This is one instance where Portugal should follow America’s economically progressive lead on marijuana legalization.

In 2000, Portugal introduced Drug Law 30/2000 which saw to the decriminalization of all drugs, from heroin to marijuana, and instituted a policy that changed the possession and use of illegal substances from a criminal one to an administrative one based on an issue related solely to public health care.

The results of this law have been positive on all levels from a law enforcement point of view to a better understanding of drug use and addiction regarding the welfare of individuals and Portuguese society as a whole. It has pushed Portugal to the forefront of progressive drug policy within the larger framework of the EU and is being viewed as an exemplary model for other countries to follow.

However, as innovatively positive as DL 30/2000 has proved to be, it classifies all drugs under one umbrella as being the same in their effects on individuals, their habit-forming qualities, and their impact on society. This notion couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to the use of marijuana as opposed to the incredibly damaging effects of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, opioids, and alcohol for instance with their highly physical addictive qualities and their well-documented history of destroying families, jobs, and lives.

Within the vast documentation and medical research of marijuana, it has never remotely been found to contribute to the results that other forms of more harmful drugs have had on society and individuals. On the contrary, marijuana is now being recommended for its medical benefits by clinical experts in addition to being used recreationally by doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, academics, as well as other professionals as a healthier alternative substance for relaxation and enjoyment.

This trend can currently be seen in the United States where marijuana, state by state, is slowly becoming legal for both medical and recreational use, and is being accepted as a substance that has little negative impact for individuals and society. However, the more remarkable thing that the independently-legislating states in the U.S. are realizing is that marijuana legalization has created incredible amounts of untold revenue for education, health care, infrastructure, business, new urban renovation, as well as other viably positive sectors of society. This is where Portugal needs to consider full legalization of marijuana to, if anything, bolster its economy to heights it has never seen before.

Portugal is, incrementally, beginning to acknowledge marijuana as a substance that’s in a different, more innocuous, category than other drugs. In Coimbra, I had a chance to talk with Jessica Simoes, CEO and Co-founder of the CannaSoul Cannabis Store, where a variety of marijuana-based products are sold legally with a business license. Beyond the t-shirts, hemp masks, shampoos, cannabis-based cooking ingredients, and other paraphernalia, clients also have access to actual weed with regulated percentages of CBD/THC.

As clinically independent research reveals, these main compounds found in marijuana are chemically similar to your body’s own endocannabinoids found in the brain. CBD (Cannabidiol) has been shown to help with anxiety, depression, seizures, and nausea, but needs THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) to bind with the receptors in the brain to be efficacious. THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the ‘high’ sensation, can help with pain, insomnia, low appetite, and glaucoma. However, depending on the percentage distribution, CBD can counter some of the unwanted psychoactive effects of the THC. According to Jessica, the current legal limit for THC content in Portugal is 0.2 as opposed to other EU countries with a limit of 0.3. She and her co-Founders established the business in June of 2019 after a year’s research into the viability of the market, and is the first all-Portuguese cannabis retail store established in Portugal that sells marijuana legally. Competition from other cannabis retail stores, such as franchises Cannabis Store Amsterdam and Bud Temple, came from other countries to get a start on the potential of the cannabis market within Portugal’s borders. Currently, there are roughly 20 stores throughout Portugal where strictly regulated marijuana is sold.

Since the passing of DL 30/2000 twenty years ago, the discussion of legalizing marijuana, particularly for medical applications, was inevitable and a proposal for full legalization was put forth in 2013, but rejected. In the following years, a number of regulatory decrees and law ordinances on marijuana have created a framework on which approaches to legalization can begin to take form, particularly Law 33/2018 that successfully legalized medical cannabis in 2018, and Regulatory Decree 2/2020 which established a regime for cultivation and industrial production in Portugal. However, there’s a bit of a disconnect with regard to Law 33/2018 and its implementation. Even though the law makes medical cannabis legal, qualified patients can’t get access to it because the legislation stipulates a medical prescription is needed, and doctors can’t write a prescription for something that’s not available in pharmacies. This arbitrarily leaves possession of any marijuana without a prescription still within the jurisdictional consideration of recreational use, which, of course, is a violation under the decriminalization law.

