Surrounded by barbed wire and an electric fence, marijuana plants flourish under the bright sun on a farm in a mountainous area outside Rio de Janeiro.
Yet this farm has nothing to do with drug trafficking. It belongs to a pioneering Brazilian nongovernmental organization (NGO) engaged in the production of medical cannabis to help people with seizures.
Margarete Brito, a lawyer by training, first started growing cannabis several years ago to relieve the seizures of her daughter, Sofia, now 12, who has epilepsy.
After seeing her condition improve, Brito decided to help other people, too. So she founded the Medical Cannabis Research and Patient Support Association (APEPI), which produces artisanal therapeutic oils made from cannabis to help people with conditions similar to her daughter’s.
That work has required a lot of effort, as growing marijuana remains illegal in Brazil.
“If we follow the letter of the law, nothing authorizes us to do that,” Brito said.
However, she and her husband, Marcos Langenbach, were able to obtain an unprecedented judicial authorization to cultivate cannabis for medical purposes in 2016.
Today, their farm — about two hours by car from the Brazilian capital — has 2,000 plants growing there to help people with severe autism, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
Despite initial suspicion and pushback from some, Brito said the endeavor enjoys support in Brazil.
“We have real social legitimacy. That’s what protects us,” Brito said.
On a recent visit to the farm, 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, Solar and CBG.
These plants are used to produce therapeutic oils that meet the needs of each patient, depending on whether they require a higher or lower dose of cannabidiol, a non-psychotropic substance with a relaxing effect.
Using a pocket microscope, Fonseca examines each plant to assess the ideal time to pick.
In April, armed police with sniffer dogs raided the farm, after a person who had worked on renovating its laboratory reported APEPI to the authorities.
“A lot of people have prejudices,” Brito said. “We explain how our project works to everyone, but this person believed that we were drug traffickers and informed against us,” farm manager Manoel Caetano said.
The police eventually realized the farm was a medical cannabis plantation, apologized and left, Brito said.
APEPI has forged partnerships with respected scientific institutions, such as the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and the University of Campinas. It has grown fivefold over the past two years and now counts 1,500 members.
Among them is Gabriel Guerra, 19, who has a severe form of autism and cerebral palsy. When he was eight, he would have 60 seizures a day.
“But when he started to take the custom oil” — a few drops three times a day — “the attacks stopped,” said his father, Ricardo Guerra.
“He started to have more independence, looking for ways to communicate,” Guerra said.
Thanks to APEPI, the products have become much more accessible: 150 reais (US$28.12) for a 30ml bottle, while imported products can cost anywhere from 600 reais to 3,000 reais.
APEPI is now awaiting a court decision that they hope will allow the farm to increase its production to 10,000 plants from next year.
However, the group is not very optimistic about the prospect of medical cannabis being legalized any time soon — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has already said that he would veto a bill being debated in the Brazilian National Congress.
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