Brazil: To Be or CBD? Not the Question.

Executive Director’s Note: CASP is proud to share authentic journalism from our friend Ras Stephen Charles Flohr, reporting from where he lives in Sao Paulo, Brasil, on the way new CBD-specific politics intersect with inequality. It is part of an ongoing interest CASP has in educating the public about the realities of Cannabidial as it relates on the one hand to the whole plant, and therefore herbal medicine; and as it relates to the politics and economics of global cannabis prohibition — Dominic Corva, September 2015


Photo by Stephen Charles Flohr

By Stephen Charles Flohr

July 5, 2015 – Sao Paulo, Brasil

Football, Carnival, beach life and lots of beautiful women. Sounds like fun, right? Yet in the country where cachaca (national spirit)  is the bloodstream fueling all of its major cultural and economic norms of engagement, burning a spliff is a surprisingly tense and taboo affair.  One would think that with all of the natural beauty abounding that Brazil would have a more sensitive, relaxed and tolerant attitude regarding the herb.  But this is not the case.  Ganja is viewed and treated as a social ill which perpetuates the nation’s greatest plague, drug trafficking, and is inextricably linked to the violence which devastates primarily the poor, yet undoubtedly shapes and haunts the lives of every citizen. These are the front lines of the “drug war” and they’re ugly.  And so the weed is ugly, most often in the form of a pressed and condensed brick, desiccated and sometimes moldy, more often than not from Paraguay. The aftertaste has a distinctively chemical hue.  And if you want some, you must head to the spot in a local favela (ghetto/slum) and deal with armed youth whose livelihood is the drug game, and be prepared to deal with the militarized and notoriously heavy-handed police force who are always in hot pursuit of potential slingers.  Even speaking about cannabis is a risky enterprise.  Brazil has a history of arresting entertainers on the charge of “drug apologetics”, a crime punishable by 1-3 years in prison if convicted. The most recent incident took place during a show in June where “Cert”, vocalist for the band ConeCrew, known for their progressive cannabical posture, was arrested by police on stage as he performed.  And if you are thinking about wearing a cap or shirt brandishing the leaf, be forewarned.  Police routinely arrest youth for displaying images of marijuana (maconha) under the same auspices of drug apologetics.

However, with the undeniable global, medicinal and economic potential of the herb, especially in light of recent medicinal and legislative milestones forged in the U.S.A., it is proving too difficult and costly for Brazil to remain so tragically aloof from science and common sense.  Users of marijuana and patients in particular are demanding a change in federal policy which currently criminalizes even the most minor possession and often results in the prosecution of mere users/growers as if they were traffickers. But the tide is turning, and with neighboring Uruguay on “all systems blow”, the stage is being set for a radical cultural shift that could be at least part of the solution to  Brazil’s pandemic violence and abject poverty, not to mention a bolstering influence on  its’ precarious health care plight.  

CBD Legislation and Access

Earlier in 2015, the Brazilian federal regulatory organ responsible for the importation/exportation of internationally sanctioned drugs, ANVISA, reclassified the isolated cannabinoid CBD, a  medicinal derivative found in the cannabis plant, and liberated its importation in strictly specified cases of chronic epilepsy.  The decision came after a long push from several families who pursued successful treatment of their children’s deadly epileptic conditions using CBD oil. A documentary entitled “Illegal” by journalist Tarso Araújo, takes a deep look into the challenges these families confronted  and brought national attention to the issue and the possibility of “medicinal cannabis”.  But cannabis still remains illegal under federal law and it is still therefore illegal to grow it and thereby impossible to produce a legal CBD extraction domestically.  And so critics are lauding this supposed “advancement” in cannabis policy as bittersweet.  They argue that the CBD Import-Only legislation, while an absolute victory for families and children in immediate need of medicine, is also a major victory for foreign markets, mainly in the USA, who are all too eager at sinking their claws into the emerging market that it proliferates.  

And so who is really getting access to treatment with CBD?  As the ANVISA ruling currently stipulates, only patients with life-threatening epileptic conditions are permitted access to CBD and that only under stringent medical and bureaucratic exigencies.  And the cost?  A monthly supply for a patient at a dosage of one gram of CBD oil per day is a whopping $4,800 reais (about $1,600 USD).  To give you an idea of just how expensive that is, know that the minimum wage in Brazil is $788 reais (about $260 USD).  For this reason, it is obvious that the remedy is not accessible to a large percentage of eligible patients. Add the fact that the efficacy of CBD-only treatments is questionable when factoring in the unique specificities of different illnesses and when compared to whole plant applications, and the margin of those benefiting from this legislation becomes even slimmer. But that hasn’t stopped  HempMeds , subsidiary of Medical Marijuana Inc,  from cashing in on the situation and  using their success in Brazil as a platform to build support and infrastructure in American states where medicinal marijuana is in its fledgling state.  When it comes to hemp-based products in Brazil, HempMeds is basically the only show in town.  Its quasi-monopolic vicegrip on the CBD niche market coupled with its’s dubious corporate history has raised eyebrows and tempers amongst patients and activists alike.  Basing her argument on the findings of Israeli researcher Ruth Galilly which present compelling evidence for the superior efficiacy of whole-plant remedies, Susan Witte of the Multidisciplinary Association for the Study of Medicinal Marijuana laments, “It doesn’t make sense, therefore, to grant cannabidiol monopoly status to corporations that intend on selling these remedies at the highest possible profit, if that means offering a product which is less effective than the compound’s original source in nature”.  On the other end of the spectrum, Dr. José Alexandre Crippa, a stuanch advocate of CBD-only intervention therapies, currently holds several patents for a synthetic isolated form of CBD and plans on working in tandem with the pharmaceutical industry in making it available to the public as a domestically viable and more affordable option. As if CBD-only reform didn’t already completely miss the mark, I can’t help but cringe at the spectre of a  national “synthetic CBD-only” debate.

