AGÜERITO, Paraguay — Juan hacked a marijuana plant with a machete, carried it to a black tarp, and began pulling off the flowers as fast as he could. The plants had been sprayed with agrochemicals repeatedly over the month prior to kill insects that infest his family’s fields. Then he left the buds drying in the sun between intermittent rain showers, before they’d be bundled up, and sold for next to nothing.
These are the first steps toward harvesting and preparing some of the worst weed in the world.
Juan and his family, who asked that their real names not be used, cultivate six hectares of clandestine marijuana plants in rural Paraguay—the landlocked nation that is believed to be the third- or fourth-largest cannabis-producing nation on Earth and the top producer in the Southern Hemisphere.
The so-called “Paraguayo” or “Paraguaya” brick weed is sold around South America at dirt-cheap prices and is widely considered to be some of the lowest-quality cannabis available. Beyond the haphazard production technique of compacting the brick to make it easier to smuggle, the marijuana becomes adulterated in several ways before it reaches consumers outside of Paraguay.
Cannabis experts, local producers, and law enforcement gave myriad additional reasons why the pressed marijuana is so unhealthy. The plants are pressed using rudimentary machines made of metal or wood that are usually dirty. The plant itself is often wet, or mixed with marmalade or Coca-Cola soda knockoffs, to help it stick together and compact. This causes bacteria and fungi to fester inside of the brick. The gangs who press the weed also regularly leave the seeds inside, which, after being compressed, release a urine-ish smell into the marijuana.
Beyond the toxins sprayed on the plants by the growers, other chemicals are often found inside the pressed weed. Some are believed to be residue that comes from the agrochemical industry that runs rampant through the country’s massive soy and corn industries, where lax laws allow companies to pollute their products without hardly any regulation. Cannabis scientists in other countries have also traced chemicals that they believe are added to the product at some point to increase its potency. Paraguayan authorities claim this often happens after the weed is exported outside of the country, mostly by Brazilian gangs like the First Command of the Capital (PCC for its Portuguese acronym) who run much of Paraguay’s contraband weed trade.
Essentially, the pressed Paraguayo is different every time you buy it, and it's nearly impossible to know what’s inside each brick, and how unhealthy it is. Its potency varies widely as it is shipped around South America. From Colombia to Chile, Brazil to Argentina, the name Paraguayo is synonymous with the worst weed available. The brick weed is so bad that even Paraguayans hardly smoke it, preferring to keep only the pre-adulterated flowers in the country for domestic use and ship the bricks elsewhere in the continent.
The brick Paraguayo, tested by VICE World News, is harsh. Each toke burned slightly more than the last. But even with the unpleasurable experience of smoking it, and the wave of nausea that came and went right after, the high was potent. It lived up to its reputation, uneven and gross, but packing a wallop without the user knowing whether it came from the plant's THC content or the chemicals that may have been mixed with it.
The route to Juan’s property is a mix of asphalt and dirt roads several hours into the countryside outside of the capital Asunción. The family’s modest house is little more than several connected shacks on the side of the road with no neighbors in sight. But a short ten-minute hike into the woods and brush behind it opens up into fields of marijuana plants nearly as far as the eye can see.
Juan and his family don’t know much about their product's poor reputation. Frankly, Juan, 50, doesn’t appear to know much about marijuana at all besides how to tend to his outdoor crops, even though he’s spent more than half his life dedicated to the trade. He’s never even smoked it because he’s heard that “marijuana makes you crazy and confused.”
But what Juan does know is the struggles that come with being a cannabis farmer in Paraguay.
“It’s risky, but you get more [money],” said Juan in Guaraní, the indigenous language widely spoken throughout the country. But even though Juan makes more with marijuana than he does with other legal crops, he still only sells a kilo of weed for roughly $6. And much of that, he said, goes to paying off the cops, who charge him and his family around $145 for each hectare they harvest. Otherwise, the police will cut it all down and burn it.
Recently, though, the family has heard about some new possibilities with marijuana, that it can be used to help people’s health. “But I don’t know the process to make it into medicine,” said Juan.
Paraguay’s recreational legalization movement is nonexistent. The country decriminalized the possession of under 10 grams of weed over 30 years ago, but the production of marijuana for your everyday farmer remains illegal with the possibility of 15 years in prison if caught—the same as for those found producing and selling cocaine and crack.
One of the main hopes for local cannabis producers to be brought into the legal economy and improve the quality of the country’s weed is the medicinal marijuana movement. In 2017, Paraguay passed a landmark medical marijuana law that would create a national scientific research program to study the medicinal use of the cannabis plant and its derivatives, and promised to provide free oils to those who needed it.
