“Giant by thine own nature” is probably the only plausible line in the Brazilian national anthem. Brazil’s territory has humongous fertile areas and climatic zones that favour the cultivation of vegetal species, including cannabis. Researchers from the Federal University of Viçosa, in Minas Gerais, argue that the country has the potential to become the biggest producer of cannabis in the world, and guarantee the most affordable price for seed, buds, and fibre in the global market. This, in turn, would allow the local pharmaceutical industry to provide cheap cannabis-based medicine for Brazilian patients, an argument defended by Jandira Feghali (Communist Party) during the voting session of Bill 399/2015.
Mrs. Feghali, a physician and the leader of the minority in the Congress, denounced far-right lawmakers’ attempts to hinder the regulation of medical cannabis through biased medical discourses disguised as science. This anti-cannabis ideology violates the human rights of several vulnerable citizens who cannot access life-restoring medicine that could be either easily grown in their backyard or prescribed for free by a physician through the Universal Health System (SUS in Portuguese).
“It is cruel to keep a patient in pain when there is a solution to their problem,” Dr. Carolina Nocetti, a physician who pioneered cannabis therapy in Brazil, told TalkingDrugs. “We have scientific studies about the benefits of cannabis therapy, and it is a physician’s obligation to sit down and study about it, as much as it is our moral obligation, as human beings, to bring relief to those who need relief. It is essential for any government to seek the best quality of life for its citizens. Within the Code of Medical Ethics, there is a part aimed at beneficence and non-maleficence, and these are the two ethical principles that need to be considered in decision-making,” Dr. Nocetti stressed.
A 200mg/ml bottle of CBD oil approved for selling in Brazilian pharmacies costs circa £335,00. In 2019, about half of the Brazilian population, over 100 mi people, lived on less than £60,00 per month. Source: Drogaria São Paulo.
In a context where we have a physician like congressman Osmar Terra advocating against medical cannabis, it is important to consider who “is or is not following the principles of medical ethics” in this whole process, as Dr. Nocetti has rightfully pointed out.
In July 2019 Rodrigo Maia (DEM), then president of the lower house of the Congress, created a special commission to debate and vote a bill to regulate medical cannabis. Fábio Mitidieri (PSD), author of bill 399/2015, was confident. When the bill was first proposed, in 2015, the conservative president of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha (MDB, a centre-right party), shelved it. But Maia had named 34 congresspersons to deliberate on it, and Mitidieri believed that the piece of legislation would be approved by the end of 2020. It seemed that it was only a matter of time until cannabis products hit the shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets around the country. Things did not, however, work out that way.
Bill 399/2015 was voted on 8 June 2021, after many postponements and episodes of abuse and truculence orchestrated by far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s allies. Far-Right and Centrão parties’ lawmakers used their speaking time to disseminate unproved rumours about the alleged danger of cultivating cannabis in Brazil, mobilising discourses and narratives without evidence. They played all the sad, tired old cards again, claiming that cannabis use causes brain damage, that it is a gateway drug, and that it destroys lives and families. In a classic move, several congresspersons sought to conflate the regulation of medical cannabis with legalisation for adult use without medical prescription. Arguments about drug trafficking and violence were brought to the discussion, but not a single word about the death toll of drug wars in Brazilian shanty towns and borders.
What seemed like a great leap forward in terms of citizens right to access life-saving medicine has bumped into the reactionary wall of the Brazilian president’s base. Following Bolsonaro’s promise to ringfence and hamper access to medical cannabis, his allies in the special commission pledged to obstruct the passing of the bill into law. Two weeks after the 18-17 voting in favour of the measure, conservative congressman Diego Garcia (PODE) filed a petition signed by 129 congresspersons, and now it will be passed on to the lower house plenary instead of following straight to the Senate.
The Right to Live and Be Healthy
There are a few initiatives and organisations officially authorised to cultivate or distribute cannabis to patients, but there is also an ever growing number of people who decide to act in civil disobedience in order to access the right to live and be healthy. Catarina is one of them, and she cultivates for her own use.
Before learning about and experimenting with the extraction of full spectrum cannabis oil, Catarina, a 34 year old manager from São Paulo, had constant anxiety and panic crises. Almost ten years ago, anxiety led her to develop depression. She has also suffered from insomnia and migraines for a long time, and the cannabis oil helps her to lead a pain-free life and to have restful sleep. “Without the oil, I’d have to give in to allopathic medicine. I’d have to take several pills; one for anxiety, another one for insomnia, one for menstrual cramps, one for headaches, and so on and so forth,” she told TalkingDrugs. “To summarise it: cannabis has restored my quality of life,” she concluded. Catarina also told TalkingDrugs that her health insurance plan does not cover the high prices of cannabis oil, and that many of the physicians she has visited have discouraged her from pursuing this sort of therapy. She has invested in online cultivation courses, books, and other learning material to start her own cannabis garden. In the end, gardening has also become part of her cannabis therapy.
Catarina’s right to grow cannabis and extract life-saving medicine from it is currently a criminal offence in Brazil. If a citizen needs to grow the plant and process medicine from it they need a judicial authorisation. This, of course, demands an expenditure with solicitors and courts that a huge percentage of the Brazilian population cannot afford. And the alternative, as previously mentioned, is a costly cannabis oil manufactured with imported raw material.
During a previous discussion on the piece of legislation held in the lower house plenary on May 26, Paulo Teixeira (Workers Party), chairman of the special commission, said that “we are going to lower the price of this product” if Bill 399 passes. “More than lowering the price, we are going to create an environment for Brazilian patients to access this cutting-edge scientific, medical, and pharmacological treatment. Why can an American cancer patient treat the side effects of chemotherapy with cannabis-based products, and a Brazilian patient can’t?”
*Felipe Neis Araujo is a Brazilian anthropologist concerned with drug policies, state violence, structural racism, and repair for historical inequalities. He writes a monthly article for TalkingDrugs. Contact him at email@example.com.