Brazil moves closer to legalising medical cannabis, despite president’s veto threat

A bill that would allow the cultivation and processing of hemp and cannabis in Brazil has passed an important committee vote in the country’s lower legislative chamber just.

In theory, approval by the Chamber of Deputies’ Special Committee for Cannabis Regulation should mean the bill can go straight to the Senate. However, it could still face heavy opposition from conservatives and the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro (pictured).

The special committee approved Bill 399/2015 on 8th June by a slender 9-8 vote. It had been waiting for a vote since September 2020. Prohibitionist members of the Chamber of Deputies could still request a revision of the latest version of the bill as approved by the committee.

If enacted in its current form, the law would authorise companies, NGOs and patient associations to grow pre-defined quotas of both non-psychoactive (less than 1% THC) and psychoactive (1%+ THC) cannabis.

The country’s current atmosphere, however, suggests a rocky road ahead for the bill. It has already been under frequent attack, both on social media and in the legislature, from influential conservative lawmakers such as Bia Kicis, Carla Zambelli, and Osmar Terra. These three, all members of the lower chamber, claim the bill would facilitate access to recreational cannabis, which they strongly oppose.


Threat of physical attack


This opposition culminated in the president of the special committee, Paulo Teixeira, interrupting a meeting to discuss the bill last month after a conservative member, Diego Garcia, threatened to physically attack him. Garcia wanted the session to end, but other committee members turned down his request.

Given its radical prohibitionist rhetoric, Bolsonaro’s government itself also represents a block to the bill’s progress. Indeed, the president has said he will veto Bill 399 if it is approved by the Senate.

“Funny how marijuana should be allowed, but chloroquine shouldn’t,” said Bolsonaro, referring to his completely discredited belief that chloroquine, a malaria treatment, could prove effective against Covid-19.

Despite this strong opposition from prohibitionist legislators and the president, the bill is not guaranteed to fail.

For one thing, Bolonsaro’s combative attitude and handling of the Covid pandemic has cost him support, both among politicians and the general public. A legislative vote to overturn a presumed veto of the bill is not out of the question.


A constantly changing situation


Marcela Sanches, a lawyer and coordinator at Reforma (a pro-legalisation organisation in Brazil) told CBD-Intel that the situation is dynamic and constantly changing, with the fate of Bill 399/2015 dependent on many other factors as well as political interference.

“Even if Bolsonaro vetoes the bill, the Congress can still override the veto and, ultimately, approve the document. What’s more, the interests of the industry will keep on expanding the regulatory boundaries for cannabis in Brazil,” said Sanches.

This appears to be particularly the case when coupled with a rise in countrywide support for cannabis over the past few months. This support is demonstrated by the increasing number of cities and states that have either approved or are voting on medical cannabis regulations with a fair expectation of the measures passing.

The state of Rio de Janeiro, the Federal District around the capital, Brasilia, and the city of Goiânia in central Brazil have all recently enacted laws to stimulate research on medical cannabis. At least two other states Paraíba and São Paulo have medical cannabis bills pending in their legislative houses.

A pioneer in this context, Rio’s Law 8872/20 came into force in June 2020, authorising patients’ associations in the state to grow cannabis for medical purposes. The law also encourages institutional support and direction for patients and families who rely on medical cannabis through the production of scientific research. This research is aimed at educating and guiding patients and their families on the dosage and quality control of products either imported or produced in Brazil.


Conservative support


Patient associations may enter into agreements and partnerships with educational and research institutions with the aim of supporting the analysis of medicines in order to ensure standardisation and safety for the treatment of patients in Brazil’s second most important state in terms of economy and third largest in terms of population.

In April 2021, the Federal District enacted Law 6839/21, which aims to stimulate research on medical cannabis. It will do this through promoting scientific activities through a dedicated agency, suggested lines of research, development of strategic cooperation related to the medicinal use of cannabis, and the establishment of quality, health and safety standards.

The district legislature hopes this will lead to an improvement in comprehensive health care, continue the scientific development of processes related to the medicinal use of cannabis, reduce inequality in access to cannabis medicines and products, and strengthen the operational and scientific capacity of a range of institutions including those involved in teaching and research, public service provision, and technological innovation and development.

“We hope this law will stimulate cannabis-related studies and raise visibility of the positive effects of cannabis for patients who depend on cannabinoids. We also hope it helps democratise cannabis-based treatments”, said state councillor Leandro Grass, the author of Law 6839/21 which he said had the support of conservative councillors.

“One of the amendments that helped improve the bill actually came from a conservative fellow,” he added.


Grounds for optimism


This gives Grass optimism about the chances of the federal bill. In spite of the barriers against Bill 399/2015, he is confident it will eventually be approved. “Even the most conservative legislators understand that this is only a plant and that the idea is to use its substances for the good,” he told CBD-intel.

The city of Goiânia’s recently-approved Law 10.611 gives citizens the right to cannabis-based treatment from public health service units. According to city councillor Lucas Kitão, author of the bill, it will “popularise the treatment”.

“Now patients who have the prescription can demand their cannabis-based medicine,” Kitão said. “A judge can oblige the municipal health system to buy this kind of medicine for a patient, for example.”

Kitão believes the law passed in Goiânia, the tenth largest city in Brazil, could affect the national cannabis debate, encouraging eventual approval of the federal bill. He told CBD-Intel: “It helps disseminate cannabis treatments and shows that cannabis can save lives and improve the life quality of several families. This makes the mindset change.”


What This Means: It is still hard to see precisely how Bill 399/2015 will fare over the next few weeks in Brazil’s National Congress.

It will certainly face an obstacle in the shape of Bolsonaro though the president’s lack of a solid political party behind him since his resignation from the Social Liberal Party (PSL) in 2019 and failure to collect the minimum necessary signatures to form a new one, injects a further degree of uncertainty.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Chamber of Deputies’ special committee carried it albeit by the narrowest possible margin says something. This, coupled with the passage of regional laws, with the support of some conservative lawmakers, suggests many politicians are starting to take a more liberal stance to match perceived public approval for access to medicinal cannabis.

In that context the bill seems to have a realistic chance of being enacted in some form at some point. Whether that is in weeks, months or even years is impossible to predict.

Beatriz Miranda CBD-Intel contributing writer

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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