While both the United States and Mexico continue to suffer in their own ways from the war on drugs — one from skyrocketing overdose rates and the other from ruthless, omnipresent cartels — the neighbors are now linked by the unlikely exporting of cannabis-related products from Southern California to Latin America.
HempMeds, a subsidiary of Medical Marijuana Inc., has formed the first cannabis-based export partnership to Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile with its export of Real Scientific Hemp Oil and its THC-free counterpart, Real Scientific Hemp Oil-X. The plants for these treatments are grown in northern European microclimates and claim to be free of pesticides and herbicides.
The California-based company's partnership with Mexico — an ally of particular interest thanks to cultural and historical ties that date back centuries — was solidified earlier this year when Cofepris, the Mexican health department, approved the country’s first permit allowing the import of hemp-based CBD oil across its border. The announcement came after years of intense pressure on Mexican authorities from medical marijuana allies and advocates pleading on behalf of two families with children who have severe forms of epilepsy. Recently, Mexico also eased up on its no-THC stance and passed the country’s first medical marijuana legislation. Many in Mexico see the move as a step toward eventually legalizing pot in a nation drowning in drug violence.
“Despite the terrible cartel violence, the regulatory authority in Mexico saw the potential for CBD,” says Stuart Titus, CEO of Medical Marijuana Inc. “Today we remain the only legal, cannabis-based products allowed into the country.”
The road to Mexico's evolving stance on marijuana begins with Alina Maldonado Montes de Oca, a young girl from the small town of San Andres Tuxtla in the state of Veracruz. She had her first seizure when she was just an infant. They increased almost immediately, peaking at 25 to 40 small attacks per day, with grand mal seizures striking up to twice per week. Doctors found that she had hypoxia, an oxygen deficiency to certain parts of the body, which affected her brain development and caused both epilepsy and infantile cerebral palsy. Maldonado was treated with 14 different kinds of medication, each one with an array of painful side effects, including liver damage and gastritis.
Eventually Maldonado’s father came across a similar case in the United States that was treated successfully by CBD. Cannabidiol has been gaining traction stateside as an alternative to harsh drugs after several American studies showed that it can drastically reduce the number of seizures in small children with Lennox-Gastaut (LGS) and Dravet syndromes.
But in Mexico, cannabis-based treatment is viewed with suspicion and remains highly taboo. So when the Maldonado family discovered that another Mexican family had a child with the same kind of disorder, the two families combined their efforts and participated in a series of congressional hearings in Mexico City in January. On Feb. 1, 2016, they were rewarded when Cofepris granted permits for the little girls to receive CBD treatments from abroad.
“We are very humbled to have this opportunity,” Titus says. “Our products seem to work when traditional medications haven’t been able to control these seizures.”
Conditional permits for CBD are not unprecedented — a Mexican judge sanctioned similar treatments last year to a third girl — but the medication is strictly regulated. All imports must be free of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and contain no psychoactive properties. In other words, they cannot get patients stoned. Brazil has a similar arrangement with Medical Marijuana Inc., whose hemp oil was first allowed in the country in 2014 on a case-by-case basis for the treatment of chronic pain, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
“We helped educate the government [in Brazil] and, going further, the government saw this product actually helped control these seizure disorders. Since there wasn’t a good pharmaceutical medication, the regulatory officials declared it would be inhumane to keep these products from the patients,” Titus says.
HempMeds now is treating approximately 1,500 families with epileptic children in Brazil, comprising approximately 40 percent of juvenile patients, Titus adds. Brazilian authorities also have approved the import of marijuana-based treatment for a woman with Zika virus.
The idea that cannabis-based products are making their way into countries historically tied to drug trafficking is an irony not at all lost on Titus, who traded in a career on Wall Street to become first a physical therapist and now the CEO of the U.S.’ first publicly traded marijuana company.
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“Here we’ve developed a reverse cannabis pipeline,” Titus says. “But it’s been very interesting — even some of the elite people in Mexico are underground cannabis connoisseurs. They all love the best American-grown cannabis.”
Part of the allure in spreading operations throughout Latin America is the region’s cultural connection to alternative medicine. Unlike the United States, where big pharmaceutical companies largely determine which treatments are in vogue, doctors south of the border regularly prescribe homeopathic cures to their patients. That marijuana comes mired with a bad reputation is just one more obstacle to overcome in a global economy already becoming more weed-friendly.
"It's been years that we've been fighting for acknowledgment and approval and recognition of the medical and therapeutic uses of cannabis, and today we finally have something," said Lisa Sanchez, director of drug policy for Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia, a group working to curb crime.
Titus first came across medicinal marijuana while treating athletes recovering from sports injuries in North Carolina. Since then, he has been increasingly interested in alternative medicine and botanical solutions. He says “Latin America’s connection to nature” is something we in the north should seek to emulate. “All modern medicines came from plants,” he says. “We’ve moved away from that and now only look at synthetic medicine. It’s a shame.”