He wanted to be an archaeologist, wealth manager and film director, but he ended up studying law and is today one of the most prominent Portuguese lawyers, namely in the area of cannabis. João Taborda da Gama, 45 years old, cannot explain why he became a lawyer, but he wanted to understand the world of drugs from an early age and has been one of the biggest activists for the regulation of controlled substances, not only in Portugal, but all over the world. This curiosity and interest led him to publish the book “Regular and Protect: for a new drug policy”, in 2022.
Recognized speaker at several international conferences and university professor, João Taborda da Gama is a lawyer that is peculiar to say the least. He escaped the norm and risked his career in an area that few (or none) dedicated themselves to: drugs, or controlled substances, but not in the criminal field. A pioneer in working with cannabis, he is today recognized for his knowledge of this millennial plant and for the advocacy he has carried out in Portugal and around the world to regulate controlled substances. We went to talk to João Gama at the law firm he founded in Lisbon, Gama Glória, and we found out how he ended up working with cannabis.
Do you still remember what you wanted to be when you were a kid?
I remember! First I wanted to be an archaeologist, because I used to go with my father to look for fossils on the cliffs of Calçada de Carriche and, therefore, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist. A few years later, I remember wanting to be a wealth manager, because of the movie Wall Street, working on the Stock Exchange and that kind of thing. Later, he wanted to be a film director. Those were the three things I never did but remember wanting to be.
So how did you end up being a lawyer?
It was a little haphazard. I was in high school, studying Economics (perhaps the result of that desire to study issues related to the Stock Exchange and to work in Management) and, on the eve of enrollment for the 12th year, I decided to change areas and moved on to Area D, which it was the area of Literature and that allowed access to Law. I always had Mathematics, until the 11th grade, and it was a somewhat irrational choice, I never knew how to explain it well. I don't have anyone in my family who is in law, so it wasn't a question of copying examples. I didn't know many lawyers (by the way, maybe, if I did, I'd have chosen another profession), but well, it was like a last minute decision, I don't really know how to explain why.
So, was Law something you were interested in during the course?
Yes, during the course I was a good student, because I liked things and studied, and I realized that Law allowed me to work in almost all areas or work very closely with company management or in more ideological matters. It allowed great plasticity. Despite not knowing what I wanted to do with the course, this was always very clear to me from the beginning of the course. I had a first part in which I dedicated myself more to Administrative Law and then I started to dedicate myself more to Tax Law. Now, in the most recent phase of my career, I've mixed the topics up again, but when I finished the course I didn't really have an idea of what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn't know what area.
“Few people know, but there is already a law that allows us to grow cannabis for medicinal purposes at least since 1970. It was not used, but it already existed. It's even interesting, because it's Decree-Law 420 of 1970, so the number four-twenty.”
And how did controlled substances and cannabis come about?
Like everything in life, it was a combination of several things. In my case, of a personal interest. I've always been very interested in drug issues, long before going into law. I was always very intrigued by everything that had to do with drugs, I read several books, talked to people... I lived in a peripheral neighborhood of Lisbon, where there was a lot of drug consumption and, therefore, I also observed it and it always interested me. Then, at the end of the course, I pick up the issue of the decriminalization of Portuguese law, which reawakened my interest. When I founded this office in 2014, I knew from day one that I wanted to work in the field of controlled substances. I didn't know what, I didn't know what was possible, I'm not a criminal law lawyer, which would allow me to work in the area of controlled substances with people who commit crimes — but that wasn't my goal, because that wasn't my area either —, but I realized that there was beginning to be room for, as a lawyer, to work in an area that was beginning to change, with the existence, in Portugal, of licenses for the planting of opium. With medical cannabis programs taking place around the world, in Germany and Canada, and with Portugal positioning itself to have production in this area, I realized that a topic that interested me in a broad sense – the issue of drug policy – allowed, in an office that I had set up to deal above all with the intellectual and social issues that I was passionate about, space for that. I started to explore and it was a gamble that proved to be right, in the sense that, in that period of time, which goes from 2014 until today, it is a panorama that has evolved immensely and that has opened space as a lawyer on several fronts. Not only in cannabis, but also, more recently, in matters related to the medicinal use, but not only, of psychedelic substances.
