Portugal is world-renowned for decriminalising all illegal drugs back in 2001 and, thus, massively changing the legal situation of cannabis. Portugal’s different approach to the ‘war on drugs’ was seen as an absurdity at the time, but recent statistics show that the small Iberian country now has one of the lowest drug-induced mortality rates in Europe — only 4 deaths per million in 2017, with the European average being 22 deaths per million.
Related: The Dangers of Marijuana Consumption
But the decriminalisation of drugs is often misunderstood. Most people wrongly believe that this means that all drugs are legal in Portugal, which is definitely not the case. Let’s take a look at the legal situation of cannabis in Portugal.
Understanding Portugal’s drug decriminalisation
Portugal’s drug decriminalisation law was adopted in July 2001. According to this policy, the consumption, acquisition and possession of drugs for personal consumption were no longer considered punishable offences.
This law came into place because Portugal had a significant drug problem at the time. So, the country’s lawmakers decided that they should treat addicts rather than imprison them.
However, there’s a regulation which sets out the maximum amount of drugs — in grams — that a single person is allowed to carry for personal consumption. These amounts are estimates of the 10-day supply a drug addict would need for personal use.
If a person is caught using or possessing less than the regulated maximum supply of a certain drug, but the police do not suspect the individual of being involved in drug trafficking, he or she will be evaluated by the Commission for Dissuasion Of Drug Addiction.
The Commission is made up of three members — a legal expert, a social worker and a psychiatrist. The Commission’s main objective is to explore the possibility of treatment and to promote the individual’s healthy recovery, but they can recommend disciplinary sanctions when necessary.
Statistics on Portugal’s illegal cannabis use
Contrary to popular belief, Portugal has not legalised recreational cannabis. Cannabis use and possession are still illegal and punishable according to Portugal’s laws.
At the moment, the maximum amount of cannabis one individual can carry without being suspected of trafficking is 25 grams of marijuana or 5 grams of hashish, which is more than most users have on them at any given time.
According to a survey that was conducted between 2012 and 2016, cannabis was the illegal drug with the highest prevalence, especially among adults aged 22 to 44. It’s estimated that about 8 percent of the adults in Portugal used cannabis in 2016.
In 2017, 17,490 drug offences were reported in Portugal. The majority of those offences were linked to illegal cannabis use and distribution.
Legalisation of medical cannabis in Portugal
Portugal legalised medical cannabis in 2018, but the law came into effect 6 months later, in January 2019. According to Portugal’s new legislation, a governmental agency called Infarmed is responsible for evaluating, authorising, regulating and supervising all things regarding medical cannabis.
The agency is also responsible for approving or rejecting any applications regarding the cultivation, production and distribution of cannabis and cannabis-based medicines. Along with the Military Laboratory of Chemical and Pharmaceutical products, Infarmed sets in place the protocols for product testing and approval.
Medical cannabis growers entering the Portuguese market have to comply with multiple national laws as well as with the European Good Agricultural and Collection Practice Guidelines regarding herbal medicines.
Portugal’s cannabis industry is blooming
Portugal’s favourable climate, its high number of daylight and sunshine hours per year, along with its reasonably-priced labour make it ideal for cannabis cultivation. As a result, multiple companies are already investing in the Portuguese cannabis industry.
Tilray, one of the largest cannabis corporations in the world, invested $22 million (approx. €20 million) in a cannabis-growing facility. The company planted over 5.9 acres (2.4 hectares) of medical cannabis and expects the first profitable harvest by 2020.
Tilray’s Portugal cannabis plantation will serve as the main supply source for medical cannabis patients in the European Union, especially those in Germany where demand has soared.
The British company GW Pharmaceuticals is currently running a cannabis cultivation facility in Portugal. The facility produces about 21 tonnes of cannabis each year, which GW uses to formulate Sativex, its famous cannabis-based medicine.
Right after the legalisation of medical marijuana in January 2019, a Canadian, Israeli-owned company called Sababa Portugal announced that it will plant about 4 hectares of medical cannabis in the southern Alentejo region. The company’s efforts will cost about €16 million.
Holigen, an Australian-backed investment group will cultivate cannabis in an outdoor plantation of 650,000 square metres in the Alentejo region. In addition, Infarmed approved the company’s proposal to build a 30,000 square metres indoor growing facility, which is currently under construction.
Aurora Cannabis, another Canadian cannabis giant, expanded into Portugal by acquiring 51 percent of Gaia Pharm Lda, a local facility that received its approval to produce medical cannabis and cannabis-based products.
Portugal’s potential in the cannabis industry
Portugal has a mild weather that encourages the cultivation of cannabis. Cannabis growing experts report that Portugal’s weather is similar to that of California, a region famed for its large cannabis plantations.
Portugal’s Alentejo region is located in the south, and it offers great agricultural soil conditions. The region also gets plenty of sunlight throughout the year and it has favourable temperatures for cannabis growing. Even though this region covers a third of Portugal’s territory, its population represents only 7 percent of the country’s total population, so it offers plenty of space for cannabis plantations.
What does the future hold for Portugal’s legal cannabis market?
As cannabis corporations race each other to secure a place in the European cannabis landscape, Portugal has become one of their favourite destinations. The foreign investments in Portugal’s cannabis industry have the potential to jumpstart the county’s cannabis market and to increase its budget.
In addition to further changing the legal situation of cannabis in Portugal, the massive cannabis investments in Portugal’s Alentejo region may change the region’s demographics by attracting young workers and boosting tourism.