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The Case for Regulating Cannabis in Portugal

Portugal has been a shining example of drug policy reform success, but its decriminalization model still has its drawbacks, something that exploration of a regulated market could solve.

On May 7, citizens will take to the streets of Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, to demand that cannabis be legalized and regulated. The event organizers, a grassroots collective known as the “Legalization of Cannabis and its Derivatives”, state that growing levels of adulteration and the lack of quality assurances for cannabis puts users at risk, something which could be mitigated through a regulated market. They also propose the creation of privately-owned establishments where cannabis sales and consumption would be legal.

Portugal is, of course, famed for its drug decriminalization model, held up as a pioneer of drug law reform since implementing these policy changes in 2001. Yet, this model only goes so far, with the production and supply of drugs still being a criminal offense, and resources still channeled into policing possession offenses.

Under the country’s decriminalization laws, a person caught with drugs can be issued a citation referring them to a “dissuasion commission” (CDT), a three-person panel which assesses the level of risk associated with a person’s use. CDTs can order treatment if deemed necessary, or impose community service or administrative penalties.

Based on 2013 data, 82 percent of all offenses processed by CDTs that year were for cannabis, up from 64 percent of all offenses in 2007. Furthermore, of the nearly 9,000 CDTs processed in 2013, 83 percent were provisionally suspended, begging the question – could these resources be put to better use?

Portugal has been one of Europe's hardest hit economies when it comes to the recent global economic downturn, with many services having to absorb funding cuts. Creating a regulated market for cannabis could thus ease the administrative burden imposed on CDTs significantly and on the public bodies responsible for implementing decriminalization.

Not only this, but regulating cannabis would in the long term benefit the state by providing a new revenue stream through taxation on sales. These resources could be channeled into public health institutions, and in particular into the General-Directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors and Dependencies (SICAD), the body responsible for coordinating the country's drug policy.

Above all, regulation would protect the health of cannabis users by ensuring they knew exactly what it was they were purchasing. Indeed, last year police in Lisbon last year commented how some dealers were conning customers through selling them substances marketed as hash which turned out to be something else entirely. 

Portugal has seen enormous successes through its decriminalization model and concurrent investment in harm reduction. However, policy innovation should not stop here as even greater benefits can be brought about to both the state and society as a whole if regulated markets begin to be explored. 

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