Most Brazilians are against legalizing drugs, with two-thirds of adults saying that smoking marijuana should remain prohibited by law, according to Datafolha, Brazil’s most renowned polling institute. However, data shows that medical marijuana is already a reality in Brazil. Over the past three and a half years, over 78,000 units of cannabis-based products have been (legally) brought into the country.
Brazil’s National Sanitary Vigilance Agency (Anvisa) first authorized the therapeutic use of cannabinoids in January 2015. The regulating agency allowed the use of Metavyl, a treatment against muscle stiffness for multiple sclerosis patients. Metavyl contains THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.
Cannabis oil has also been used for patients with microcephaly (a congenital malformation characterized by small head size). In many patients from Bahia, the use of the oil has drastically reduced the number of seizures and epileptic attacks in children.
But bureaucracy is an issue, as well as elevated prices. Parents of children with microcephaly must pay BRL 1,500 for 30 milliliters of the oil. “The truth is that we can’t buy the medicine. We did it one time, but will we be able to do it a second time? That’s what we ask ourselves,” says Suzana, the mother of a two-year-old who used to have seven to ten seizures a day. With the use of cannabis oil, the baby could sometimes go entire days without attacks.
The high price of treatments has led 46 families to file suit against Brazil’s public healthcare system, asking the government to pay for the import of the cannabis-based products.
Buying medical marijuana is not an easy ordeal in Brazil. A patient must get a prescription from a doctor and then jump through a series of regulatory hoops imposed by Anvisa. These include filling out a form with personal information, as well as information from the doctor. It is also necessary to present a medical report justifying the use of the drug, the necessary amount and time of treatment. Moreover, patients need to sign a declaration saying that they will not use the medicine in any other way.
With an authorization (valid for one year) in hands, it is possible to buy products from international websites and get permission from customs to import the product.
For Margarete Brito, member of an association in support of cannabis-related medical research, the process is far too complicated for most patients. “Many families are not able to import and often end up buying from the illegal market,” she complains. “Also, many doctors don’t even prescribe these medicines, as they know that the patient won’t be able to get his hands on it.”
Production of medical marijuana in Brazil
Brazil’s Justice system has recently allowed families to grow cannabis at home to treat some diseases. The first such case was in November 2016, as a Rio de Janeiro court authorized a family to grow marijuana at home to treat their seven-year-old daughter who suffered from a rare type of epilepsy. “There is no doubt that, in this case, growing [cannabis] bears no relation to drug trafficking,” said the judge of the case.
Since then, other judges have ruled in line with this decision.
But producing medicine on a larger scale remains illegal in Brazil. As these medicines are unregistered in Brazil, Anvisa stresses that it cannot guarantee its safety or efficacy. Several associations have recently filed suit to be granted the right to produce medical marijuana and help thousands of patients who haven’t responded to more traditional treatments.
Breaking the taboo
In 2011, Brazil’s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso took part in a documentary about the war on drugs. “Breaking the Taboo” explored the conclusion of the Global Commission on Drug Policy that liberalization is the best approach in dealing with drug policy.
While lawmakers passed the 2006 Drug Law with the intent of decriminalizing drug use, it has had the opposite effect. The law increased the minimum jail time for trafficking from three to five years. Furthermore, it allows the police to decide on the spot whether a person is carrying drugs to use or sell.
Unable to provide a proper defense, those caught with minuscule amounts of drugs can end up in jail for years. While inside, they are often recruited by gang leaders in order to survive prison violence and obtain livable conditions.
Since the law was passed, Brazil’s prison population has increased by 339 percent.