Given the vague shortcomings of what needs to be a more defined implementation of marijuana legislation under the decriminalization law, the black market for cannabis has not, as many argue, been rendered obsolete. This is clearly evidenced by anyone, particularly tourists, who are unceremoniously approached on the streets of Lisbon or Porto by street dealers selling cannabis, or its purer extracted form of hashish.

Contrasting this unwieldly legislation with that of America’s in its on-going state-by-state implementation of legalizing marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use, you see a far more organized and well thought out implementation of new laws and regulation for legalized cannabis.

The first state to legalize medical cannabis was California in 1998 with numerous other states following suit with similar medical marijuana legislation. Given the legislation, a doctor’s prescription was also needed, but this was effectively carried out by giving patients a medical marijuana identification card that allowed for legal purchase of marijuana and which recipients could present to law enforcement regarding possession. However, more importantly, rather than giving the burden to pharmacies for distribution, marijuana dispensaries were allowed to open with the proper licensing. This allowed patients easy access to medical cannabis and reduced a lot of bureaucratic pitfalls by creating another viable, legal source by business entrepreneurs separate from the pharmaceutical industry.

Things, of course, took off from there. In 2012, Colorado and Washington State became the first states to fully legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use. In the recent 2020 election cycle, Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota became the latest states to fully legalize marijuana across the board. Currently, there are now 14 states that have fully legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, and 35 states that have legalized it for medical purposes. These states have found that legally licensed marijuana dispensaries to be the best way to distribute the product, very much in the same way that liquor stores are allowed to operate with laws and regulations in place.

The question is, what caused the turn around in the U.S. regarding how state legislative bodies viewed cannabis in contrast to other illegal narcotics, such as opioids, cocaine, and heroin? Unsurprisingly, there’s more than one answer to that question.

Perceptions about marijuana in the U.S. have been tied to feelings about public health, race, crime, culture, and morality, beginning with the Marijuana Tax Act in 1930 whose purpose was to specifically register an influx of new immigrants who brought cultivation of the plant with them from Mexico. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act created a scheduling system for drugs based on medical use and potential for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs were considered to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse. Unfortunately, and most likely calculatingly, President Nixon at the time appointed his Attorney General rather than his Surgeon General to decide how any and all drugs were to be scheduled, and marijuana was classified as a Schedule 1 drug. Over time, perceptions began to change.

The overwhelming research that had been carried out on marijuana and on those who use it resulted in countless clinical studies essentially determining that marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug was not an accurate assessment and needed to be regarded separately from other, far more dangerous narcotics, such as heroin or cocaine. More liberal states began to pay attention to the findings in the face of high incarceration rates and the burdens imposed on law enforcement and the courts that harsh laws regarding marijuana were inflicting on their populations. In 2018 alone, 40% of drug arrests were for marijuana.

The sentiments of voters in individual states began to supersede the federal government narrative on marijuana laws and voters began to challenge federal jurisdiction in their territories at the ballot box. In response to this, the federal Department of Justice passed the Coleman Memorandum in 2013, which sought to prevent the diversion of marijuana to the black market and to protect minors from access to it. This followed a pattern not unlike the lifting of the alcohol prohibition law in 1933. Ultimately, the Justice Department said if states could meet the criteria under the Cole Memorandum, it would not impose federal law in those states. After fifty years of being criminalized at the federal level, marijuana is now a favorably bi-partisan issue, with 91% of all Americans favoring its medical use and 59% in favor of complete legalization. Traditionally a Liberal cause, eight Republican Senators now represent legal cannabis states, and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives just passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) that poses to legalize marijuana at the federal level and to tax revenue of marijuana for social programs.

To the Portuguese people, this might be all very well and good, but the affairs of the United States are tied up in cultural issues that are of little concern to them… unless you’re talking about money and the economy. Needless to say, it would be foolish to even try to compare Portugal’s GDP to that of U.S.’s given the differences in size, demographics, and population densities, let alone other critically important factors. However, let’s take but a slice of economics with regard to what we’re talking about here, and that’s marijuana legalization.