Fighting Back

In Brazil, there exists a politically strong and religiously motivated bloc of elites who assume a “ProLife = AntiCannabis” agenda and view the stoner (maconheiro) as one of the greatest threats to not only the peace and stability of society as a whole but also to the integrity of the family.  They most often have no qualms with current alcohol legislation yet wage their intolerant crusades against a plant based on their adherence to a myth of religious and racial superiority.  And so the masses aren’t holding their breath waiting for a political miracle to take place, especially those patients who are already finding it difficult to breathe. They’ve decided, instead, to take matters into their own hands.  Affirming their human rights and deciding that  medical necessity trumps the obligation to abide by unjust laws, patients of all types and their caretakers have taken to growing their own cannabis and preparing their own medicinal extractions.  

Joao is a 47 year old engineer from Sao Paulo. He suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes and is both patient activist and participant in the city’s  annual “Marijuana March. “We’re tired of supporting drug terrorism and risking ourselves for shit product time and time again”, he says.  “We’re not all epileptic and rich.  We have MS, Diabetes, Parkinson’s, Cancer, AIDS and God knows what else. We all have a right to treatment too.  Cannabis grows freely and if you take care of it, it can take care of you. Simple.”  This sentiment has proved to be the fertile soil from which a number of underground patient-caretaker initiatives have spread across several of Brazil’s major cities, especially Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.  Joao comments about how a friend of his who has MS benefits from the network of stealth CBD providers. “It just shows up in his mailbox. He has no idea who makes it but he is grateful that they do. And he doesn’t pay a thing.”

“There is absolutely no commercial gain in this type of practice, its an issue of solidarity, its about helping people” affirms a young member of one of these clandestine groups in a report by the Brazilian news source Globo.  “Which is a greater crime, trafficking for love or letting someone die from 20-30 convulsions a day?”, he adds. The report brings to light several cases of financially strapped families in Rio who are desperate to provide CBD-oil to their gravely ill children and therefore seek out artisanal extractions performed in the homes of a brave bunch of outlaw pharmacists.  

Criminal Attorney Paulo Freitas confirms the severity of the legal risks involved:

“Anyone who plants ‘ganja’ is subject to the criminal laws of drug trafficking; it is an activity considered equal to that of trafficking. Yet beyond that you also run the risk of committing a more serious offense, namely that of fabricating and providing, even if the intent and practice of distribution is free of charge, a medicinal product without registration at ANVISA, punishable by a 10 year minimum sentence in prison which is double the minimum for trafficking.”

But love must sometimes flout the law. “Illegal, in my opinion, is the way that things are, to deny me the right to give a better condition of life for my daughter. This is what I think is illegal”, confirms Fabio, father of Clarian, who was born with Dravet Syndrome.  Fabio sought out homemade CBD- extraction for his daughter as the only feasible option as he and his family faced an $8,000 reais  (nearly $3000 USD) monthly expense in the procurement of enough medicine through existing legal channels.

Pushing the Envelope

It is evident from the developments in Brazil that people are willing to seek and provide wellness and healing at great personal risk.   Ignoring the fact that CBD has its origin in the cannabis plant and declaring the former as legal and the latter as not points to a deeper, hypocritical confusion.  Its like saying the red coloring of a strawberry is good but the berry itself is bad.  Astute activists remain adamant in their pursuit of whole plant liberation. Whole plant remedies with various CBD:THC proportions hold promising potential for a gamut of maladies.  But for any meaningful research to be conducted, domestic cultivation of the plant is a necessity.

It is frustrating that this so-called ‘baby step’ was wrought in almost complete dismissal of logic and panders supremely to a foreign profiteer.  This is a service and medical necessity which Brazil could easily carry out on its own on a much larger and efficient scale without having to resort to importation. The law also confirms the fact that Science, or at least the fraction of it which the government deems fit for public awareness, is an exclusive privilege afforded to the economic elite. But Brazil doesn’t seem to have a problem with conspicuous capitalism and I can think of few places which exhibit such a glaring disparity between the haves and the have-nots. And so even if you do happen to help people see cannabis as a medicine and not a plague, you will then have the challenge of its commercialization.  “Ok, so cannabis is good now how do we make the most money off of it.”  Health is a commodity and until ‘the haves’ devise a scheme to control its sale and maintain an underclass consumer base, the senate isn’t going to budge on real cannabis talk. And yet the grassroots continue to bloom in the shadows of obscurity, healing the sick and waking the sleepers, risking it all because, well, we are all worth it!