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Amid Growing Medical Cannabis Industry, Portugal’s Industrial Hemp Farmers Feel the Burn of New Regulation

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Written by Sarah Friedman

Portugal is quickly becoming a powerhouse in the medicinal cannabis field, but as regulations have changed to promote medical cannabis, major damage has been caused to Portugal’s industrial hemp farmers.

In some ways, Portugal greatly stands out from other European countries when it comes to the regulation of illicit – and, well, all – substances, including cannabis. While nothing was technically made legal under Portuguese law, a 2001 law decriminalized “consumption, acquisition and possession of drugs for personal consumption.”

The regulation sets out maximum amounts of drugs in grams that a person would use (approximately) in a 10-day period. If a person is caught with an illicit substance, it’s within the personal limit, and there is no fear of drug trafficking, the offender will go before the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction panel for evaluation.

The panel is comprised of three individuals, the first two being either medical doctors, psychologists, sociologists, or social workers, and the third party being a legal expert. While small sanctions can be handed down, the purpose of the panel is to identify the need for treatment. It is a common misconception that Portugal legalized all drugs, however this is a fallacy.

In truth, they merely created a system where people who use drugs aren’t heavily penalized and those who require treatment can get it. This does make Portugal one of the more lenient countries in the world when it comes to dealing with illicit drugs, including cannabis. (For the sake of accuracy, there was a new law enacted in 2013 that does prohibit “the production, export, advertisement, distribution, sale or simple dispensing of new psychoactive substances (NPS)…”)

Also for accuracy sake, Portugal is not the only country to have this sort of drug policy. In countries like Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and others that will also not incarcerate for minor possession issues.

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Portugal’s place in the medical cannabis industry

With such lenient possession laws, it’s no surprise that a country like Portugal is heavily in the medical cannabis industry, and looking to take over main production for European markets. Growing in a place like Portugal means generally lower productions costs because of a good growing climate and light conditions.

Just think how much costs are affected by not needing to heat greenhouses in the winter – it’s substantial. As Portugal’s cannabis industry is regulated by Infarmed – a health agency – all companies are already required to adhere to very strict production guidelines. In fact, one of the biggest issues for prospective growers in Portugal is simply securing the capital to set up their operations.

The way it works is that every country has its own standards for the manufacturing, distribution, and regulation of different drugs, including cannabis. In Europe, the European Good Manufacturing Practice is the set of guidelines that govern European countries in medicine manufacturing, distribution, and regulation. They work in conjunction with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which verifies compliance through inspections of companies.

Medical cannabis producers in Portugal

With Portugal working hard to be a European cannabis growing leader, recent news of Tilray – a cannabis research, production, and distribution company – has made waves throughout Europe. Tilray’s subsidiary company, Tilray Portugal, just received its GMP certification as per EU standards, resulting in stock prices rising for the company, and the ability for their medical cannabis to be exported to most European countries.

Get EU GMP-Certified Cannabinoid Isolates and Distillates

Tilray Portugal’s manufacturing facility is in Cantanhede, Portugal. The certification – the second for the company (!) – was administered via Infarmed, and permits the company to distribute a larger variety of products to patients and partners, locally and internationally, setting the way for Tilray to grab a large percentage of the European medical cannabis market share.

Tilray isn’t the only company to take advantage of Portugal’s great growing weather. EXMceuticals specializes purely in medical cannabis and is a “producer of cannabis extractions and refined ingredients for the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, therapeutic and cosmetic industries…”

EXMceuticals, based out of Canada, has been working hard putting together plans for a pharmaceutical grade facility in Southern Portugal that will adhere to EU-GMP standards. The company aims to procure and sell extremely pure cannabis components to Europe and internationally as well. As a part of their gearing up plans, the company made headlines when appointing Paulo Martins as the new CEO of EXM Portugal.

A few other companies have recently been awarded with authorizations for cultivation in Portugal. These include Terra Verde, RPK Biopharma, Sabores Purpura, and VF 1883 Pharmaceuticals. These authorizations allow for the cultivation, import, and export, however, in order to use the products for medicinal purposes, a further authorization is needed, like the one Tilray Portugal just received. Infarmed claimed that two of the above companies have submitted applications for medicinal authorization and are currently under inspection.

What does ‘cannabis’ actually mean?

When talking about cannabis and cannabis products, it’s best to differentiate the kinds of products available, and how new regulations coming along have affected various parts of the industry. Cannabis merely refers to a family of plants with three specific species: Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, and Cannabis ruderalis, the latter of which is often just grouped with Cannabis sativa.

While the term ‘hemp’ is often used interchangeably with ‘cannabis’, this is actually incorrect from a botanical perspective. Hemp is categorized as having low levels of THC and is often used for industrial purposes.

In Portugal, however, when it comes to regulations and economics, there is a lot of overlap between the two. In this article, because Portugal does not differentiate between the two, the term “medical cannabis” will be used to refer to both high and low-THC varieties.

The Portuguese hemp farmer problem

This last point of cannabis differentiation and definition created some issues with recent legislation in Portugal. 2019 proved to be a confusing and frustrating year for many Portuguese hemp farmers (for the purpose of clarity, the term ‘hemp’ here refers to low THC plants being grown for industrial purposes) who were required to deal with two regulatory agencies.

Too much regulatory overlap spells problems for Portuguese hemp farmers

In 2018, laws were passed for the legalization of medical cannabis in Portugal, with an update passing in January 2019 requiring all hemp products to be regulated under Infarmed. This now means that industrial hemp farmers must submit to a licensing procedure as strict as the one for medical cannabis, while also bowing to their original regulator DGAV.

Obviously, this is a major, and costly, inconvenience for farmers and producers in this market. Last March, things got confusing enough that licensing was actually cut off by the government due to jurisdictional changes, leading 40 hemp farmers to sign an open letter to the government to request hemp licensing continuation as their businesses were put at a standstill.

The new laws have Infarmed regulating and providing licensing rights, while the old standard was for hemp farmers to acquire licensing by submitting the correct information to DGAV (Food and Veterinary General Directorate), which it seems like they might still have to do. New regulations for hemp were promised back in August, but as of the writing of this article, they have not been delivered.

Detractors worry that such a law has been enacted to slow down the growing hemp and CBD markets by requiring farmers to submit to regulation usually saved for THC-containing plants. Due to current losses, and a large number of unhappy hemp farmers, there is talk of filing suit against the Portuguese government for failing to do their job to support hemp farmers.

This year, hemp farmers have posted losses already of up to 30k euro/hectare according to Portuguese hemp growing cooperative Lusicanna. Who will end up taking responsibility for this oversight in the end? And how will it affect the overall hemp growing market in Portugal? As of yet, neither DGAV, or Infarmed will take responsibility, and it took the aforementioned open letter for Lusicanna to receive a meeting with either organization.

This contradiction in laws is not uncommon when new fields are being regulated, and will hopefully work out with some kind of designation assigned to low-THC, industrial plants that won’t require farmers to deal with this hassle.

What reason the government has for blocking hemp farmers is not entirely known. Lusicanna proffers that the government might be blocking industrial hemp in favor of medical cannabis because of pollination fears. Whether this is actually the reason, or it’s simply an example of falling through the cracks accidentally, the new laws have caused extreme issues for hemp growers in Portugal.

Into the future

How 2020 will go for hemp farmers remains to be seen, however, the burgeoning medical cannabis industry indicates that somehow or other, there will be much cannabis grown in Portugal in upcoming years, with products delivered throughout Europe, and globally.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.