named Canapa Valsesia was formed to promote the cultivation of cannabis in the valley, located in the northwestern region of Piedmont.

"It's a way to return to the earth," says Francesco Cillerai, a 27-year-old political science graduate who started one of the first growing co-operatives of cannabis sativa. The variety grown here and elsewhere in Italy has a low level of THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, and is destined for use as an ornamental plant or for hemp products.

"We give businesses and private growers the possibility to try cultivating cannabis on their land," says Simona Brini, president of Canapa Valsesia, which is part of a larger association with members across the Italian Alps named Canapa Alpina. "We buy seeds of different varieties and give them to growers in the countryside who want to experiment with them."

While cannabis cultivation is spreading across the country, most of it is experimental and there is no real market. More than half of Italy's 20 regions have passed laws allowing for the consumption of the plant for medicinal purposes, and a proposal at the national level has garnered support in the Italian Parliament. Because medicinal cannabis can only be grown by government agencies, the changing laws will not provide a new market for growers.

We give plants and seeds for free to anyone who wants to grow themselves.

"Cannabis has been grown here since the Bronze Age," says Cesare Quaglia of AssoCanapa, another cannabis growers' association in the region. The organization was founded in 1997, the same year Quaglia began growing himself. "Cultivation disappeared in the 1940s and 1950s, but a new boom began in 2013. In 2017, the hectares grown in this region almost doubled."

Cillerai says he began growing as a way to "return to my origins." One year later, he founded Canapa Valsesia, though he still has not sold any of his cannabis on the market.

Canapa Valsesia's first harvest came in August, allowing growers to experiment further with next year's crops. "We have one hectare with three different varieties planted at different altitudes, so we can understand which is the best," says Cillerai. "We give plants and seeds for free to anyone who wants to grow themselves."

Cillerai's goal is to establish local supply chains and recover an ancient tradition. One example is B&F Holyweeds, a local business that sells ornamental cannabis plants. Elsewhere in the Italian Alps, Canapa Alpina is looking to test the production of hemp rope and kitchen products.

In the Anzasca Valley, several women have begun making traditional slippers using hemp rope, says Brini.

There are 200 hectares dedicated to the cultivation of cannabis sativa across Piedmont, according to AssoCanapa. The organization brings together 84 growers, including 80 agricultural businesses, three nonprofits, and one cooperative. "There are small growing cooperatives in several valleys across Piedmont," says AssoCanapa president Margherita Baravalle. "We've been saying for years that cannabis cultivation can contribute to revitalizing our mountain towns."

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