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Portugal Considers Legal Cannabis, After Years of ‘Depenalization’

Cannabis Legalization Bills Introduced in Portugal
Photo Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now


Portugal Considers Legal Cannabis, After Years of ‘Depenalization’

Two bills to legalize “recreational” cannabis have been introduced in Portugal, where there’s already a thriving medical marijuana industry and a widely praised “depenalization” policy for personal possession.

Portugal suffers from a strange contradiction. Despite being Europe’s second largest producer of legal cannabis for the global medical industry and having a tolerant decriminalization policy, personal use and possession of cannabis remain technically illegal outside of a tightly regulated medical program. Now, two initiatives to change that have been put before the Iberian country’s parliament.

This month, the Left Bloc and People-Animals-Nature (PAN) parties each submitted their bills to the Portuguese parliament, known as the Assembly of the Republic. As Portugal News Online notes, both measures are currently under debate.

Cautious Language for Cannabis Legalization in Portugal

The Left Bloc’s version, entitled “Legalizing Cannabis for Personal Use,” was introduced on Jan. 12. It calls for regulated cultivation and marketing of cannabis for “non-medicinal use.” The statement of intent submitted with the legislation reads: “The main objective of responsible and safe legalization of recreational cannabis should always be the reduction of problem consumption, the effective fight against drug trafficking and associated crime.”

This version would allow adults to cultivate up to five plants for personal use, and would divide tax revenues from legal sales equally between drug treatment programs and funding for the country’s National Health Service. Retail outlets would be nationally registered, with the sale of alcohol prohibited at such establishments. Cannabis edibles and synthetic “marijuana” products would both be prohibited, as would advertising, promotional coupons and giveaways.

The PAN version, introduced on Jan. 7, is entitled “Regulating Adult Use of Cannabis.” It similarly cites as its aim the “protection of public health and safety.” It describes the goals of a regulated cannabis market as “to protect people from the risks of illegal trade and drug-trafficking, as well as the health, social and economic consequences that the irresponsible and uninformed use of psychoactive substances can have on society.”

The PAN bill would allow personal cultivation of up to six plants, but it includes more measures to appease the fears of conservatives, such as barring consumption in the workplace or medical facilities and prohibiting sale to those with a history of mental illness. Tax revenues from legal sales would likewise go to drug treatment and prevention programs. The bill would also require the government to set the price of cannabis “lower than the average prices charged on the illegal market.”

Both bills would set the age of legal sale at 18, and bar use in proximity of youth-oriented places such as schools or playgrounds.

A vote on either of these bills could be imminent. However, even with such cautious language, gaining enough support from other parties for passage could be difficult. Politics in Portugal has long been dominated by the center-left Socialist Party and center-right (despite its leftish-sounding name) Social Democratic Party. The latter may be presumed to oppose any legalization measure, while the Socialist Party has indicated that it will abstain from a vote on the bills. The Portuguese Community Party and right-populist People’s Party are also said to oppose the proposals.

Socialist Party lawmaker Jamila Madeira told Lisbon’s Publico newspaper that he considers legalization a “natural evolution” in drug policy, but nonetheless said the government must take more time to “evaluate some of the critical points in the control of consumption” among young people.

‘Depenalization’ and the Medical Industry

In 2001, Portugal adopted a “depenalization” policy for personal possession of personal quantities of all illegal drugs. This has been widely hailed as a success by drug policy reform advocates across the world — indeed, looked to as a model.

There are, however, still possible consequences for personal possession and use. As a primer by the Drug Policy Alliance explains, those found in possession of personal-use quantities of any illegal drug — including cannabis — are no longer arrested, but ordered to appear before a local “dissuasion commission,” made up of officials from the legal, health and social service spheres. The commission then makes a judgment on whether the individual is addicted to drugs and may refer the offender to a “voluntary” treatment program, or impose an “administrative” fine or other sanctions.

Portugal has a fast-growing legal cannabis cultivation industry for the international medical market, the third biggest in the world after the United Kingdom and Canada. In a deal just announced this week, a joint Canadian-Israeli venture is investing 16 million euros in local company Sabada Portugal to cultivate high-grade cannabis on four hectares at Campo Maior in the country’s southern Alentejo region. Such enterprises are licensed and overseen by the National Authority of Medicines and Health Products (INFARMED).

But a law permitting domestic use of medical marijuana was only passed last June in a legislative effort likewise spearheaded by the Left Bloc and PAN. But in a (successful) bid to win enough support for passage, it included no provisions for personal cultivation.

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