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Remembering Other Places Exist: Brazil (The History of Cannabis in Brazil)

Cannabis in Brazil
Photo by Agustin Diaz Gargiulo

South America. Another place that I was - in my opinion - grossly undereducated about as a child in the United States school system. Even as an adult, my knowledge has been primarily absorbed via osmosis, watching documentaries about remote villages or unique ecosystems that just happen to be located somewhere in South America. You give me a documentary about an isolated community in the jungle and I’ll give you two hours of my undivided attention. Not to mention the fact that, even though I do my best to always acknowledge and oppose my biases, there’s a certain amount of stigma against Central and South Americans baked into the culture here, especially when certain people are in charge. Written out, it’s easy to see that this is obviously my own fault. I’m perfectly capable of learning new things about places I might not have taken an interest in otherwise, so let’s do it. Let’s learn some cannabis facts about Brazil.


Cannabis History In Brazil 

Brazil, largest country in South America and fifth largest in the world, both by land and population. It’s honestly embarrassing to admit just how little I know about South America in general, but Brazil specifically, outside of stereotypical and what I would consider borderline rude recollections of things like soccer, carnival and a currently popular style of butt lift. Ranked thirteenth in the world by number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, the history of Brazil starts long before the arrival of Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500 and instead with the thousands of indigenous tribes that were - surprise - already there when Cabral showed up. The Portuguese brought slaves and it’s widely believed that these slaves brought the cannabis seeds that brought cannabis to South America. Cannabis is not native to South America and though it’s unlikely that cannabis entered South America solely through Brazil, it’s widely agreed upon that the European discovery of the continent brought cannabis to the “new land” as well. 



It’s believed that the Portuguese may have intended to cultivate cannabis for hemp at some sort of agricultural or industrial level, but the slaves that the Portuguese were trafficking in were more acquainted with cannabis. After cultivating what must have been a particularly adaptable strain, it’s believed that the enslaved people may have introduced the indigenous people of Brazil to the psychoactive properties of cannabis. 


Now, this may seem like a sparse amount of historical information in comparison to the other places we’ve covered in this series and to be honest, it is. Of all of the various countries I’ve covered so far, there is a downright dismal amount of information on the historical uses of cannabis in Brazil prior to the 19th century. As a matter of fact, one source even suggests that cannabis was introduced to Brazil as late as the 1800s. From what I was able to gather from a number of sources is that not only did the slaves bring seeds to grow cannabis, they also brought their knowledge and traditional uses, with one source stating that cannabis was often praised as an aphrodisiac. It is also believed that while the royal court was in Brazil during the Napoleonic wars to avoid the possible invasion of Portugal by Napoleon, Queen Carlota Joaquina was using cannabis as a psychoactive drug. A proper use, in my opinion. 


For the most part, it seems as though cannabis use and cultivation didn’t really bother the Portuguese in Brazil until 1830, when it was outlawed by the government of Rio de Janeiro. Anyone found selling cannabis in the city would face huge fines and slaves who were discovered with it were subject to “three days imprisonment” and similar prohibitions throughout the country would follow. 



Modern History and Regulation

This is where we hit a little bit of a gap in the information that I was able to find. What I’m able to put together is that after 1830, when Rio de Janeiro began penalizing Brazillians for cannabis use, a wave of cannabis prohibition swept across Brazil - and didn’t end until 2015. Well, to be fair, Brazil was involved in the Second International Conference on Opium and Cocaine in 1925 and declared it “more dangerous than opium”, a condemnation that seemed to hold true for Brazil until the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, where everyone apparently doubled down on that sentiment. 


Interesting that the United States seems to have played such a big role in the global condemnation of cannabis at these two international meetings of the minds whilst experiencing our own “reefer madness”, but that’s a subject for another article. 


Now, I’ve found sources that say that cannabis is decriminalized in Brazil but I have also found sources that say it is “illegal and criminalized” but “de-penalized”, so let’s take it step by step. 


Medical Use In Brazil

In 2015, it became legal to produce and sell cannabis based medicines in Brazil. Under Brazilian federal law it is “possible to import, manufacture and sell cannabis-based medicines” and Brazilian manufacturers can produce cannabis medicines once they have obtained a Certificate of Good Manufacturing Practice from the Brazilian National Agency for Sanitary Surveillance (ANVISA). They also need other special authorizations and permits, overseen by ANVISA, to sell these medications to pharmacies nationwide, who are then able to sell them to medical cannabis patients with prescriptions. From what I found, these manufacturers are permitted to import “cannabis extract or a semi-processed substate” in order to produce these medications, but not the plant or “part of it”. Brazil issued its first license for British developed, cannabis-based Metavyl (known internationally as Sativex) to be sold in 2017.


CBD is not prohibited in Brazil, but it is closely regulated and often considered as a final option for patients who are believed to have exhausted all other avenues of treatment. They do not produce CBD products in Brazil, so they are imported, though it’s believed that CBD treatment alone is not particularly common. 



Recreational Use In Brazil

Like every place where cannabis ends up, people find a way to use it “recreationally”. Brazil is no exception to that, and in 2021 the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that the “possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, including cannabis, should not be considered a criminal offense” and is treated as an “administrative” offense subject to fines, counseling, or educational programs, similar to other countries that have decriminalized “personal use” amounts. Though this is a step in the right direction in the opinion of many, the lack of clarity on what the actual threshold between “personal” and “trafficking” is has “created a legal gray area” and often sees enforcement fall into patterns of racial bias - in both the police and judicial systems. 


Hemp/Industrial

Hemp is not currently legal in Brazil, nor is the industrial cultivation of any cannabis plant. At the time I’m writing this, I was able to find a few sources waiting for the Brazilian Supreme Court to rule on the legal status of the cultivation of cannabis in Brazil, but have not been able to find any current updates. 


Truth be told, I entered this series with a little bit of an American Superiority complex. I expected us to be the most progressive, and the best at research and providing access to patients. I honestly expected most places to be much further behind. These are the occasions when I am absolutely thrilled to be wrong… other than maybe the realization that we might be the ones falling behind. 


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