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Cannabis in Brazil

How the Far Right Has Endangered Medical Cannabis in Brazil

The 2018 Brazilian Presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro marked the ascension of the far-right into the halls of power, a movement that was already sprouting for years in the South American nation. As a result, human rights, culture, science, and other areas have been limited, including medical cannabis, a line of medicine that is already plagued by high costs in a country struggling with economic and political turmoil and the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Cannabis in Brazil: The Beginning

In 2014, a civil action permitted the family of Anny Fischer, a young girl who suffered from epilepsy to import cannabidiol (CBD). Still, there is a long road for the patients and their relatives who are relying on medical cannabis, an issue lawyer and activist Margarete Brito knows well. 

Brito is the Executive Coordinator of APEPI (Support for Research and Patients of Medical Cannabis), an association formed in 2016 that has been delivering medical cannabis oil at a more affordable cost to approximately 15,000 patients.

In 2019, Anvisa, the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency, allowed the research, production and sale of medicine from imported CBD. The first product, a 30-millilitre bottle containing 200 milligrams of CBD per millilitre came at the price of R$2,500 (CAD$549.13).

Cannabis in Brazil
Maragarete Brito is the executive coordinator of Apepi. She is also a lawyer. (Photo courtesy Apepi)

Today, the imported medicine from American Revivid costs R$1,500 (CAD$329.48) while Apepi’s oil is R$150 (CAD$32.95). Brazil is ranked the ninth-largest economy in the world, but remains one of the most unequal, with a minimum wage of R$1,100 (CAD$219.65) per month. 

Political Opposition to Cannabis in Brazil is Strong

The main antagonists of medical cannabis in Brazil are Congressman Osmar Terra, a physician and former Minister of Citizenship in the Bolsonaro administration, and Damares Alves, an attorney and evangelical pastor currently serving as Minister of Human Rights, Family and Women. In December 2020, Alves published a booklet in which he misrepresented the medical cultivation of cannabis.

“In regards to the so-called ‘medical’ marijuana, it is important to note that the therapeutic use of marijuana and its components is still extremely restricted, having little evidence for use,” reads a line in the booklet, which was subsequently bashed by mainstream media for quoting only academic studies aligned to Alves’ ideology. 

“It opens the doors for general (drug) consuming,” declared Terra on legalizing the cultivation of cannabis for medical use during the Senate Commission on Human Rights and Participative Legislation in September 2019.

Brito, one of Brazil’s foremost medical cannabis activists, gave an exclusive interview to Cannabis Health. 

“In order to stop it (medical cannabis), they throw everything in the same group and just say they are very dangerous,” she said. “Hence, there are very assertive actions from conservatives to move forward their agenda.”

Fake news tactics, as those in the government’s booklet, are employed mostly by extremist movements, be it far-right or far-left, as believes Raphael Tsavkko, Brazilian journalist and doctor in human rights from University of Deusto, who is currently residing in Belgium. 

“Extremists—and the current Brazilian government is extreme to the right—have been using fake news to promote their agendas, whatever that may be,” he said. 

“Medical cannabis ends up getting caught in the gunfire. Religious fundamentalist groups, so-called ‘defenders of the family’ which now occupy the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, are famous for using fake news to prevent social advances, and marijuana (medical or recreational) is one of the targets.” 

Scientists vs. the Government

Neuroscientist Renato Malcher Lopes, Ph.D., from University of Brasília’s department of physiological science, has for long studied the benefits of medical cannabis and campaigned for its expansion. Malcher recognizes the studies of pioneering scientists Elisaldo Carline and José Ribeiro do Vale and how the study of cannabis in Brazil has spread to other renowned national universities. 

Cannabis in Brazil
Neuroscientist Renato Malcher Lopes, Ph.D., teaches at University of Brasília’s department of physiological science.

In the opposing corner lies names like Terra, whom Malcher describes via email to Cannabis Health as “the king of fake news, an everlasting source of misinformation for the detractors of medical cannabis and to all that deny the pandemic.” For example, because of Terra and other leaders that deny the risk of the Covid-19 pandemic as President Bolsonaro, Brazil is second in infections and deaths, as shown by a Johns Hopkins University study.

Malcher still sees obstacles from other conservative sectors of Brazilian society, including from health professionals who although are very qualified, come in general from the elite and bring biased visions affected by market beliefs, classism and conservatism, he said.

“One example is the impact of the economic interest of professionals who also own rehab clinics in this debate,” attested Malcher via email. Said players highly value an alarmist and “satanizing” view of cannabis, putting into motion the criminalization of cannabis and the compulsory internment of users. 

