Portugal has been the subject of a lot of attention lately over its decriminalization of drug possession.
Although decriminalization has been in place for eight years now, it is only this year that it has caught the world’s attention. The success of Portugal’s approach was the subject of commissioned by the Cato Institute that was widely read and commented on earlier this year, and last week it earned kind words from a most unexpected place: the United Nations Office on Drugs
and Crime (UNODC), which could find little to complain about for its 2009 World Drugs Report.
But Portugal isn’t resting on its laurels, and at least one political party there is preparing to take the country’s progressive approach to drug reform to the next level. The Leftist Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) is preparing legislation that would legalize the possession, cultivation, and retail sales of small amounts of marijuana, as well as providing for regulated wholesale cultivation to supply the retail market.
The Bloc is also now actively encouraging the participation of ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, in developing new drug laws. The alliance comes too late to influence the marijuana bill, but will provide an entree for drug reformers in the process in future drug legislation, or even revising the current marijuana bill if it does not make in through parliament this year.
“The contacts between ENCOD and the Bloc were arranged by common activists and members,” explained ENCOD steering committee member and Portuguese law student, journalist, and activist Jorge Roque.
Under the draft bill, a copy of which was made available to the Chronicle, marijuana consumers could purchase “the amount needed for the average individual for a 30-day period,” as determined by the existing decriminalization law, or 15 grams of hashish and 75 grams (almost three ounces) of marijuana. The average daily dose is a half-gram of hash and 2.5 grams of pot. Individuals would be allowed to grow up to 10 plants, and could possess the 30-day amount as well as up to 10 plants.
The draft bill calls for licensed retail sales outlets authorized by municipal councils. Such retail establishments would not be allowed to sell alcohol or allow it to be consumed on the premises, would not be allowed within 500 meters of schools, and would not be allowed to have gambling machines. No one under 16 would be allowed to enter, nor would people adjudged to be mentally ill.
The draft bill prohibits advertising, but requires that packaging for marijuana products intended for retail sale clearly reveal the source, the amount, and a statement giving the World Health Organization’s position on the effects and risks of consumption.
The bill also provides for the Portuguese National Institute of Pharmacy and Medicine to license the wholesale cultivation of marijuana to supply the retail trade. And it provides for an excise tax on cannabis sales to be determined during the budgetary process.
People who traffic in marijuana outside the parameters set down in the draft would face four to 12 years in prison for serious offenses, and up to four years for less serious offenses. Licensed retailers or wholesalers who breach the regulations could face imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of up to 30 days’ minimum wage.
The bill’s immediate prospects are uncertain. The Leftist Bloc is a small party, holding only eight seats in the 230-seat parliament. But the government is controlled by left-leaning parties, and the Bloc has a reputation as a “hip” party in the vanguard of political change in the country.
“Honestly, at first I thought this would never pass, but with time and after discussing this with the deputies, I am much more optimistic,” said Roque. “Of course, the Left Bloc alone cannot get it passed, but as usual, they provoke the debate of ideas, and then, since they are seen as an intelligent and humane group, they can pick up support among other political parties.”
While it is too late for ENCOD to influence this legislation, the group can still play a role in the debate, said ENCOD coordinator Joep Oomen. “ENCOD could contribute with information on the need to make consistent moves and no half-measures, as has been the case before with the decriminalization of possession. Portugal should learn from the experiences in the Netherlands. Here liberal cannabis policies that have proven successful during more than 30 years are now in danger of being abolished because of the pressure of Christian parties who continue blaming these policies for problems that in fact are caused by prohibition,” he said.
Oomen was alluding to Holland’s “backdoor problem,” where the sale of marijuana is tolerated, but there is no provision for legally supplying Dutch cannabis cafes. That has led to the growth of organized crime participation in the pot business in Holland.
“It is quite simple,” Oomen said. “When you allow people to use, you should allow them to possess, and if you allow them to possess, you should allow them to cultivate, produce, buy or sell. If you only go halfway, and refuse to regulate the first necessary element in the process (cultivation or production) you create more problems than solutions.”
For Roque, Portugal’s experience with decriminalization was critical in laying the groundwork for the legalization bill. “Decriminalization helped us lose the taboos and break the fear of being persecuted for drugs, and Portugal nowadays is much more ready to move forward,” said Roque.
One big remaining taboo is the UN drug conventions, but neither Oomen nor Roque appeared to be very concerned about them. “Portugal does not need to openly challenge the UN conventions,” said Oomen. “As long as the new bill is aiming at regulating cultivation of cannabis for personal use, it cannot be considered as a violation of international conventions, which leave it up to national authorities to deal with the status of drug use.”
Roque was a bit more combative. “The international conventions and the Lisbon treaty don’t provide solutions in these matters, and the UN conventions were ratified by the specific will of one country,” said Roque. “When the UN conventions don’t present any solutions that are good for the national interest, only a stupid country will follow them forever.”
Now, Portugal can put the conventions and their interpretation to the test, if its parliament so chooses.