Why weed could be worth a wad for Portugal

 In News, Trade and Sector Fairs

Cannabis and hemp production looks set to boom in Portugal becoming a serious composite of the country’s GDP exports. Essential attended CannaPortugal 2022 and found out more

Text and Photos: Chris Graeme

Cannabis is the world’s most popular ‘illicit’ drug and is more easily found than opioids, cocaine, ecstasy or amphetamines. Confiscated marijuana is around three times more potent in terms of THC than it was in the 1990s. Cannabis has also become a sophisticated industry with hundreds of strains and different flavours giving different effects from calming to heightening moods and alertness.

But the cannabis plant and its derivatives has become a fast-growing industry worth around €20Bn a year and is expected to bring in over €50Bn world-wide by 2024.

And it’s not just for recreation, like many people seen to think; it has hundreds of applications from the pharmaceuticals industry and construction, to the automative industry, boat and yacht building, textiles and fashion, and even gastronomy.

This is what Essential Business discovered at CannaPortugal 2022 – a two-day international cannabis and hemp fair which took place in Lisbon on 18-19 June which attracted exhibitors and delegates from over 50 countries world-wide to sell, exchange ideas, listen to keynote speakers on the progress of decriminalising the use of cannabis in Europe, and the burgeoning business applications that this plant has.

“Since cannabis was made legal in 2013 in Uruguay, the movement for its legalisation has brought in Canada, Mexico, and some US states. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus regarding the plant’s potential, or on public policies for its regulation”, says Graça Castanho, a university professor and entrepreneur who has with her team organised CannaPortugal 2022.

“We organised this conference and fair to make people realise cannabis and hemp can be such an important sector for the economy, and that in Lisbon and Portugal we are not alone in thinking this. CannaPortugal has provided an amazing opportunity to bring together all the science and knowledge related to cannabis”, she says.

Graça Castanho points out that Portugal as some very successful cannabis farms such as Cannprisma, a company based in Castro Marim which is cultivating the plant for medicinal purposes and plans to produce around 20 tonnes a year.

As far back as 2019 Canadian licensed producer Tilray – through its Portuguese subsidiary Tilray Portugal – secured a supply agreement with German importer Cannamedical to ship €3 million worth of wholesale cannabis from Portugal to Germany.

Another agrotech company in this fast-growing sector is Verdant Farms Portugal which was the first contract cannabis cultivator in the country, producing and delivering cannabis for medical use in Portugal and the European Union.

Ideal conditions

In many ways, Portugal is the ideal place for cannabis crop agriculture. The country has a great climate for cannabis grow for export. Outdoor cannabis grows well in Portugal and can be produced at a lower cost than other European countries.

On the legal side, cannabis has been decriminalised since 2018, but must be prescribed by a doctor. Portugal’s current cannabis laws are regarded as among the most progressive in the world. In 2001, the government decriminalised personal cannabis use, focusing on treatment rather than punishment. As such, overall numbers of drug users in the country have gone down.
Joao Goulão, Portugal’s national drugs coordinator, is largely credited with pushing the changes through.

“We have a lot of sunshine per year, the right soil, and the best conditions for cannabis and hemp production, and more and more countries are changing their polices and legislation regarding cannabis because they have realised it is the source of financial and economic development if they embrace this industry”, argues Graça Castanho.

“Our legal framework concerning cannabis and hemp is totally outdated and we are working to pressure the government into understanding that a new legal framework has to be built in Portugal,” says João Nabais, a lawyer who has been involved in some of the biggest national cases involving cannabis, is a well-known TV commentator, and was one of the winners of the ‘Global Cannabis Legalisation Awards’ at a ceremony which took place at the Lisbon-based fair in June.

“We have lobbied the main parties in our country, they have accepted our ideas, and are open to further discuss a future change in the law regarding cannabis and hemp”, he said.

Graça Castanho explains the industry is expanding fast, and can even help be part of the solution to the economic recession that the world is currently going through, pointing out that China is now the largest producer of industrial hemp for CBD oil extraction.

Nevertheless, despite some cannabis farms in Portugal, both Graça Castanho and João Nabais say that Portugal is still “swimming against the overall general tide in cannabis and hemp acceptance” and say there are still many legal and licensing restrictions on planting industrial hemp.

“Portugal should be able to produce hemp on an industrial scale, create new industries in the sector, and process it itself because at the moment the sector here is in the hands of overseas interests (in countries where cannabis is totally legal), so it gets exported”, explains Graça Castanho.

“Science needs cannabis as a product to encourage sustainability, economic development, healthcare products, and to improve quality of life”, she adds.

Cannabis and cooking

And the use of cannabis doesn’t just stop at oils, beauty and skin care products. It can also be used in cooking!

We caught up with Canadian chef Danny Raposo of Stoner Chef Inc who was busy preparing a pasta salad with small amounts of cannabis in his dishes, and points out that it makes the perfect comfort food.

From Toronto, Ontario in Canada, Danny explained how he takes the whole cannabis plant (except the flowers in some countries), meaning the stalk, stems, roots and leaves which have medicinal qualities in all of them.

Danny explains that the roots contain terpenes or terpenoids (which give each plant a distinctive aroma and character) and cannabinoid oil (CBD) which does not produce hallucinogenic affects, “Obviously, I can use the active drug component THC in Canada because it is legal there. These are great for pains, stress, anxiety,” he explains.

Hemp and cannabis in food preparations, he says, are great to reduce inflammation, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. “We’ve used it in today’s dish,” he says showing us a pasta salad using an olive oil containing the cannabis flower. Some of the flowers are ground up with basil, garlic, salt and pepper for a meal that is guaranteed to keep you “calm and relaxed”.

