Med­i­cal cannabis in­dus­try up, flour­ish­ing in Uruguay

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - LEONARDO HABERKORN

NUEVA HELVECIA, Uruguay — When he was younger, the only thing that En­rique Mo­rales knew about mar­i­juana was that folks smoked it to get high.

To­day, the for­mer driver is a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist on a cannabis plan­ta­tion about 80 miles west of the Uruguayan cap­i­tal of Mon­te­v­ideo, and he says drops of mar­i­juana oil have been key to treat­ing his mother’s os­teoarthri­tis.

“My per­cep­tion has now changed. It is a plant that has a lot of prop­er­ties,” he said.

The com­pany that owns the plan­ta­tion, Fot­mer SA, is now part of a flour­ish­ing med­i­cal cannabis in­dus­try in Uruguay.

The coun­try got a head start on com­peti­tors in De­cem­ber 2013 when it be­came the first in the world to reg­u­late the cannabis mar­ket from grow­ing to pur­chase, a move that has at­tracted a wave of in­vest­ment.

For Uruguayan ci­ti­zens or le­gal res­i­dents over 18 years old, the law al­lows the recre­ational use, per­sonal cul­ti­va­tion and sale in phar­ma­cies of mar­i­juana through a govern­ment-run per­mit sys­tem, and of­fi­cials later le­gal­ized the use and ex­port of med­i­cal mar­i­juana to coun­tries where it is le­gal.

No com­pany has yet be­gun large-scale ex­port op-

er­a­tions, but many say sell­ing med­i­cal cannabis oil be­yond the lo­cal mar­ket of 3.3 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants is key to stay­ing ahead of the tide and trans­form­ing Uruguay into a med­i­cal cannabis leader along with the Nether­lands, Canada and Is­rael.

“The Latin Amer­i­can mar­ket is poorly sup­plied and is grow­ing,” said Chuck Smith, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Dixie Brands in Den­ver, which re­cently formed a part­ner­ship with Kh­i­ron Life Sci­ences, a Toronto com­pany that has agreed to ac­quire Dor­mul SA, which has a Uruguayan li­cense to pro­duce med­i­cal cannabis.

Uruguay is tak­ing a lead­er­ship po­si­tion in grow­ing cannabid­iol (CBD), which is non-psy­choac­tive and used in med­i­cal prod­ucts. “So we see that as a great op­por­tu­nity from a sup­ply chain per­spec­tive,” he said.

Kh­i­ron of­fi­cials have said they should be able to ex­port med­i­cal mar­i­juana from Uruguay to south­ern Brazil un­der reg­u­la­tions of the Mer­co­sur trade bloc, mark­ing a mile­stone for Uruguayan mar­i­juana com­pa­nies fo­cused on ex­ports.

Fot­mer, in the small town of Nueva Helvecia, em­ploys 80 peo­ple and is in­vest­ing $7 mil­lion in lab­o­ra­to­ries and 10 tons of crops that it hopes to ship to coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ger­many and Canada, which is strug­gling to over­come sup­ply short­ages in its cannabis mar­ket.

Fot­mer’s 35,000 mar­i­juana plants are shel­tered in 18 green­houses mea­sur­ing 41 feet by 328 feet, where work­ers spe­cial hands gloves like with and cloth­ing, Mo­rales sur­gi­cal al­co­hol, change wash and masks their wear into to avoid the prod­uct. any con­tam­i­na­tion of

He­lena Gon­za­lez, head of qual­ity con­trol, re­search and de­vel­op­ment for Fot­mer, said the pre­cau­tions are im­por­tant in pro­duc­ing a qual­ity prod­uct that can be used in med­i­cal re­search into the ef­fects of cannabis prod­ucts.

“Aid­ing that re­search is an­other of our ob­jec­tives,” she said.

The first crop of prized flow­ers will be har­vested for their cannabis oil in March.

The oil con­tain­ing tetrahy­dro­cannabi­nol (THC) — the main ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in cannabis — and CBD will be ex­tracted in its labs to even­tu­ally man­u­fac­ture pills, creams, oint­ments, patches and other treat­ments in cases of epilepsy and chronic pain, among other ills.

Com­pe­ti­tion is ar­riv­ing as well. In De­cem­ber, Uruguayan Pres­i­dent Tabare Vazquez in­au­gu­rated a $12 mil­lion lab­o­ra­tory owned by Canada’s In­ter­na­tional Cannabis Corp., which aims to pro­duce and ex­port medicine from hemp, a va­ri­ety of cannabis that con­tains CBDs but has no psy­choac­tive ef­fects.

De­spite the mo­men­tum, ex­perts say there is one key prob­lem: Coun­tries in­clud­ing Ecuador, Cuba, Panama, El Sal­vador and Gu­atemala con­tinue to pro­hibit the recre­ational and medic­i­nal use of mar­i­juana, and ex­ports of cannabis prod­ucts are sub­ject to a com­plex web of in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions that is still be­ing de­vel­oped.

Mar­cos Baudean, a mem­ber of Mon­i­tor Cannabis at the Univer­sity of the Repub­lic of Uruguay, says an­other dif­fi­culty is that the South Amer­i­can coun­try is com­pet­ing for mar­ket share. He said cannabis ex­ports give the coun­try a chance to ex­pand be­yond its tra­di­tional ex­ports of raw ma­te­ri­als into more so­phis­ti­cated prod­ucts in­volv­ing sci­ence and bi­ol­ogy.

Diego Oliv­era, head of Uruguay s Na­tional Drug Sec­re­tariat, said Uruguay’s com­pre­hen­sive cannabis law, along with its strong rule of law and trans­par­ent in­sti­tu­tions, gives it a head-start.

“Uruguay to­day has a dy­namism in the cannabis in­dus­try that is very dif­fi­cult to find in other sec­tors,” he said.

AP/MATILDE CAMPODONICO

Mar­i­juana plants are grown in a clean room at the Fot­mer SA fa­cil­i­ties, an en­ter­prise that pro­duces cannabis for med­i­cal use, in Mon­te­v­ideo, Uruguay.

AP/MATILDE CAMPODONICO

An em­ployee of Fot­mer SA, an en­ter­prise that pro­duces cannabis for med­i­cal use, writes down ob­ser­va­tions in­side a green­house in Mon­te­v­ideo, Uruguay, late last month.

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