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Chile Is Growing Its First Medical Marijuana Crop — But Users Are Still Getting Arrested

A municipality in Santiago won government approval to produce cannabis oil for trial use by 200 cancer patients, but minor pot possession still carries stiff penalties in the country.
Photo by Nicolás Ríos

When Paulina Bobadilla and her brother went for a drive together on the evening of July 15 in Santiago, Chile, the city's police were on high alert. A homemade bomb had detonated in an empty subway car two days prior on July 13, part of a series of bombings that have rattled Chile in the last decade.

The police thought Bobadilla and her brother appeared "suspicious" and pulled them over. The cops found found 20 grams of marijuana in their vehicle.


Bobadilla is not a marijuana user, but her 7-year-old daughter Javiera is. The little girl takes cannabis oil orally to help treat her tuberous sclerosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on her brain, heart, and other vital organs. Her condition causes frequent fits of refractory epilepsy, a type of epilepsy that can cause up to 1,000 seizures a day.

According to her mother, Javiera was beset with constant epileptic attacks at all hours of the day. The anti-seizure medication her doctors prescribed caused vision loss, and damaged her liver and thyroid.

"At her highest dosage, she was taking six anticonvulsants a day and I was spending about $1,000 a month," Paulina told VICE News. "If I buy marijuana on the black market, I have to spend $400 on the 20 grams she needs a month. But if I could grow it at home, my daughter's treatment would be practically free."

Javiera's cannabis treatment is as illegal under current Chilean law as smoking pot recreationally. But that may soon change.

On Tuesday, the health commission of Chile's lower house of Congress formally opened discussion on decriminalizing marijuana for medicinal and recreational use. The move comes three weeks after the government rubber-stamped the first legal state-supported marijuana grow operation in Chile.

In late October, La Florida, a municipality within the Chilean capital, won government approval to produce cannabis oil for trial use by 200 cancer patients in Chile's public healthcare system. The government grow operation is planting four indica-dominant strains — Durga Mata II, Wappa, Ice Cream, Nubela, and Pandora — using seeds imported from the Netherlands.


The mayor of La Florida, Rodolfo Carter, granted VICE News access to the 9,150 square-foot grow-op on the condition that we would not take pictures that could compromise location of the facility. Carter said the secrecy was necessary "to prevent people from attempting to come in to steal the plants."

"That's why we have electrical fencing and 24-hour cameras," he said.

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Medicinal cannabis plantation in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Nicolás Ríos)

If the grow operation in La Florida succeeds, it would make Chile the first Latin American country to farm state-grown marijuana for medicinal use. Neighboring Uruguay made unprecedented strides in drug reform last year by decriminalizing the cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana. The reform did not differentiate between recreational and medicinal use of marijuana, allowing open access to all citizens.

"We don't want to get involved in a discussion over the personal use of marijuana," Carter said. "We chose to concentrate on the medicinal aspect. The goal is to offer a cancer treatment that is more natural, healthy, and affordable."

The state-sponsored initiative is being supervised by the Daya Foundation, a non-profit organization that has invested around $100,000 in the project to date. The foundation hopes the crop can be harvested by April 2015, and the government is expected to begin clinical trials shortly thereafter.


"The idea is to make access to alternative therapies more democratic," Ana María Gazmuri, president of the Daya Foundation, told VICE News. "Right now, the only people who have access to these treatments are the elite who can afford to pay for it."

'I arrived at the conviction that prohibitionist politics have failed after seeing what has happened in Colombia, Mexico, and Central America.'

The Chilean initiative is gaining traction, but not without opposition.

"There is still not enough evidence on the effectiveness and safety of marijuana use that would allow us to prescribe it in a safe way," Jorge de la Heras, head of the Chilean Academy of Medicine, said during a recent national debate on therapeutic cannabis use.

In spite of the controversy, the cultivation project in Chile is moving forward, reflecting perhaps a broader shift in attitudes toward weed in the country's post-dictatorship period.

Ricardo Lagos, a former president of Chile, declared his support for the decriminalization of all drugs, beginning with marijuana, in an interview with Chilean magazine Qué Pasa published earlier this month.

"I arrived at the conviction that prohibitionist politics have failed, after seeing what has happened in Colombia, Mexico, and Central America," said Lagos, who previously supported the country's current drug law, which in 2013 led to the arrest of more than twice as many people for minor possession of narcotics than it did for trafficking.


Uruguay's marijuana cultivators are gradually coming out of their grow closets. Read more here.

Javiera stands next to the homegrown plants that she says allow her to lead a normal life. (Photo by Nicolás Ríos)

For Paulina Bobadilla, coming out into the open about her family's cannabis use is the only way to defend herself from the justice system. "If I can get people to hear about my case, it will be much more difficult for the government to put me in jail for doing this for my daughter," she said.

The fear is not irrational. In the first half of this year, Chilean police have reportedly detained more than 16,000 people for possession of marijuana, and seized at least 210,632 plants.

Despite the risk of arrest, Bobadilla has started a blog, Mama Cultiva — Spanish for "Mom Cultivates" — where she shares cannabis treatment success stories and helps parents looking for alternative treatments for their children's ailments.

"We get thousands of visits from parents who are frustrated. People write to us from Mexico, Argentina, and other Latin American countries," Bobadilla told VICE News as she took her daughter out to the backyard of her home in Santiago, where she keeps cannabis plants.

"The discussion on the legalization of marijuana will be difficult. There are many interests to protect in the medical sphere," Bobadilla said. "They say there is no scientific proof that would allow marijuana to be prescribed, but the side effects of the medicine that they prescribe are way worse."

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Liquid cannabis extract loaded into a syringe for oral administration. (Photo courtesy of Paulina Bobadilla)

While Chile formally decriminalized marijuana for medicinal use in 2005, all grow operations require approval from the country's agricultural service. Only one medical marijuana grow was approved in the country prior to the La Florida project, but the contract permitting the cultivation was pulled soon after.

In 2008, President Michelle Bachelet's administration classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. This means that anyone caught with marijuana receives the same treatment as a trafficker who deals in cocaine or heroin. The Bachelet administration has promised to modify that rule, and is now receiving support from a senator, Fulvio Rossi, who recently admitted consuming cannabis. Rossi was the first lawmaker to bring an initiative before Chile's Congress calling for weed decriminalization.

But for now, patients and recreational users still have to abide by the current laws, which, depending on the amount of weed involved, can carry a fine of up to $32,000 and a maximum of 20 years in prison.

When police caught Bobadilla in July with her daughter's 20-gram supply of medical pot, her brother took the fall and claimed the weed was his. He was formally indicted on charges of "micro-trafficking" — a charge used against people caught with small quantities of drugs — and now faces a minimum of 561 days in prison if convicted.

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Follow Nicolás Ríos on Twitter @nicorios.