Italian show exposes pot, cocaine use
Oct. 11, 2006. 06:42 AM
EUROPEAN BUREAU CHIEF
LONDON — Secret drug tests by a popular TV show have apparently revealed that some Italian MPs are running on more than good food and fine wine.
In a sting operation that has the country buzzing, the show secretly tested 50 lawmakers and found almost a third had taken drugs in the previous 36 hours — 12 testing positive for marijuana and four for cocaine.
The results seemed to confirm widespread rumours about rampant drug use in the hallowed halls of Italian power. In a country where the previous government passed a "zero tolerance" drug law last February, the sting dominated yesterday's newscasts.
But the country's privacy authority banned the satirical TV show, Le Iene (The Hyenas), from broadcasting its research last night, citing the fact the drug tests were conducted without the politicians' consent.
The sting was simple: the show sent a "reporter" to interview deputies in Italy's lower house of parliament in Rome about the draft 2007 budget. A bogus makeup artist dabbed the politician's brow and the body cells collected were sent for drug testing.
Davide Parente, the show's producer, denounced the broadcast ban as unjustified censorship. The tests were conducted in a way that made it impossible to link the result to a specific politician, he said. The show was only interested in the results, he insisted.
"We caught the sin, not the sinners," he told La Repubblica newspaper's website yesterday.
But Rome, like most capitals, can seem a very small place when scandal hits the fan. Few expect the identities of the 50 politicians to remain secret for long. In a bid to avoid being tainted by association, some MPs went public yesterday to insist they were clean.
Said Green party MP Tommasso Pellegrino: "I don't use drugs and I'll even take part in other tests."
Franco Grillini, a member of the Democratic Left, said: "I have nothing to hide. I've done drugs in the past but now my preferred drugs are good wine and sex. Each to his own vice."
Paolo Ferrero, welfare minister in Italy's centre-left governing coalition, recently caused a storm when he said many politicians and professionals use cocaine. But MPs who weren't part of the drug sting suggested they were stunned by the scandal.
"I cannot believe that one in three of my colleagues is a drug user," said Daniela Santanche, an MP with the right-wing National Alliance.
"Where on Earth have I ended up?" said Communist MP Francesco Caruso, elected to parliament for the first time in April. "You've got Mafiosi, you've got people on the take — only coke-heads were missing."
Italians aren't likely to find the scandal too shocking. Their opinion of politicians is already as low as it can get.
"It's a bit depressing," Green party MP Tana de Zulueta said in an interview. "It will confirm a public perception that we're a bunch of overpaid, depraved, good for nothings.
The sting triggered heated debates about censorship and the accuracy of "drug-wipe" tests. But MPs in Prime Minister Romano Prodi's governing coalition saw the scandal as more ammunition for their plan to ease Italy's drug law.
The "zero tolerance" legislation was one of the last acts of the centre-right government before losing last April's election.
It makes possession of tiny amounts of drugs a criminal offence. Critics say the threshold for possession is so low that the law treats consumers in the same way as pushers.
"I have always said that if a police dog went into certain venues where official politics are conducted, its nose would go on the blink" from the overload, said Radical Party leader Daniele Capezzone, a member of the governing coalition campaigning for less restrictive drug laws.