Brazil Gains Ground on Medical Marijuana, in Defiance of Bolsonaro

    In June, after a series of delays, a special commission of Brazil’s lower house of Congress finally voted on Bill 399/2015, which would permit the cultivation and sale of medical-use cannabis by licensed sellers. It was approved by a vote of 18 to 17, and will move to the Senate. Right-wing lawmakers are doing everything they can do stop it. 

    The vote represents a massive rebuke of authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet and its brutal campaign against cannabis, including for medical use. Ahead of the voting session, Bolsonaro called the measure a “shitty bill” and falsely conflated the regulation of the plant for medicinal purposes with full adult-use legalization.

    That narrative fits his administration’s lethal prohibitionist agenda. He has promised to veto the bill if the Senate approves it. Chamber of Deputies Member Diego Garcia, of the right-wing Podemos party, has already filed a petition against it signed by 129 lawmakers.

    Supporters of the legislation argue that permitting domestic cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes will lower the cost of pharmaceuticals derived from the plant, which are hard to access and extremely expensive. The National Sanitary Surveillance Agency approved regulations for the rollout of medical cannabis products in 2019, but such products are costly for consumers because the marijuana itself must be imported.

    “I don’t have a permit for cultivation. But the people who buy my oil really need it and don’t have the money to buy it in the pharmacy.”

    “Yes, you can buy cannabis oil in pharmacies, but a 200 mg or 30 ml bottle costs around [$500],” Jay*, an unlicensed São Paulo-based seller who operates his services out of his home, told Filter. “Some physicians prescribe three bottles per month … that’s almost the amount of eight minimum wages in our country.”

    Jay started selling medical cannabis products more than two years ago, in order to help his best friend’s son access the CBD he needed to manage his epilepsy. Now, he’s dedicated to providing fairly priced CBD oil to any Brazilian who has a medical need for it. He sells 25 ml bottles for the equivalent of $40, plus cost of shipping, to hundreds of families around the country’s South and Southeast regions who contact him over WhatsApp. As often as possible, he delivers orders by hand in order to spare his clients that added cost.

    “It’s activism based on civil disobedience, man,” Jay said. “I don’t have a permit for cultivation or for processing the oil. But the people who buy my oil really need it and don’t have the money to buy it in the pharmacy. You have Alzheimer’s? You gotta take your CBD. You have fibromyalgia? You just have to take it. They need the oil to go on with their lives.”


    An Uphill Battle

    Domestic cultivation would be a game-changer for medical marijuana patients in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s allies have repeatedly tried to obstruct such legislation by all means possible. In the previous Congressional meeting on May 18, Garcia punched Special Commission Chairman Paulo Teixeira (of the left-wing Workers Party). Garcia later denied he assaulted Teixeira, who has been a vocal supporter of medical and adult-use legalization.

    The false argument that authorizing medical cannabis would result in “dangerous,” “total liberation” of the plant was raised many times during the June 8 voting session“All those who defend this bill are weed smokers,” said Pastor Eurico (Patriota, a right-wing party), claiming that cannabis “destroys families.”

    Sóstenes Cavalcante (DEM, a center-right party) and Eli Borges (Solidariedade, a moderate party) accused the lawmakers backing the bill of using it as a smokescreen to authorize all manner of unregulated cultivation. “This is not a good moment for Brazil,” Borges said. “I refer to the Brazil of desperate parents of children who use drugs.” 

    Emotional appeals to “think of the children” are a time-honored tradition in prohibitionist discourse. Dr. Osmar Terra (MDB, a center-right party), a close Bolsonaro ally, said during the session that he wanted to warn constituents that “what is being voted here today, with the excuse of helping a few sick people, is legalization … especially to the youth.” He did not, of course, mention the thousands of Brazilians, including children, who need affordable medical cannabis to improve their quality of life.

    Also missing from Terra’s commentary was any mention of Brazilian pharmaceutical giant Prati-Donaduzzi’s monopoly on the country’s CBD production. Prati-Donaduzzi, which recently obtained a 20-year patent to produce cannabis oil, is currently the only corporation allowed to process medical CBD in Brazil. The patent has been criticized by scientists and left-wing politicians, including Chairman Teixeira.

    Terra, a medical doctor, claimed without evidence that cannabis causes permanent brain damage, and that cannabis oil causes more harm than smoking a joint. He called Bill 399/2015 a “monstrosity” and maintained that the special commission was “created to legalize drugs.” It fits his long record of denying medical science to suit his political interests.

    “Thousands of patients are dying preventable deaths. This is the result of a government that doesn’t use science as a basis for decision-making.”

    Terra, who served as Bolsonaro’s minister of citizenship from January 2019 to February 2020, is directly responsible for the excessive COVID deaths ravaging Brazil. Since the first days of the pandemic, he forcefully opposed lockdowns, downplaying both the severity of the crisis and the need for vaccination. He was recently summoned to appear in a Congressional inquiry investigating Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the emergency.

    “Thousands of patients are dying preventable deaths [from COVID]. This is the result of a government that doesn’t use science as a basis for decision-making,” Dr. Carolina Nocetti, a pioneer of medical cannabis in Brazil, told Filter.

    She drew parallels between the current administration’s response to COVID and its approach to marijuana. “As a doctor, I have a professional obligation to bring out the best for my patients. It is an ethical, professional issue to bring relief when there is the possibility to do so. A physician has no right to be prejudiced.”

    During the voting session, Congresswoman Jandira Feghali (Communist Party), a physician and the leader of the minority in the lower house, called out the administration’s disregard for scientific evidence and for the suffering of sick and disabled Brazilians.

    “It is exactly the cultivation [of cannabis] that makes [medicine] cheaper,” Feghali said. “Voting against this bill means favoring the pharmaceutical industry, it means favoring an expensive medicine. [Terra], who got all puffed up when he talked about science, is the same one who said that the pandemic would end in June last year.”



    Photograph via Pixabay

    * Name has been changed at source’s request

    • Felipe is a Brazilian anthropologist. He’s a criminology lecturer at the University of Manchester, where he researches drug policy, state violence, structural racism and reparations for historical inequalities. He lives in London.

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