Paraguay issued its first-ever medical cannabis licenses this February, marking a major shift for the marijuana-producing country while raising questions about its approach to fighting illegal cultivation.

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

“We’re talking about so many families that suffer from delicate sicknesses,” Victor Ríos, the senator who sponsored the bill, told InSight Crime. “And many of the people suffering are children. They didn’t have a way of accessing medication.”

Paraguay is the top producer of illegal marijuana in the region. Between 5,000 and 8,000 hectares are cultivated in the country, the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas — SENAD) told InSight Crime. Paraguay also happens to be one of the most unequal countries in the world, with nearly 40 percent of its population living in poverty.

Most illegal plantations belong to poor farmers, SENAD officials said, and many of them are looking to complement soy bean and corn yields, two of Paraguay’s top exports. And with less than one percent of the population consuming marijuana, around 77 percent ends up in Brazil. Another 20 percent crosses the country’s southern border into Argentina.

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SENAD focuses much of its efforts on crop eradication, which involve aerial monitoring and raids on plantations and packaging outfits. In 2017, Paraguay topped the list of countries for the largest number of eradicated cannabis plants. For last year, it reported the eradication of over 1,300 hectares just through September.

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

“Within alternative development programs,” a SENAD spokesperson told InSight Crime, “we believe that medical cannabis can be a pillar. Obviously we aren’t talking about traditional production, but rather controlled production with special regulations.”

InSight Crime Analysis

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

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

Farmers could have benefited financially from a burgeoning medical cannabis industry, and the government could have benefited from integrating those farmers into a legal regulatory system that, in theory, would cut costs devoted to destroying their plantations.

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“What happened is the government saw it is as a business opportunity for its friends. The focus is supposed to be public health. A humanitarian focus,” Ríos told InSightCrime. He added, “There is practically no point of connection between what the government does and the bill we are promoting in congress.”

Paraguay is a late mover in the region in allowing some form of legal cultivation of marijuana. Argentina, BrazilChile and Peru permit various levels of medical marijuana use while Uruguay has completely legalized its recreational use.

Regional pressure to deal with the marijuana problem appears to have mounted on Paraguay of late, in part because of last year’s high-profile Itatí trial. Over thirty people were implicated in a trafficking ring through Argentina, which highlighted the fact that Paraguay continues to supply a majority of its neighbors’ marijuana.

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