Portugal Rejects Recreational Cannabis, as Medical Becomes Legal

The Portuguese parliament has rejected two proposals to legalise the cultivation and sale of cannabis for recreational purposes.

The first proposal, put forward by the People-Animal-Nature party (PAN), suggested limiting individuals to buying 75 grams of cannabis per month from licensed pharmacies, where sales would be overseen by state health agents who would provide information on the drug and its risks. If passed, the proposal would also have allowed people to grow six plants of cannabis per household.

The second proposal, from the Left Block (BE), would have had a more relaxed approach to sale - permitting the sale of cannabis at any licensed establishment. It also would have permitted home cultivation.

Both proposals insisted that cannabis must be available at a price equal or lower than that of the illegal market so to compete with the illegal market. They both also outlined that advertising of cannabis products should be prohibited, and that sales should be restricted to Portuguese citizens or residents over 18 who do not have mental illnesses.

Currently, all personal drug use and possession is decriminalised in Portugal, but the production or sale of drugs – including cannabis – remain criminal offences.

For supporters, like BE’s assembly member Moisés Ferreira, a “responsible country” with half a million people who regularly use cannabis cannot be hypocritical by “[letting] the traffickers define the rules of production, access and consumption”. Legalisation, he says, would advance health and public safety by regulating the drug’s production and sale.

Jamila Madeira, a legislator of the ruling Socialist Party (PS) opposed the proposals, explaining that while legalisation might perhaps be a “natural evolution”, she believed there to be unanswered questions on how to monitor consumption, and the effects of cannabis use on young people. She expressed fear that a “proliferation of psychosis” may take place after legalisation.

Like in the political sphere, public opinion is fairly split on the matter; a 2018 survey suggested that around 53 per cent of people in Portugal opposed cannabis legalisation, with a clear divide between metropolitan and rural areas.

The consensus among many government authorities is that cannabis legalisation may be the right path to take, but it is too soon to know for sure. Officials want to see long-term positive results from Uruguay or Canada before making legislative change. US approaches are not seen as desirable in Portugal, according to the national drug coordinator João Goulão, partly because of perceived American prioritisation of business over health.

Meanwhile, as of February 8, cannabis-based medicines – but not herbal cannabis - are now legal for people prescribed the drug. This follows the Portuguese parliament voting in favour of medical legalisation in June 2018.

Any cannabis-based medications must be approved by the National Institute of Pharmacy and Medications, and personal cultivation of the plant remains illegal – even for people with relevant medical conditions. Until now, only one cannabis-based medication has been legal in Portugal – Sativex, produced by GW Pharmaceuticals. Despite being available since 2012, its use has been minimal due to the stigma associated with cannabinoids, cannabis’ blurry legal status, and crucially, due to its exorbitant cost that is not covered by national health insurance. 

While legislation on medical cannabis still varies widely across the EU, the European Parliament has passed a non-binding recommendation to address any monetary, regulatory, or cultural obstacles that halt research and the acceptance of legal medical cannabis. This decision echoes the World Health Organisation’s call to move cannabis out of the international list of the most dangerous substances, which also includes heroin and carfentanil.

With 740 million people in the EU, and the global value of the medical cannabis trade expected to reach over $50 billion dollars by 2025, it is easy to see Portugal – and the region more broadly – becoming a prime market and influential player in the emerging cannabis industry.

Luxembourg is set to be the first EU country to establish a legally regulated recreational cannabis industry.