How did the specific work with cannabis come about?
It was when I started to set up the office, in 2014, when international companies started to look to Portugal. In my opinion, because Germany had opened up a medicinal market and it was necessary to produce cannabis for the German medicinal market, above all. There was also the Canadian market, but exporting to Canada was more complex, and Portugal got involved with a license that had existed since 2014, to a certain company. But, perceiving the investors, perceiving the Portuguese State and the law being ready for this… few people know, but there is already a law that allows us to grow cannabis for medicinal purposes at least since 1970. It was not used, but it already existed. It's even interesting, because it's Decree-Law 420 of 1970, so the number four-twenty in the Decree-Law amending the drug law to allow the cultivation of cannabis. Since then, Portugal has been able, because the treaties have always allowed it, to cultivate cannabis for authorized purposes, but for many years, as far as I know, it was not used. It only started to be used in 2014. Portugal was a jurisdiction that proved to be open and I think with a great positive effect on local development, even taking into account the geographic dispersion of the various cannabis plantations. And, therefore, having a person like me, who was interested in the matter, it is normal that I positioned myself to, from an early age, work with companies that sought Portugal as a destination to implement their infrastructures. At the same time, I began to be sought after and to work, especially pro bono, with patients, NGOs, activists, individual people who had questions. And for another reason too, because I liked the area a lot, I know a lot about the subject, but I also humbly say… because there was almost no one else. This looks like it was in prehistory. Eight years in cannabis years is like dog years, isn't it? Knowing the law, reading the treaties, reading the comments on the treaties, reading the little that had been written in other countries, making comparisons between Portugal and abroad... It was a job that I always did with a lot of intellectual pleasure, because I liked the subject and I believe in the legal profession, which is a tough profession, and we should try to work on issues that we are passionate about, so that it is much more rewarding, like any profession.
Do you feel, in some way, a pioneer, at least here in Portugal?
I think the expression is too luxurious, ostentatious, for what it is. But, as I said, few people knew, because there was no way to know. Maybe just someone out of intellectual curiosity, except for people defending people accused of trafficking-related crimes. As I am not a Criminal Law lawyer, it is not this area that I am passionate about, but the area of regulation of Public Law, Health Law, International Law and Commercial and European Law of Controlled Substances. There were very few people and even at European level this allowed me to place myself on a plane where, today, I also work with governments, NGOs and foreign companies on matters that have nothing to do with Portugal
How did your family see the fact that you started working with drugs?
My family has always seen well and most people who know me have seen well. In the professional field, I think there were three reactions over time: the first reaction was people getting a little worried and warning me “Watch what you're getting yourself into, be careful, what is this, but you're working with dealers? But then, if you are not working with drug dealers, who are your customers?” As this evolved very quickly and people began to hear about it in the reputed media and on television, we moved on to a second phase more of jokes, that is, people realize that it is an activity like any other, but it has this decoy of being with drugs, and made some jokes. And today, it's a normalization reaction. Many people recognize that I was at a time when few people saw that there was a field of law to develop and some agreed with me. But we only know what they tell us, we don't know what people think and don't tell us, do we? Today there is almost a trivialization that even makes our lives less interesting between us. Nowadays everyone talks about cannabis, even the barber talks about cannabis. As they say: "if the barber is talking about shares, it's time to sell." Here, when the barber talks about cannabis, maybe it's not the sexy topic anymore. I'm saying the barber metaphorically… although there are hair products with CBD! (laughter)
“We cannot assume that there is knowledge on the other side. Our interlocutors often have a great degree of ignorance and it is necessary to appease them with serious and credible information”.
And among your fellow lawyers, did you also hear jokes?
