Latin America & Caribbean

Chile plants cannabis for medicinal use

Cecilia Heyder in October 2014
Image caption Cecilia Heyder lobbied the Chilean government to allow her to import cannabis-based medication

In most countries in the world, if you asked the local authorities for permission to grow 850 cannabis plants in a residential area of the capital city, you would probably end up in trouble.

But in Chile, the state has just agreed to such a project.

The cannabis is being planted in La Florida, a district of Santiago.

It will be harvested next April and turned into an oil which will be used as a painkiller for 200 cancer patients.

It is the first project of its kind with state backing anywhere in Latin America.

Much of the recent debate in the region over cannabis use has centred on Uruguay, which this year became the first country in the world to legalize the cultivation, sale and consumption of the drug.

But in Chile, the authorities have taken a different approach, permitting the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes only.

"We don't want to get into a debate about the personal use of marijuana," said Rodolfo Carter, the mayor of La Florida.

"Let's stick to the medical issue. This is about providing people who are suffering from cancer with a natural, healthier and cheaper treatment for their pain."

The project will be overseen by the Daya Foundation, a local not-for-profit organisation. It will be accompanied by a clinical study into the effectiveness of cannabis as a painkiller.

"Eventually, we want to make cannabis medicine available for everybody, even if they can't afford it," said Nicolas Dormal, co-founder of the foundation.

Image caption Nicolas Dormal of the Daya Foundation wants broader access to cannabis medicine

"But for now, we will concentrate on these first 200 patients."

Cannabis tea

As well as approving the project in La Florida, the Chilean authorities have also given a local woman permission to import drugs made from cannabis.

Cecilia Heyder was diagnosed with lupus, a disease of the immune system, five years ago. Then, 18 months later, she got breast cancer.

She has had a mastectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. She has taken dozens of conventional painkillers but says their side effects were devastating.

"The pain was unbearable," Ms Heyder told the BBC.

"I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I couldn't walk, I was in a wheelchair. My kids would come into my bedroom and I couldn't even raise myself from my bed to kiss them."

Last year, out of desperation, Ms Heyder got hold of some cannabis and used it to make tea.

She says the impact was immediate. It was far more effective than any of the conventional painkillers she had taken.

Ms Heyder tried to get hold of cannabis-based drugs but they were unavailable in Chile.

And so, she lobbied the government for permission to import them.

In August, she got the go-ahead and in September her drugs arrived from Europe.

According to the Chilean authorities, it is the first time that medicine made from cannabis has been legally imported into Latin America.

High cost

But the drugs are expensive - around $2,000 (£1,240) for a month's treatment.

Ms Heyder raised the money via a public campaign on social media, but she only has enough for three months.

After that, she says, she will have to go back to buying marijuana illegally on the streets, unless the Chilean state is prepared to provide cannabis-based drugs free of charge.

"Am I going to be forced back on to the black market and back to the fear of being arrested?" she asked.

"I don't want to go back to that. I don't want to live in fear of opening the door of my own house."

Epilepsy treatment

The project in La Florida aims to give cancer patients like Cecilia a cheaper, home-grown alternative to imported drugs.

If it is successful, it could be expanded to provide medicine for people suffering from other diseases - notably epilepsy.

Lucas Riffo is just six months old. He was born with severe epilepsy. At one point he was suffering 300 convulsions a day.

Image caption Baby Lucas has severe epilepsy and used to have hundreds of convulsions a day
Image caption Jorge and Gabriela Riffo experimented with giving Lucas cannabis oil

His parents, Jorge and Gabriela, gave him traditional anti-seizure medicines but they failed to solve the problem.

And so, when Lucas was still less than three months old, they gave him cannabis oil which they made themselves, illegally.

Mr Riffo says the difference in his son's health has been amazing.

"We started giving him the oil, in small doses obviously," he said.

"We made sure his heart rate and breathing were monitored carefully, and he was always fine, as long as he had the oil.

"We gave him a bit more and he went for five or six hours without convulsions. That was unthinkable before. None of the traditional anti-seizure drugs worked that well."

Scepticism

Not everyone is convinced by the benefits of marijuana.

Some doctors point out it is addictive and can cause psychological problems.

The World Health Organisation warns that cannabis impairs learning ability and can exacerbate schizophrenia. It says more research is needed into the medicinal benefits of the drug.

There is also a security issue. What is to stop medicinal marijuana falling into the hands of traffickers?

In La Florida, the authorities have erected an electric fence and barbed wire around their plantation to stop people stealing their cannabis.

Image caption Workers have erected fences around the cannabis plantation to stop thieves from stealing the plants

Mr Dormal at the Daya Foundation says that despite the potential health and security risks, marijuana should be given a chance.

"Cannabis can have some negative side effects but they are really insignificant beside other legal medicines," he says.

"If you put the negative and positive effects in the balance, cannabis is much better than traditional medicine."

For Ms Heyder, who has been told she has only months to live, the choice is clear.

"Cannabis might not cure me of my cancer or lupus but at least it alleviates the pain," she says. "And that's all I'm asking for."

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