Back in 2001, Portugal took the unprecedented step of decriminalising all drugs, gaining itself a reputation as the world leader in harm reduction and sensible, evidence-based drug policy. Add to that a reliably sunny climate, and it would seem on paper that you’ve got the perfect location for cannabis cultivation. Yet the popular image of Portugal as a weed-grower’s paradise begins to unravel once you get your seeds in the ground.
In fact, you’d be lucky to even get that far, as the sale of cannabis seeds is actually illegal in Portugal. To many people this will sound like a pretty twisted interpretation of the word “decriminalised”, although that’s because most casual observers don’t fully grasp what the term entails.
What A Decriminalised Market Looks Like
The important thing to note is that decriminalisation is very different to legalisation. Under the current system, people can possess up to a ten-day supply of any drug for personal use without facing punishment, yet the production, sale and purchase of narcotics (including cannabis) remains very much illegal and can land a person in jail[i]. In other words, you can’t have a decriminalised market without at least some criminals.
In the case of cannabis, the government deems a ten-day personal supply to equal 25 grams of marijuana or 5 grams of hashish. Possession of higher amounts is considered a drug law offence and can carry a range of penalties. In 2016, 17,490 such offenses were recorded in Portugal, with over 70 percent of these relating to possession, mostly of cannabis[ii].
Furthermore, because the law attempts to treat all drug users equally, it doesn’t make any distinction between cannabis and hard drugs. This means that while those caught in possession of the legal limit are not prosecuted, they are, like all drug users, forced to appear before the Commission for Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which determines if a person is in need of treatment for addiction[iii].
In theory, this means that if the police catch you smoking a joint they can have you evaluated for a drug problem, just as if they had found you shooting up with heroin. This might sound a bit ridiculous, but it’s important to remember that decriminalisation has allowed huge numbers of people to receive treatment for addiction, resulting in a colossal decrease in fatal overdoses and other drug-related harms[iv],[v].
What About Growing Cannabis?
Portuguese law is as unambiguous as it gets when it comes to growing cannabis. Not only is it illegal to cultivate the plant, but the production and sale of any equipment specifically designed for this purpose is also outlawed. It’s even illegal to possess seeds, although it is possible to obtain a license from the Ministry of Agriculture to grow hemp, provided it contains less than 0.2 percent THC[vi].
Depending on how much actual crime the local police force has to deal with, it can be remarkably easy for even the most minor offenders to feel the full force of the law. One woman in central Portugal told Seedsman that officers recently trespassed on her land and found two small cannabis plants that had sprouted from leftover seeds in her compost, which she herself hadn’t even noticed.
“They confiscated the plants and said they needed to send them to a laboratory to test how many ‘doses’ of THC they contained, though they didn’t explain what this meant,” she said. “The plants didn’t have any buds on them yet, so you couldn’t even tell if they were female. But I got a letter a few weeks later saying that the plants contained more than six doses of THC and were therefore illegal, although I never saw any proof or documentation relating to any tests.”
After being charged with illegally growing cannabis, she was sentenced to 70 hours of community service – a heavy price for two budless sprouts.
In another incident, a group of four friends had been growing 16 plants on a shared piece of land. One day in 2017, police officers literally jumped out of the bushes as one of the owners was watering, charging her with possession of the plants.
“The next day all four of us went to the police station to admit that we were growing them together, and that we each owned four plants,” she told Seedsman. “We were told to expect a letter from them, but nothing ever came. We don’t know for sure, but we think it was too complicated for them to work out how much THC belonged to each person, so they just dropped the whole thing.”
While Portugal’s drug policies may be light-years ahead of other countries in many respects, it’s clear that certain hallmarks of the global War on Drugs have yet to be eradicated, with the fate of minor offenders depending entirely on the whims of local police officers.
Is The Situation Likely To Change Any Time Soon?
In a word, no.
Seemingly determined not to waver from its hard-line approach, the government has dismissed proposals to introduce cannabis social clubs which, like those in neighbouring Spain, would be allowed to grow a limited number of plants and sell their produce to members[vii].
Some movement may be on the horizon, however, as medicinal marijuana was finally approved in Portugal in 2018, although proposals to allow patients to grow their own supply were rejected by the authorities[viii]. Many of the biggest players in the medical cannabis market have been eager to get their hands on Portugal for years, as favourable growing conditions make the Iberian country a very attractive base from which to supply the growing European market. Yet the government agency responsible for regulating the industry – called Infarmed – has reportedly been very reluctant to hand out any licenses, with Canadian firm Tilray currently the only company with any chance of getting a harvest on Portuguese soil this year[ix].