Nerea Reche who has a cannabis products shop, CBWeed, in Elche, Spain, attended the two-day event at the stall CBWeed Portugal which sells a variety of legal cannabis and hemp products, including cosmetics, pet care, foodstuffs, aromatic oils and products for room vaporisers.

“CBWeed was a brand that was born in 2017 in Italy where we have plantations and growers’ departments. We opened our first shop in 2020 in Portugal, and since then we have expanded by opening 18 stores”.

“I think although the turnover in Portugal is relatively small, I believe we are on the verge of a boom in the sector here, particularly now that Germany is legalising the adult use of cannabis, and that will put pressure on countries like Portugal to follow,” she says.

In preparation for this inevitable movement towards greater European legalisation, companies like Holigen, which has farms in both Sintra and Aljustrel, and which was owned by the Canadian group Flowr and has now been bought by the British group Akanda Corp which produces in Lesoto, Africa, is one of just 18 business activities licensed by the Portuguese pharmaceuticals entity Infarmed.

Holigen has an indoor cultivation area of around 7,600m2 in Sintra, and a 40 hectare open-air farm at Aljustrel near Beja.

The multinational also owns the import and distribution company CanMart which provides products for pharmacies and clinics throughout the United Kingdom.

In July 2019 the Toronto-based group received licences from Infarmed to plant cannabis crops for medicinal cannabis in Portugal in a €45 million investment. By 2020 Holigen had successfully harvested its first crop of medicinal cannabis with a high level of THC (the main psychoactive substance in cannabis) in Sintra, with around 300 kilos in the first quarter of the year.

Currently, the law in Portugal authorises the cultivation and export of cannabis in Portugal which came into force in 2019. The then president of Infarmed, Eurico Castro Alves, predicted that in a few years time medicinal cannabis would make an impact on Portugal’s GDP.

Last year, 30 tonnes of dried cannabis flower was exported from Portugal – six times more than in 2020, with Canada, Israel, Australia, France, the UK and US being the main export markets.

At the time the CEO of the Akanda Group, Tej Virk said: “Portugal is one of the main jurisdictions in the European Union to host the cannabis business, with a government that is looking to the future and has a responsive regulator”.

Hemp in construction

One businessman we spoke to at the fair was Elad Kaspin of Portuguese firm Cânhamor – Blocos de Cânhamo which is the first and only manufacturer of building blocks made of compacted and treated hemp and lime which can be used to build homes.

“Our blocks are made from hemp, lime and earth. They are great materials for any kind of construction: a house, workshop, or garage. They are not structural, so they wouldn’t carry the weight of a roof — here you would still need girders or wooden beams — but they fill the space in between”, says Elad Kaspin.

“They are damp, fire and water resistant, and since they breathe, you never have problems from humidity, mould, or pests. In fact, you have all the advantages of a construction material that you would want to have in a thermally and acoustically regulated construction, and none of the drawbacks,” explained the entrepreneur, adding that it creates a singe wall without the need of a double wall faced by bricks or cladding, or filled with any insulation.

Most of the company’s clients are in Portugal and Spain, and Elad admits that business is booming with more requests for blocks than he can currently supply. He says building with hemp blocks cuts building labour costs by a half, saving a lot of time and building waste.

Because the blocks are carbon neutral, it is an idea championed by the Portuguese architect, author and university lecturer Pedro Gadanho in his book ‘Climax Change! – How Architecture Must Transform in the Age of Ecological Emergency which was presented on 28 May in Porto.

Gadanho calls for “an architecture that is more local and says Portugal has all the potential to produce construction materials made of hemp rather than concrete.

“Portugal is a country that already had a very strong hemp culture (it was used to make sails for caravels and galleons, as well as clothing in centuries past), but it was abandoned for economic reasons.

“Today hemp can be used as an alternative to concrete and Portugal could be a pioneer in the use of hemp in the production of alternative building materials,” he said at the book launch.

Multiple applications

“Hemp really has such a wide application” says Dan Herer, Founder and CEO of the Herer Group. His famous cannabis-use pioneering father wrote the best-selling book ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes in 1973 which is a history of cannabis and a compilation and argument in favour of all of its various uses, and has enjoyed multiple editions.

“It used by car manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi and Range Rover which have started manufacturing interior parts such as dashboards and door panels made from industrial hemp fibre.

“What most people don’t know is that the United States was partly founded, created and strengthened on the back of cannabis. It was truly the health, wealth and security of our country from the time of the very first settlers that came here from Europe.”

Dan Herer says it was the most important crop to be grown in the former English colonies, and the farmers were mandated to grown the crop by the authorities. “The sails of the ships that brought the settlers to the US were made from cannabis, and the word ‘canvas’ comes the word cannabis — a Dutch word which was borrowed from the Latin cannabis and Greek Kánnabis.

“Hemp fibres or oakum was used to seal the oak timbers used in shipbuilding to make them waterproof, we used hemp fuel in the 18th and 19th centuries before we switched over to petroleum. In fact Henry Ford’s first car ran off hemp fuel and not petrol”, he informed.

In 1942 Ford then built a biomass car using hemp biomass for the chassis and hemp fuel. The car was 10-times stronger than steel.

The fibres are so strong and durable they are perfect for clothing, not to mention bio-degradable and bio-programmable ‘plastic’ in fact made from hemp fibres designed to break down after a specific timeframe.

“Hemp is flexible, strong, sustainable, biodegradable, green in terms of CO2 emissions and is a product that epitomises the circular economy,” concludes Dan Herer, CEO and founder of the Herer Group.

Picture: Chef Danny Raposo, The Stoner Chef Canada