‘Portuguese Experiment’ in Legal Cannabis Offers Expansive Opportunities

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor, New Frontier Data

When Portugal decriminalised the possession and consumption of all drugs in 2001, including cannabis for personal use, it put the country in the avant-garde of global drug policy. The brainchild of Portugal’s national drugs coordinator Joao Goulao, the “Portuguese Experiment” was a radical initiative to address increases in the nation’s addiction rates and drug-related violence.

Nearly two decades on, a reminder of Portugal’s liberal regime arrived in late May when Uruguay’s Fotmer Life Sciences exported almost 1.5 metric tons of high-THC cannabis flower to the country, following a 1 metric ton shipment six months earlier. Both batches had unattributed clients, causing widespread speculation. It remains a mystery, but also provides evidence of Portugal’s growing strength as European hub, market, and as an increasingly favoured place for cultivation – all of which are driving investment.

In August, Clever Leaves gained a license from Infarmed – Portugal’s regulatory National Authority of Medicines and Health Products – to cultivate, import, and export dried flower through its 9 million sq. ft. property. Clever Leaves expects to be the ninth licensed medical cannabis cultivator in the nation, which according to CEO Kyle Detwiler, “has a highly attractive micro-climate for large-scale, efficient production.”

Others are similarly confident. The Flowr Corporation is to start an outdoor medical cannabis site in Aljustrel, Portugal jointly operated with Terrace Global.  Terra Verde in Setúbal is a subsidiary of UK-based Emmac Life Sciences and Sabores Púrpura is Portuguese company in the region of Coimbra, which is emerging as a growing district. Other names include RPK Biopharma in Sintra, and VF 1883 Pharmaceuticals in Benavente. Kannabeira has set up for production of pharmaceutical grade cannabis, and Cannexpor Pharma has obtained a pre-licence approval from Infarmed for the right to cultivate up to 30 tons of cannabis flower in the next five years. Meanwhile, Portuguese cannabis company Symtomax claims to have the largest plot of land for cultivation in Europe, and is aiming to become the continent’s biggest supplier of medical cannabis.

The most significant name remains Tilray Portugal, also in the Coimbra area and a subsidiary of Canadian giant Tilray. The company’s CEO Brendan Kennedy located 2.4 hectares outside Cantanhede for its €20m campus, approved by Infarmed in 2017. In May Tilray Portugal received a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certificate from Infarmed, and Tilray Portugal last year announced a €3 million supply agreement with German importer Cannamedical, evincing Portugal’s growth as an agricultural source. There are also moves taking CBD forward: Australian company Creso Pharma is targeting Portuguese consumers, and has said that they are a gateway for expansion into the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking markets in Latin America. Canzon is developing branded CBD products and a distribution agreement with Portuguese distributor Smart Nature.

Portugal’s southern European climate is seen as advantageous for year-round cultivation and low production costs. It could become the largest European producer, vying with the Netherlands. It has been said that licensed cannabis farms in Portugal have enough capacity to supply the entire European market in the coming years. Israel is already importing Portuguese cannabis.

Portugal is expected to be a medical cannabis powerhouse, which has caused pain to Portugal’s industrial hemp farmers. Since 2018, when medical cannabis was legalized (if prescribed by a doctor, dispensed in a pharmacy, and licensed by Infarmed),  its infrastructure has grown to include the Lisbon Medical Cannabis, the first international medical cannabis conference in Portugal which took place in 2018 and was set up by Cannativa (the Association of Cannabis Studies), a Portuguese cannabis think tank. Last year Infarmed created the Office of Cannabis for Medicinal Purposes to aid communication.

Licensing is underway in Portugal, and competitive. There is said to be 100 existing applicants, and Infarmed is reportedly slow at approving applications, relying on an in-principle system of pre-licences to give companies time to become operational before their formal inspection by Infarmed. The benefits of Portuguese medical cannabis are potentially immense as there is a large export market, with the northern EU nations of immediate interest.