Advocacy is a profession that has something of conservatism, not morality, but more because it is a new thing, which was not known what it was. At the beginning, many offices in Lisbon did not accept clients related to the cannabis area. Today I think everyone accepts it. This is also a reflection of the sociological prejudice that we know in relation to drugs and that is also transferred to professional activity. I think that's natural, I don't see it as a big surprise, as long as people are willing to listen – and many of them were willing to listen, when they realized it was a highly regulated activity. This is one of the most regulated areas of law, which is also something that attracts me a lot, because it is a constant intellectual challenge. Then, realizing this, they quickly understand that this is something that is at the intersection between Pharmaceutical Law and Life Sciences, between the Law of certain substances, for example wine — there are also, in terms of production and cultivation, some similarities , in terms of distribution, it is a fully pharmaceutical business. If one day there is legislation on adult use, it will be similar to the sale of tobacco or alcoholic beverages, as it has been in other countries.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered working in this area?
There is a very important challenge, which I never tire of repeating, and which happens in cannabis but also when we work with psychedelics, which is: we cannot assume that there is knowledge on the other side. Our interlocutors often have a great degree of ignorance and it is necessary to appease them with serious and credible information. We don't have to assume that people know the stages of development of the cannabis plant (which they don't, what they know is the difference between THC and CBD), but eight years ago they knew much less. Sometimes, the doubts they have are due to pure lack of knowledge, not because of prejudice or because they are against it. Another thing that I think is difficult, but when we realize this makes everything easier, is realizing that our interlocutors are afraid. It is normal for them to be afraid. They are afraid that the product will end up where it shouldn't, that they are committing an illegal act, because they are dealing with a controlled substance, and therefore, on the other side, we have the Penal Code. I always say this to my clients: any legal error here has the Penal Code and the crime of drug trafficking, in the broadest sense, on the other side. It is not a fine or a warning or a lawless space. It is a space that is highly regulated, with very large penalties, so things need to be done well, but our interlocutors also know this and, therefore, are afraid. It is necessary to transmit security, knowledge and in this I think that the industry has made a good way in Portugal and it is a reputable industry.
He spoke precisely of the lack of information. Do you think that there is still a lot of lack of information, or misinformation, regarding cannabis?
I think there is a lack of information and misinformation. The medical cannabis law has an article on the need for the State to invest in information. I'm talking, of course, about medical information. This is a type of information that is missing, but even more generic information and sometimes more thoughtful information is missing. It is very common to find information in which cannabis is presented as a panacea or as a safe substance and it is very easy to find a contrary opinion as well. I think there is a lack of more thoughtful, balanced information, showing the positive and negative aspects, but a path has been made. Today, more balanced information on cannabis circulates, but if Portugal decides to move forward with the debate on the legalization of adult use, as Germany is doing, this information must come quickly and in force, in order to have a more informed public policy debate. possible. But in Germany, which is a more developed country than Portugal and richer, they also struggle with this lack of information, it is not exclusive to Portugal.
We have a bill to legalize adult use awaiting discussion in Parliament. What do you think will happen and when?
My prognosis is that, as things continue to move forward in Germany, and that means having confirmation from the European Commission that there is a way to legalize that does not violate European law, as I think there is, if that happens like this, I predict that next year, in 2023, we will have a serious discussion in Parliament of several projects on the matter, which will lead to their approval. If the Socialist Party presents a project, as I know it is the will of many deputies who publicly position themselves on this, I think that we will have legislation there in Portugal, not only by the absolute majority of the Socialist Party, but also by having in Parliament, for the first four parties – Bloco de Esquerda, PAN, Livre and Iniciativa Liberal – ran for election with the legalization of cannabis in their electoral programs. They are smaller parties, naturally, but they demonstrate the breadth of the issue – and I think this is something that is important to mention – that the legalization of cannabis, today, is an issue that transcends the classic boundaries between left and right. When we have Livre, the Bloco de Esquerda, the PAN and the Liberal Initiative defending very close models or defending, in essence, the legalization of cannabis – with somewhat different models, but defending the same essential issue —, this shows that these issues of individual freedom go beyond the left and the right in a very radical way. And people today, as various socio-political phenomena demonstrate, are also a bit fed up with parties aligning themselves with traditional views, so it seems to me that it is a way for traditional parties – and here I am thinking of the PS and the PSD —, signal to their voters that they embrace progressive themes. By the way, in Germany it is the subject of a coalition of the Greens, the SPD and the Liberals, parties that are very different in their histories, in their positions, and I think this is also a sign of good reading of the times by the traditional parties, of get updated.
