Chile's Groundbreaking Medical Marijuana Project

marcha cannabis Chile

Following the historic decision in Chile to allow cannabis cultivation for medicinal purposes, we outline how the program came about and what lies ahead for its implementation.

The authorization to grow cannabis for medicinal purposes was announced on September 8, and is the first to be granted in Latin America. The program has been handed to the Daya Foundation, who solicited the permit for a joint initiative in partnership with La Florida municipality in the capital Santiago, one of the most densely populated areas in the country. Two hundred cancer patients -- 100 from the local health system and 100 patients related to the Daya Foundation -- will make up the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Program. Therapies utilizing cannabis oil will be implemented to help with pain relief, and to combat nausea. 

Gaining approval saw extensive consultation with various government bodies, including the Interior Ministry, the Agriculture and Health Ministries, the Public Health Institute ISP, the National Alcohol and Drug Service, and the Police.

Cannabis varieties specifically bred for medicinal use have been selected together with the Dutch seed bank Paradise Seeds, who will be the official seed supplier for the project. Seeds had to be imported from this bank as there are no certified seed dealers within Chile.

Alliance Between Key Actors

The Daya Foundation and La Florida municipality have a profound conviction in the social benefit of this project. That is why the design and implementation of the program will not only be carried out in accordance with the law, but will also be done while maintaining dialogue with all the key players that are contributing to its realization: the public, the Interior, Health and Agriculture Ministries, the Agricultural and Livestock Service, civil society groups, and the medical and scientific community, among others.

Furthermore, the Daya Foundation has formed a partnership with the University of Valparaiso's Pharmacy and Chemistry Faculty for technical support with the extraction and purification of the oil, and to work on the future incorporation of the cannabis plant into the national pharmacopeia.

Implementation

The implementation phase of the project involves training professionals of the Communal Health Service in the potential cannabis oil holds and the wider use of medicinal cannabis as a palliative treatment for pain relief. Likewise, a system of information, support and monitoring of the patients assigned to the project will be implemented by the health professionals and Daya Foundation therapists.

Background: Chile's Drug Policy

In Chile, the use of any substance, including cannabis, is technically permitted provided it is carried out in private, and not in groups. However, there are legal ambiguities with this law as no thresholds concerning possession for personal use are defined, instead being at the discretion of the police, prosecutors and judges to determine whether these amounts are for personal use or for distribution. The production of illicit narcotics is illegal.

Cannabis -- together with drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin -- is listed as a Schedule 1 substance. This list refers to all "narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances, producing physical or psychological dependence, and [that] can cause serious toxic effects or serious damage to human health." Being on this list has significantly hindered scientific research into marijuana to date.

According to studies in 2012 by the Chilean Harm Reduction Network, each year 85,000 people are arrested under the country's drugs laws, of which 12 percent is for use, 67 percent for possession, and only 17 percent drug trafficking.

In Chile, 65 percent of users are under 25 years old and 68 percent of those arrested for violations of drugs laws are also under that age. Roughly 52 percent of women prisoners in Chile are there as a result of the drug laws. 

For the crime of burglary, the authorities receive 200,000 complaints a year, resulting in 17,000 arrests. Despite complaints for violations of drug laws sitting at roughly 2,000 per year, there are still more arrests (over 80,000) than for burglary.

Moving Forward

Today in Chile there is a strong social and political discussion about drugs. Never before has Chilean society confronted our absurd drug policy, but this is changing. From former presidents, through to academics, congressmen, opinion leaders and celebrities, the movement for reform is becoming diverse and strong. In the last presidential election in 2013, for example, six of the nine presidential candidates proposed the decriminalization of cannabis cultivation for personal use.

The last national protest rally, "Grow your rights," (Cultiva tus Derechos) was organized by Movimental and drew more than 200,000 people to the streets, making it the biggest public demonstration so far of 2014. This has its roots in the work developed over the past ten years by cannabis activists in Chile; Movimental, No More Prisoners for Growing, Cannabis Friends, Medical Cannabis, Cultiva Conce, Daya Foundation, and Triagrama, among others.

There are currently three teams of experts convened by the government working on drug policy with a focus on Public Safety and Public Health. The Daya Foundation is heavily active in this. Other experts are working with the Public Health Institute on medical cannabis uses. Despite the majority consensus on the urgent need to change our drug laws, we have recently seen a strong reactionary onslaught from the most conservative sectors of our society against reform. Thus, achieving further liberalization of our drug laws will not be straightforward, despite the growing reform movement. 

The slow process to change prohibition has meant hundreds of thousands of patients continue to be denied trying alternative treatment involving cannabis. Those who have attempted to try this alone and outside of the legal framework have been constantly exposed to criminalization, prosecution and socially stigmatization. We hope that with the groundbreaking new project in Santiago, this will become something of the past.