The law was championed by Cynthia Farina, the founder of the Paraguayan chapter of the South American medicinal cannabis advocacy group Mamá Cultiva. She brought Mamá Cultiva to Paraguay after seeing the dramatically positive effect cannabis oils had on her daughter, who suffers from refractory epilepsy. But more than four years later, she said it's hardly been implemented because of a “lack of political will.”
Farina told VICE World News that the medicinal marijuana movement has been co-opted by the state and the pharmaceutical industry without including the estimated 15,000–20,000 families who produce cannabis illegally around the country. The state has given production licenses to 12 laboratories rather than to a single one of the thousands of farmers already in the industry, and the labs have yet to begin a single cultivation. And those who need cannabis oils still aren’t receiving them, even though it's mandated by law.
“We want to change that so small producers and farmers can also achieve their economic stability, their economic recovery, and get out of the extreme poverty in which they are in the interior of the country through the cultivation of cannabis for the state,” Farina said. “Cannabis is a medicine that has a lot of potential, not only as a medicine but also to allow for an economic recovery of the entire country.”
The small town of Agüerito in the San Pedro Department—one of Paraguay’s poorest and most dangerous states—has been ground zero for the movement to revolutionize the country’s cannabis scene. On May 1, 2021, International Workers Day, an organic farming cooperative launched a public marijuana grow operation on the side of the highway in Agüerito.
“We’re fighters,” Eulalio López, one of the leaders of the Farmers Resistance Movement, told VICE World News outside the public greenhouse. “We fought for the land, we fought for production, we worked to organize people. But until now, we have not found an alternative in terms of [sustaining the community economically].”
While farmers had produced marijuana in the area for generations, it remained an illegal and dangerous activity. Producers needed to sell their plants to drug traffickers linked mostly to violent Brazilian cartels.
López said the public cannabis project’s aim is to “try to make it visible, try to make people aware,” and less stigmatized.
Alongside López was Juan Carlos Cabezudo, a Paraguayan lawyer and founder of the cannabis advocacy group Granja Madre SA, who helped organize the grow operation cooperative.
“What we want to show people is how a crop can be made more efficiently and environmentally, and be more profitable, because [the pressed weed] has a serious problem: Nobody cares about its quality,” said Cabezudo.
Cabezudo said he’s seen “extraordinary Paraguayan-farmed marijuana” and is working throughout the country to teach local farmers how to improve organic cultivation techniques and remove the common use of insecticides. But to do that, the government needs to allow the farmers to produce cannabis legally without strict punishment, he said.
That’s something Cabezudo knows firsthand.
The public cannabis crop didn’t go down well with the authorities, and less than a month after the project launched in Agüerito, Cabezudo was arrested. The anti-narcotics police alleged that cannabis crops connected to his company were illegal.
Cabezudo spent the next 10 months on house arrest but continued coordinating with the Agüerito project, along with two other organic grow operations in different departments of the country. He also got involved in sponsoring the Atlético Loma Pucú soccer club in San Pedro, changing their jerseys to the red, white, and blue of the Paraguayan flag and using half a marijuana leaf as the team’s logo.
In March, Cabezudo received a conditional release from house arrest, although the authorities maintain the right to reopen his case any time in the next three years. This kind of crackdown can happen to anyone involved in the marijuana industry working outside of the 12 laboratories that received government licenses, so the collective of activists is working to create amendments to the medicinal marijuana law that would expand it to benefit small producers by decriminalizing the plant in its entirety.
The group is now working with 1,200 producers across Paraguay, and they hope that number rises to 2,000 soon. They’ve also produced 600 bottles of cannabis oil and distributed them freely to those who need it around Paraguay, filling a void that the government claimed it would, but hasn’t.
“We are not militants of legalization; we are militants of enforcing the laws we already have. There is a radical difference in that. If the laws were followed, tomorrow there would be an industry set up in this country, with an industry built around the quality of production,” Cabezudo said.
Back in the marijuana fields of San Pedro, Juan’s four sons have joined him in the family business, each taking over a hectare where they’re in charge of tending to the plants. And for the first time, they’re starting to feel a new optimism about what’s possible with the family business.
Just 15 days before VICE World News’ April visit, the family learned about the programs being run by the organic cooperative. Word has spread slowly throughout the countryside, but more and more farmers are joining as news of the movement trickles through the forgotten fields of Paraguay.
Oscar, 31, was excited to hear about the new techniques and workshops being offered by the cooperative, “to work and learn, there are possibilities,” he said.
He and his brothers were particularly interested in learning about making oils.
“Little by little, we’re learning what options there are. It’s new for us, we still haven’t tried,” said Oscar. “I think it's difficult to do that kind of stuff without having a contact, someone to help you.”
But now the family does have someone to help and may have the chance to start doing it legally and healthily. And maybe, when the quality improves, they might even try smoking some themselves.
Santi Carneri contributed to this report.