How do people in society generally perceive cannabis? Do you feel that, more and more, people think everything is cool?
Yes, I think there is a normalization. Cannabis is the most consumed illegal substance, we have 20 years of decriminalization and, therefore, an absolute tolerance in relation to consumption has led to normalization. As I say in my book “Regulate and Protect”, we have police signs warning tourists not to be deceived by cannabis sellers who are selling them laurel. Blonde doesn't hurt anyone. If the police warns someone “if you want to buy cannabis, make sure you are buying cannabis and don't buy blonde”… In fact, the police poster saying “it's cheaper in the supermarket” is absolute proof of the normalization of cannabis as a substance that is massively consumed and I think that CBD stores reinforce this perception. As I said a moment ago, the normalization of a substance that is not regulated has advantages, in the sense of losing the stigma, etc., but it has disadvantages, because that substance, the cannabis that is on sale today, is not regulated, so it is normalizing something that has no guarantees as to its quality, potency, sales channel, as to the people who can buy it and who cannot buy it… We are, perhaps, starting to reach a situation – and that is why many countries are regular – where we are left with the worst of both worlds. This is also not positive for people who think that cannabis, which is a product that has its risks and has its potential, deserves to be regulated like others. This normalization I think is a plateau what we have arrived at, which can only be followed by regulation; indeed, it seems to me that this is the case in Germany. And what is happening, ironically for some, in the Netherlands, who think that the tolerance policy they had for 30 or 40 years no longer sufficiently protects people and, therefore, it is necessary to take a step forward and have a more coherent policy and more adult, which regulates not only the stores, but also the production, sale, distribution and cultivation.
“Despite growing up hearing the opposite, most people who use drugs do not develop problem use. This is proven in more conservative and less conservative studies.”
And regarding access, do you agree with self-cultivation or just selling in specialized stores?
I have a personal position there and then a more institutional position. Personally, I think people should be able to grow whatever they want at home, so my libertarian position is that, of course, self-cultivation shouldn't even be an issue. It's a personal position. Now, if I think it plausible that, if in a country that is taking the first steps in regulating cannabis, self-cultivation should be an issue that, if it isn't there, cannabis shouldn't be regulated, I don't think so; I think that, pragmatically, self-cultivation is something that can be dispensed with at first, for the worst reasons, because self-cultivation generates scares, generates fear, drug issues often generate fear, as I said a moment ago, which is very unfounded, but people may be afraid. For example, arguments you hear (I'm using things that have been discussed in other countries): “Well, if there's a THC limit, people at home will grow stronger than the THC limit” or “People will grow at home to sell”. I understand these fears theoretically, but in practice I could say the same about alcohol as well. People can make stronger absinthe at home, etc, but they don't. The proportionality of this measure, I think it does not exist in practice, because, knowing the cannabis environment today as I do, the number of people who would successfully dedicate themselves to self-cultivation (because wanting to have a plant is different from getting the plant grow and have the power you want), it is so minimal, and these people do not consume it and go sell it is even a smaller number, that the prohibition of self-cultivation seems disproportionate to me. Now, it seems to me entirely to be expected that it will appear in legislative projects, in the sense of a 'bartering chip'.
So, you're in favor of self-cultivation, but could you give it up if it were an obstacle to regulation?
Personally, I'm in favor of it, but I think it's going to have to be dispensed with. Where self-cultivation seems to me to be more difficult to do without, paradoxically, is medical cannabis. If there is evidence that a particular variety or potency is specific to a patient or pathology and the market does not offer that solution, then it seems to me more difficult to ban those people. By the way, the history of medicinal cannabis begins with the self-cultivation of patients in many countries. There even seems to me the argument stronger than on the other side, but even there self-cultivation was prohibited. Cultivation remains a crime, as we know.
