Portugal MP Calls for Cannabis to be Legalised, Sold at Street Value, to "End Traffickers' Business"

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Two Portuguese health experts, including a prominent MP, have called for the introduction of a strictly regulated cannabis trade in a bid to counter illegal trafficking, including a recommendation for pharmacies to sell the drug at street value.

Former MP Dr André Almeida and Dr Ricardo Baptista Leite, a current MP and member of the parliamentary Health Committee, have called for cannabis legalisation in a document entitled LEGALIZE – A Strategy for the Responsible Legalisation of Cannabis Use in Portugal. This document is the premise of a motion for debate that Baptista Leite – who hails from the Social Democratic Party, the main opposition party – is putting forward at the party’s upcoming conference on February 16.

It is currently illegal to produce or sell cannabis in Portugal. However, alike all other drugs, the personal possession and use of cannabis have been decriminalised in the country since 2001. Momentum for reform has been growing in Portugal in recent weeks, with the health minister and the influential Doctors’ Association endorsing the legalisation of medical cannabis.

Almeida and Baptista Leite’s new motion goes a step further by calling for "a responsible and safe legalisation strategy for the use of cannabis in Portugal", including a regulation of the entire supply chain - from cultivation to distribution. According to Portuguese newspaper Publico, the text outlines that legalisation should aim to "reduce the supply and consumption of drugs in Portugal", and that strict regulations on the drug’s sale would be aimed at undermining the illicit market and protecting young people from cannabis’ potential harms.

The strategy borrows concepts from different iterations of cannabis legalisation around the world. The authors recommend that the purchase of cannabis for recreational purposes should be restricted to adults over the age of 21, as is currently implemented in several US states. However, unlike most US states that have legalised – where cannabis is sold by commercial retailers – cannabis in Portugal should only be sold in state-licensed pharmacies, as takes place in Uruguay, Almeida and Baptista Leite argue. The authors argue that such strict control over sales would allow the state to monitor consumption patterns.

In a unique approach, the authors insist that the price that consumers pay for a gram of cannabis should “equate with the selling price in the illegal market in order to end this business of traffickers", and that any tax revenue should be allocated to policing, healthcare, and drug treatment. According to data from the 2018 Cannabis Price Index, published on February 1, cannabis could bring in €3.77 million (US$4.69 million) in annual tax revenue in Lisbon alone if legalised, based on average US cannabis taxes.

The issue of price is an important consideration, as if taxation – and therefore total cost of purchase – is too high, consumers could continue to buy the drug from illegal sources.

Prior to California’s introduction of a regulated recreational cannabis market in January 2018, global credit ratings firm Fitch Ratings warned in a report that “high tax rates raise prices in legal markets, reinforcing the price advantage of [illegal] markets”. Since “[illegal] markets for cannabis were well established long before” legalisation was even considered, setting prices at the same as – or less than – that of the illegal market will help divert consumers to the legal market.

As yet, there is no country in Europe which has fully regulated the recreational cannabis trade from cultivation to consumption. Some countries, including Spain, allow the personal cultivation of small quantities of the drug, but outlaw its sale. In the Netherlands, the supply and use of cannabis in "coffeeshops" is tolerated, but the mass cultivation of the drug - including the sources from which most coffeeshops receive their cannabis stock - remains illegal.

The extent of political support for regulating cannabis in Portugal is currently unclear, but the country is renowned as a pioneer in drug policy – as it was the first country in the world to decriminalise the personal possession and use of all drugs. Perhaps it will also become the first country in Europe, and the first outside the Americas, to regulate the cannabis trade.