One farm in the Brazilian mountains is taking on a huge task, bringing relief to thousands of patients by producing medical cannabis despite all the odds stacked against them. The passion project and NGO behind it are changing lives, and facing down regulatory hurdles, social prejudices, and Bolsonaro’s restrictive regime to bring medical cannabis products to patients throughout the country.
Surrounded by barbed wire and an electric fence, cannabis plants flourish in the bright sunshine of a farm in a mountainous region outside Rio de Janeiro.
But this farm has nothing to do with drug trafficking. It belongs, in fact, to a pioneering Brazilian NGO involved in the production of medical cannabis to help patients suffering from seizures.
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A personal project to bring Brazilian patients medical cannabis
Margarete Brito, a lawyer by training, started growing cannabis several years ago to relieve the seizures of her daughter Sofia, now 12, who suffers from epilepsy.
After seeing her condition improve, Brito decided to help other Brazilian patients gain access to cannabis as well. So she founded the Medical Cannabis Research and Patient Support Association, or Apépi, which produces homemade cannabis-based therapeutic oils to help patients with conditions similar to her daughter’s.
This work has taken a lot of effort, as cannabis cultivation remains illegal in Brazil.
“If we follow the letter of the law, there is nothing that allows us to do it,” Brito told AFP.
Cannabis is a complicated crop in Brazil
Margarete Brito and her husband, Marcos Langenbach, were able to obtain an unprecedented judicial approval to grow cannabis for medical purposes in 2016 however.
Today, their farm – about a two-hour drive from the Brazilian metropolis – has 2,000 plants growing to help patients with severe autism, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
And despite initial suspicions and misgivings from some, Brito says the organization has support in Brazil. “We have real social legitimacy. That’s what protects us,” Brito said, “though people still have prejudices.”
On a recent visit to the farm, which is protected by an electric fence and barbed wire, agricultural engineer Diogo Fonseca made his way among marijuana plants growing in large black pots and marked with the names of their different varieties: Purple Wreck, Schanti, Doctor, Harle Tsu, Solaire, CBG.
These plants are used to produce therapeutic oils that meet the individual needs of each patient, depending on whether they require a higher or lower dose of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychotropic substance with a relaxing effect.
Using a handheld microscope, Fonseca examines each plant to determine the ideal time for harvesting.
In April, armed police with sniffer dogs raided the farm after someone who had been working on renovating his lab reported Apepi to the authorities.
“A lot of people are prejudiced,” said Brito. “We explain to everyone how our project works, but this person thought we were drug dealers and was informed against us,” said Manoel Caetano, director of the farm.
The police eventually realized the farm was a medical cannabis plantation, apologized and left, according to Brito.
More accessible cannabis for Brazilian patients with Epilepsy or other medical conditions
Apepi has forged partnerships with respected scientific institutions, such as the Fiocruz Foundation and the University of Campinas. And it has grown fivefold in the last two years and now has 1,500 members.
Among them is Gabriel Guerra, 19, who suffers from a severe form of autism and cerebral palsy. When he was eight years old, he had 60 seizures a day. “But when he started taking the personalized oil” – a few drops three times a day – “the attacks stopped. He started to have more independence, to look for ways to communicate,” explained his father Ricardo Guerra.
Thanks to Apepi, the products have become much more accessible to patients: 150 reais ($28) for a 30 ml bottle, while imported products can cost from 600 to 3,000 reais ($113 to $565).
Apepi is now awaiting a court ruling that they hope will allow the farm to increase production to 10,000 plants from next year.
But the group is not very optimistic about the prospect of medical cannabis being legalized any time soon – President Jair Bolsonaro has already indicated that he would veto a bill being debated in Congress.
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