Yes and, practically every day, we see the GNR seize one, two plants…
The GNR complies with the law. Then I do not side with those that I know exist who criticize. I think the authorities comply with the law. Of course, the law is always open to interpretation, but I don't think we should blame the police for complying with the law. The law is unfair and has to be changed. The way I think about the life I lead is this: the law is unfair and we must fight to change the law. Because I'm sure that the GNR who seized a plant is not happy either, but it's his job. Now, if we think that the law is unfair, as citizens we must do everything we can to change that law, we must concentrate our fight there and that is what has been done in several countries, that is what is happening right now in the world. As everyone realizes the flaws of prohibitionism – and every week we have news, now with the Czech Republic, with President Biden granting pardons, European countries saying that it is necessary to change the status quo, like Germany, Malta and Luxembourg – things move forward and are moving forward at this point in our lives and that is very, very interesting.
Germany is not particularly fond of the decriminalization scenario as we have here, precisely because consumption is decriminalized, but people are not given alternatives so as not to have to resort to the informal market.
Yeah, Germany even said that decriminalizing consumption is hypocritical (I think it's even in a document). This is unfair if it is seen as a Portuguese accusation, for Portugal, because we cannot forget that our decriminalization does not arise because of cannabis, it arises because of heroin. That is, Portugal, 20 years ago, when it decriminalized, it did so because of heroin, and it was difficult to make a regulated heroin market at that time! If people still don't talk about it today... 20 years ago it would have been more difficult. When talking about cannabis, yes, then I realize that it is hypocrisy, above all. In Germany there are 4 million people who regularly consume a substance without any problem and are not being arrested for it. What Germany is saying is “we have to regulate this.”
Do you think that Germany will be able to overcome the European Union barrier, in terms of international conventions/laws?
Yes, more from the European Union, because the conventions of the United Nations everyone has already realized that the practice of the States is a practice that will legalize in a controlled manner and, therefore, will guarantee the spirit of the conventions, which is not to harm other countries. But it will (as Canada did, which is not a revolutionary country), of course, be something clearly contrary to the spirit of the conventions, although still within the spirit of the conventions, because it is controlled and regulated legislation. Portugal was also criticized by the United Nations when it decriminalized in 2000 and it is normal to see an evolution in the application. In European law there is a more concrete question, which is to know if there are European States that can sue Member States that legalize before the European Court, and Germany, aware of this question, is trying to understand whether European decisions on the matter ( although the EU does not have much competence in the field of drugs) are compatible with an interpretation, and I think so, of saying that they only apply if a country does not legalize or decriminalize a little savagely. If a country has an instrument, a legislative building that grants all the security and guarantees that that product is sold and cultivated, but with guarantees that it will not, inadvertently, end up in other countries, it does not seem to me that it violates European legal instruments.
A curious thing that I liked to read in your book was that 90% of people do not develop a problem with consumption. But, although there is no problematic consumption, the laws are made, however, thinking about the remaining 10% who will develop addiction or problems of abuse...