Since 2012, the revenue from Portugal’s Golden Visa Program, for example, has generated 4.8 billion euros in investment into the country. The Golden Visa Program is dependent of course on foreign entities, people or companies, coming into the country with money that was principally generated from elsewhere, which is a limiting market enterprise in that it relies on foreign interest and is not sustainable in a way that Portugal is able to effectively facilitate long term.

In contrast, states in the U.S. with legalized marijuana have full control of all aspects of the market, from source and productivity to legislation without external contractual agreements, taxes, licensing, zoning, and revenue allocation. It’s a sustainable economic market that is managed within states’ borders from the top down, from supply to demand. The result of this is that the sale of marijuana in these states has bolstered tax revenues wildly beyond expectations. Here are some quick examples: In 2019 alone, the state of Colorado collected more than $302 million in taxes and additional fees on marijuana. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, sales totalled over $1.7 billion in 2020.

Colorado State University research found that the legal cannabis industry contributed more than $80.8 million to boosting the local economy in 2017 with small businesses, local jobs, and more investment. In California, cannabis sales generated $411.3 million in excise taxes, $98.9 million in cultivation taxes, and $335.1 million in sales tax. The state of Massachusetts, reported by its Cannabis Control Commission in November of 2019, generated $393.7 million in gross sales in only the first year of opening marijuana retailers. Overall in the U.S., sales were $12.2 billion in 2019 and are projected to increase to $31.1 billion in 2024.

When marijuana becomes legal on the federal level… and it will… federally legal cannabis, according to analytics company New Frontier, could generate an additional $105.6 billion in federal tax revenue by 2025. You can keep your Golden Visa Program, thank you.

Unfortunately, Portuguese government doesn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the potential of the industry as foreign companies from other countries are already getting a foot in on the cannabis market from the production end here, and no doubt profiting where the Portuguese government substantially could be. Companies such as Tilray and Aurora, both Canadian, and Kannabeira, which is an independently managed Spanish-Portuguese farming operation, have marijuana cultivation plantations in Portugal. Tilray, which was founded in 2013, exports its product from Portugal to other countries in the EU while its other cultivation facility in Canada exports to other international markets.

These private enterprises operate completely legally of course and have gone through all the litigious and bureaucratic hoops any company needs to in order to run a business in Portugal. Information about these companies is openly available on their websites, but they try to keep things under the radar with regard to too much public exposure in Portugal, and they generally focus their product on the medical side of marijuana within pharmaceutical marketing parameters. In a most recent press release posted on its website, Tilray has received “the first and only market authorization to offer medical cannabis products in Portugal”, allowing it to manufacture medical cannabis products, including cultivated “dried flower” and oil, and to export it from Portugal to other EU and farther international markets. Rather ironically, these companies are crippled to any opportunity to the Portuguese market as they are not allowed to sell their product within the country, so any further trickle-down opportunities for business enterprising also gets exported.

The Portuguese government’s reasoning behind this is a bit of a mystery, but if the Portuguese government didn’t want the Scandinavian model of “smoking cafes” in fear of concentrating an unwanted demographic in certain neighborhoods, then a more viable model can be found in the American approach of setting up dispensaries for at least medical, if not recreational, cannabis for users to access, and there would be no licensed gathering places where people could loiter.

Portugal’s Drug Law 30/2000 was a hallmark of progressive legislature within the larger EU framework. However, when the Commission for the National Strategy for Drug Control, led by Dr. Joao Goulao, introduced Drug Law 30/2000, there was little thought given to its implementation, as well as a larger, more-encompassing vision behind economic opportunities by the Ministry of Finance given the most recent fiscal research regarding the marijuana industry. Regardless, with all the evidence on the table that marijuana legalization is nothing but a win-win situation from both a public health standpoint and an economic one, it would behoove Portugal to correctly acknowledge that marijuana needs to be considered in a category than that of other drugs.

Yes, other EU countries should follow Portugal’s lead on drug policy, but it is now time for Portugal to follow America’s lead on marijuana policy.