Malcher also points that they mainly come from the psychiatry field, and have little to no experience with clinical use of cannabis and its derivatives. 

“They are heavy deniers of the mere existence of the concept of medical cannabis,” he said. “These groups are politically converging with fundamentalist religious zealots who also own institutions for addiction and rehabilitation, and are echoing the fundamentalist science-denial mentality of the Brazilian government.” 

On the other hand, Malcher recalls some “laudable cases of medical clinics and therapeutic communities for drug users” as positive examples, and notes not to generalize every clinic.

How the Far-Right Movement Has Slowed Cannabis Legislation

The far-right and its narrowed vision are not only limited to Brazil, as the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the rise of Matteo Salvini as Deputy Prime Minister of Italy have served as proof. 

In Brazil it found fertile soil, especially after the impeachment process that ousted President Dilma Rousseff when Bolsonaro, then a Congressman, choose to vote her out. In doing so, he recalled her darkest moments during the Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964 – 1985) by paying tribute to Colonel Brilhante Ulstra, who tortured her during that time. After Rousseff’s ousting, then Vice-President Michel Temer, a neo-liberal politician with his name embroiled in corruption schemes took over. Bolsonaro, who succeeded him, was already known for his racist and sexist speeches.

For Raphael Tsavkko, in general Brazilian society perceives medical cannabis, “pretty much like recreational marijuana.” 

“They mostly oppose and hardly understand the difference between recreational use and medical use,” he said. “Support for decriminalization has grown year after year but has not yet reached the majority of the population.” Tsavkko’s perception mirrors that of the aforementioned political players.

Cannabis in Brazil
Raphael Tsavkko is a Brazilian journalist and has a doctorate degree in human rights from the University of Deusto.

“The government is applying effort to put in motion an anti-science, anti-knowledge revolution leading to a neo-inquisition and a neo-Pentecostal, neo-liberal state that might end in the burning of not only books and public universities but also scientists and educators”, affirms Malcher, painting a grim picture.

Cannabis in Brazil: Over Six Years Running

Cannabis legislation was first introduced in 2015. The Congress Bill PL 399/2015 to regulate the cultivation, processing, research, production and commercialization of products from cannabis aimed for medical and industrial ends, has since been heavily debated but has not passed. Many politicians have blamed the pandemic for the slow pace.

Congresswoman Bia Kicis, who was appointed this year as Chair of the Constitution, Justice and Citizenship Committee, declared in September in a public session that she was favourable to the sale but not to the planting of medical cannabis in Brazil. Kicis is a known supporter of Bolsonaro, anti-abortion, a Covid-19 pandemic “denier” and has her name attached to fake news scandals. She was also pointed by the Brazilian investigative outlet Agência Pública as a supporter of the Capitol invasion in the U.S.

In Brito’s eyes, it isn’t the pandemic that plays a major issue to the voting of the bill, but the fact that moderate centre-right former President of the Chamber of Deputies Rodrigo Maia left his position earlier this year. He was favourable to the bill but was substituted by Bolsonaro’s ally Arthur Lira.

“This is an agenda that [Lira] will hardly promote. Not only considering the political scenario, but also a little bit because of the pandemic. In the end I still believe that this situation is more caused by the divisive political scenario we are living in,” explains Brito.

For Brito, the bill has to undergo many changes, such as granting more access to associations like Apepi so that more medicine, including their artisanal oils, becomes available. 

Cannabis in Brazil
Sprouting cannabis plants at Apepi. (Photo courtesy Apepi)
Cannabis in Brazil
Cannabis growing at Apepi. (Photo courtesy Apepi)
Healthy cannabis plants at Apepi’s farm. (Photo courtesy Apepi)

“This bill is still very backwards,” said Brito. 

Meanwhile, Apepi is working in league with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a scientific institution focused on research and development in biological sciences, which is invested in seeing the appropriate changes to regulation. The foundation is “strongly articulated and engaged in improving the bill in what refers to the association’s right to cultivate.”

As the matter is surrounded by juridical instability, Apepi’s injunction has failed. The organization still operates in a scenario some might view as illegal but not immoral, as Apepi’s struggle started with mothers defending the medicine for their children who suffered from epilepsy.

As I ask what will become of Apepi’s legacy, Brito returns in a solemn yet calm tone: “I believe the legacy is: civil disobedience, resisting the prohibiting law, and the will to create a green pharmacy project. The bill mentions such a pharmacy, but doesn’t contemplate the production chain and the manner in which the associations are fulfilling it.” 

Medical cannabis has a long way to go in a land that once was called “the country of the future.”