This is much studied; laws related to drugs, for various reasons, have an almost semantic control of reality or magical thinking objective, saying “I will ban this, and therefore this will not be used, because this is bad” and forget, or want to forget, two things: the first is why people use drugs and the second is that there are areas of life where the law cannot prohibit: sexual behavior, crimes of whether or not I profess a religion and drug-related issues. It is not a theoretical hypothesis! It has been tested that it does not work to forbid people to take substances to alter their consciousness. Having been proven ad nauseam over 60 years, it is now time, in my opinion and that of many people, to experiment with new models, but it is often easier, in political discourse as a way of dealing with different things, to think that the law works because it is written . Carlos Drummond de Andrade has a very beautiful verse, which is “lilies are not born of the law”. We cannot kill people's hunger through the law. Nor can we prohibit them from doing something they are going to do anyway, so the law has to think about why it is prohibiting it. Is it because there is a substance that is harmful? There's a lot that goes wrong, but if you look at the science, what is problematic substance use doesn't happen to most people. Despite what we grew up hearing to the contrary, most people who use drugs do not develop problem use. This is proven in more conservative and less conservative studies. We might say, "Okay, so let's look at concrete substances." Yes, it is easier to develop problematic heroin use than LSD. LSD does not develop addiction; heroin develops addiction more easily, it's true! Even so, we are on a spectrum that is not the majority of people and, therefore, in a perspective more of proportionality of means and risks that are caused by the prohibition itself, with the promotion of trafficking, with the associated criminality, with the treatment of the person who uses drugs, often discriminatoryly, in countries that did not decriminalize them, treating them as criminals, etc., is today proven to have created an evil greater than the good it sought to achieve. Resources are allocated to a police repressive mechanism that is ineffective... After publishing my book, I had several people in the area of Justice send emails or messages saying “I spent my time doing a job that was to arrest people who, poor things, not only were they miserable from an economic point of view, but when that one was in prison, another one appeared”. A law that allows this is not a law that manages to shape behavior and the law only exists if it manages to be effective. If I make a law to prohibit something and I cannot prohibit that thing, on a scale like this – of course there is always a breach of the law, but it is not on this scale – if I have 600.000 people who use cannabis annually in Portugal, it's because someone sells it to them, so the sale of cannabis is there, like anywhere else in the world. The United Nations itself recognizes the failure of the prohibitionist model. I spoke to a group of doctors two or three days ago and I told them that there is a law that says that I cannot practice medicine without having a medical degree. This ban works! There is always a case that appears in the news of the gentleman who gave consultations at Hospital de Santa Maria, but who was not a doctor, but this is an anecdotal case. This ban works. The ban on driving on the left side of the road when driving on the right side works; we look out the window and people are almost all on the right side (of course, sometimes there is someone in the opposite direction). Now, there are areas where the Sociology of Law and social practice demonstrate that it is impossible to prohibit and, if it is impossible to prohibit, then there is a duty to find alternatives. It's not encouraging consumption, it's not treating controlled substances like Vitalis water, that's not it, of course not! But it means treating them with the dangers they pose and, above all, providing information for people to make responsible choices, because they already make the choices. I always give an example, which is not mine, I saw it in a book: I have paracetamol in my pantry and it causes dozens of deaths if consumed in excess, things I didn't even know when I started studying. I didn't know it was possible to overdose on acetaminophen and it's very common unfortunately. But at my house, it's next to the tuna cans. And all of us, also from a more libertarian perspective, are free to practice acts that harm us, to eat sugar, to eat fat, not to exercise. undertones from criticism to pleasure.
How do your children see their professional father, who works with drugs?
One of my daughters, in the 5th or 6th grade, had the police visit her room for a drug awareness campaign (prevention, naturally). The policemen, very friendly, asked a lot of questions and she said she answered everything right and I was a little afraid of having a visitor at home. (laughs) I didn't even ask many questions. They are very informed, they love to carry the conference bags that say “Cannabis”, they think it is the most cool of the world. I observe that a disengaged conversation about substances even takes some of the attractiveness out of substances. I think that something the father works on is something that he wants less than something the father doesn't know what it is, and it's interesting to see that. There's not the fascination that I had – and that I think we all have – when something is said to be taboo or not talked about at all. I also notice in today's generation that when the legalization of cannabis is discussed, they hardly even realize what we are talking about, in the sense that it is a substance that they see so widely available in society, in the schools they attend, etc. who hardly realize what the struggle is. Of course, they realize that it is sold in a way that is not like in supermarkets, but there is absolute normalization, with the good and the bad, and we need to look at both sides, the good and the bad. But there really is a normalization, I don't think it's a very sexy topic anymore.
Finally, if you weren't a lawyer, what would you like to do at this stage of your life?
I would like to lead a global NGO that fights for drug policies based on human rights.
A portion of this interview was originally published in issue #8 of Cannadouro Magazine.
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