Paraguay issued its first-ever medical cannabis licenses in February, marking a major turning point for the cannabis-producing country while raising questions about its approach to combating illegal cultivation.

Twelve pharmaceutical companies have received licenses to import seeds for the cultivation and sale of cannabis products for medical use, which eligible patients will be able to obtain free of charge.

We are talking about so many families suffering from delicate diseases, Victor Ríos, the senator who sponsored the bill, told InSight. And many of the people who are suffering are children. They had no way to access medicine.

Paraguay is the largest producer of illegal cannabis in the region. Between 5,000 and 8,000 hectares are cultivated in the country, said the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD). Paraguay is also one of the most unequal countries in the world, with almost 40% of its population living in poverty.

Illegal cannabis production

Most of the illegal plantations are owned by poor farmers, SENAD officials said, and many of them seek to supplement the yields of soybeans and maize, two of Paraguay’s main exports. And with less than one percent of the population consuming marijuana, about 77 percent are in Brazil. Another 20 percent crosses the country’s southern border into Argentina.

SENAD focuses much of its efforts on crop eradication, which involves aerial surveillance and raids on plantations and packaging equipment. In 2017, Paraguay topped the list of countries with the highest number of cannabis plants eradicated. Last year, it reported the eradication of more than 1,300 hectares by September.

Paraguay strategy

During the two years, it has been necessary to prepare Paraguay for the arrival of a functioning medical cannabis industry, SENAD has also developed other strategies to combat illegal marijuana, some of which focus more on public health and economic assistance.

Within the framework of alternative development programs,” said a SENAD spokesperson, “we believe that medical cannabis can be a pillar. We are not talking about traditional production, but rather about controlled production with special regulations.

This first batch of medical cannabis licenses suggests that the Paraguayan government is moving from a purely criminal understanding of marijuana to a public health vision, but questions remain about the approach it is taking.

Results

By granting all medical cannabis licenses to established pharmaceutical companies instead of poor farmers growing illegal marijuana, the government has missed an opportunity to address two problems at once.

The farmers could have benefited financially from a thriving medical cannabis industry, and the government could have benefited from integrating these farmers into a legal regulatory system that would, in theory, reduce the costs of destroying their plantations.

What happened was that the government saw that this was a business opportunity for its friends. The focus is supposed to be on public health. A humanitarian objective,” the senator said. He went on to say, “There’s virtually no connection between what the government is doing and the bill we’re promoting in Congress.

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