Monday, May 16

The Government denies the therapeutic effects of cannabis but doubles the permits for pharmaceutical companies to grow it

If a German doctor prescribes cannabis to a patient to alleviate chronic pain, chances are high that this marijuana was legally grown in Spain with permission from our Government. A Spanish patient in similar conditions, however, will not have that possibility. You will have to call a dealer and buy marijuana on the black market, even if a few meters from your house there is a marijuana cultivation authorized by the Ministry of Health.

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Medical cannabis in Spain is subject to a great contradiction, explain patients, researchers and activists consulted. The Government to date has not admitted the therapeutic effects of this substance and considers that there is not enough scientific evidence to approve its use. During the last year, however, the Ministry of Health has increased by 230% the authorizations for various companies to cultivate medicinal cannabis in different parts of the country. Marijuana, once cultivated, is exported to one of the 17 European countries that do contemplate its use for patients with certain ailments.

Licenses to grow medicinal cannabis granted by the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products (AEMPS) have gone from 9 last year to 21 this June, when the new data was published. Of these licenses, 13 are for research purposes and 8 to produce and export abroad.

“It is an absolute contradiction,” says Cristina Sánchez, a cannabinoid researcher and professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Complutense University of Madrid. “On the one hand, the Government continues to say that there is no scientific evidence but at the same time the AEMPS grants licenses to cultivate.”

“It is not uncommon for the industry to manufacture products that are only authorized in other countries,” respond from the AEMPS. “This happens both in the cultivation of plants destined to the production of narcotic drugs, as well as in the production industry, also in the chemical industry.”

More contradictions. At the same time that the Government continues to sow doubts about the properties of cannabis for cancer patients or patients with chronic pain, Spain voted in December 2020 at the UN together with almost all European and many American states for the entity to recognize that the substance it can be used to treat certain ailments. In Spain, on the other hand, the cultivation of medicinal cannabis is regulated today by a law of the Franco regime, approved in 1967.

The half dozen patients, activists, researchers and growers interviewed for this report admit that the increase in licenses in the last year is positive. They also recognize that something is moving in Spain – a subcommittee has recently been approved in Congress to study the models of other countries – although progress is at a snail’s pace and is leaving the country at the bottom of the Western world.

Some believe, however, that the AEMPS ‘way of acting when granting these licenses has been opaque, arbitrary and has facilitated the “hitting” of some companies that have been acquired by multinationals once permission to grow crops was obtained. They also highlight the risk that small growers or patient associations will be relegated from these licenses, requiring an infrastructure and investment that can only be assumed by a few.

“Cannabis licenses in Spain are a game with marked cards,” says Hugo Madera, spokesman for the European Observatory for the Cultivation and Consumption of Cannabis (OECCC), one of the voices most critical of the current system. “The procedure is adapted to each specific case and we should have clear and equal public standards for all.”

Madera recalls another of the multiple inconsistencies with the situation in Spain: while the AEMPS grants licenses to grow medicinal cannabis in our country, the entity collaborated with the Civil Guard in a recent operation that involved the dismantling of the largest Spanish seed bank and sent the garete a research project that this company carried out together with the University of the Basque Country.

The “hit” of licenses

In recent years, there have been several companies that have greatly appreciated and have been sold to foreign multinationals once they have obtained the license from the AEMPS to grow cannabis in Spain.

The first to obtain it in 2016 was Alcaliber, owned by the great opium businessman in Spain Juan Abelló. Once the license was obtained, the company was sold in 2018 to a British investment fund that controls the majority of the company – now called Linneo Health – from a firm based in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

Cafina, another start up which obtained permission from the AEMPS in 2018, was absorbed a year later by the Canadian multinational Canopy Growth, dedicated to producing cannabis products and considered the largest in the sector with a market capitalization that has reached 18,000 million euros. The amount paid to acquire the Spanish company did not transcend.

History has repeated itself in 2021, when the American cannabis giant Curaleaf Holdings has acquired a British company for 237 million euros, which includes Medalchemy, a company from Alicante that also has a license to grow legally in Spain. “Through this acquisition, Curaleaf is established in the European market, considered the largest potential market in the cannabis industry,” the company said in a recent statement.

“Americans are very clear about the steps to establish themselves in the European market,” says Carola Pérez, user of therapeutic cannabis and president of the Spanish Observatory of Medicinal Cannabis (OECM), on the strategy of multinationals to acquire companies in Spain that They have the required license. From the AEMPS they assure that “they have not detected” that the entities with permission to cultivate have sold their authorization.

Until 2018, the way to obtain one of these licenses was a mystery. There was no regulated administrative procedure that specified what had to be submitted to the AEMPS in order to obtain the aforementioned authorization. The entity did not even make public which companies had this permission and it was only known thanks to parliamentary responses and a resolution of the Council for Transparency and Good Government. Since then, the winning companies are published every year and a list of the requirements to request the license can be accessed.

The war on CBD

Another scenario that demonstrates the double standard with cannabis in Spain is the war recently waged against CBD crops, a non-psychoactive derivative of cannabis – and therefore cannot be considered a drug – on the rise throughout the world due to its analgesic properties , antioxidants and anti-inflammatory, among others.

The crops of this marijuana that it does not sell have multiplied in Spain at the same rate as the seizures, especially in Andalusia, where many farmers changed their vegetables for this type of cannabis due to the great global demand and the benefits generated by its cultivation.

As much as CBD is not a drug, today it is in legal limbo and the authorities understand that an authorization from the AEMPS is required to grow this type of marijuana. The doubts have led the chief drug prosecutor to publish a recent instruction for prosecutors across the country in which he says that marijuana buds, even if they do not contain a psychoactive substance, should be treated as if they were drugs.

The problem seems to be, according to the sources consulted, that an attempt is being made to regulate a 21st century phenomenon with a Franco regime law. The result is a legal product for sale but not its production. “How can one pretend to regulate the cultivation of CBD with laws of 1961 and 1967, passed when no one knew the uses of this derivative?” Asks Hugo Madera, from the OECCC. “It is urgent that Spain be updated once and for all.”

Obstacles to self-cultivation

Pérez, from the OECM, has spent years meeting with politicians and trying to get a regulation on the therapeutic use of cannabis approved in Spain. Although he would prefer that recreational consumption and self-cultivation were also regulated, he has assumed that this will not happen anytime soon.

It is committed to a more pragmatic vision and to conquer rights step by step, even if the main beneficiary of a hypothetical regulation – apart from patients like her – end up being the big companies and pharmaceutical companies. His stance has drawn criticism from some activists in the sector, who believe that there should be a fight to achieve a regulation that allows growing at home, selling and buying cannabis, no matter how much it is not needed for medical purposes.

“You cannot be naive,” he says about the possibilities of a regulation in Spain that benefits small producers or allows self-cultivation. “Only companies that have funding and financial strength will be able to opt for licenses, it is a situation that occurs in all European countries.”

Cristina Sánchez, the professor and researcher at the Complutense, believes that the “small consumer” should be left out of the requirement of these licenses and that the regulatory model includes self-cultivation. “I would not recommend a cancer patient to grow his marijuana at home, I would say that he better wait until the health system can provide him with a quality and regulated compound,” he says. “But if someone has insomnia or chronic pain, they should be able to have plants at home and vaporize their buds.”

Pérez points out that patients cannot wait any longer and recalls that, after years of work and meetings, the only thing that has been achieved to date is the aforementioned subcommittee in Congress. “We move slower than anyone and the fact of being the last has many drawbacks,” he added in a telephone conversation. “We have lost our talent, we have lost money and business opportunities for many companies that have gone to other countries.”