Swayed by advocates’ slogan of “For a day without pain,” the National Assembly of Panama voted on Aug. 30 to legalize medical marijuana.
The bill now awaits the signature of President Laurentino Cortizo of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which is expected shortly—despite a pressure campaign from the conservative political opposition.
Tight Control —But Conservatives Not Appeased
Medical marijuana measures have been pending in Panama’s unicameral National Assembly since in 2017. Fundación LUCES Panama, an advocacy organization for epilepsy sufferers, testified before the body in support of the right of patients to access cannabis.
Also critical was the testimony of Dr. Sandra Carrillo, a professor with the University of Panama medical school and the country’s foremost medical cannabis specialist.
In an interview outside the National Assembly chambers ahead of the vote, Carrillo sad, “This law will improve the quality of life for patients…. Some epilepsy patients are taking two or three medications, and they still don’t work. Medical cannabis provides an alternative that can relieve their pain and suffering, and that of their families… There are many Panamanians suffering from conditions that other medicines have not been able to alleviate.”
This year, National Assembly president Crispiano Adames (PRD) threw his support behind the final version, Law 153. It calls for establishment of a Cannabis Technical Council, with two representatives from patient groups to oversee the program. A national registry of qualified users is to be established, and an initial seven licenses to be granted for importation and domestic production of cannabis-based medicines.
Domestic production is to take place under tight control, with surveillance systems and other security measures. Pharmacies vending cannabis products will also have to apply for a permit and pass a site inspection. There is no provision for home cultivation.
Nonetheless, the law was opposed by Panama’s pharmaceutical industry. While media accounts are stating that Law 153 passed “unanimously” because there were 44 votes in favor and none against, this is not quite accurate. There are 71 seats in the National Assembly, and the discrepancy of 27 votes seems to be due either to abstentions or lawmakers barred from the chamber because they were infected with COVID-19.
Lawmaker Mayin Correa of the conservative Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change) coalition, who had recently tested positive for the coronavirus, tweeted angrily after approval of Law 153: “They did not allow me to vote virtually, and my vote was ‘NO.’ I do not agree with the growing of cannabis.”
Warning of “insecurity” and “high criminality,” she has called upon President Cortizo to veto the bill.
Will Ticos Be Toking?
Activists in Costa Rica are of course looking hopefully to the example next door in Panama. For the past years, advocacy group Costa Rica Alchemy has been pushing for a medical marijuana program for “Ticos,” as Costa Ricans call themselves.
This year, a bill was introduced in the unicameral Legislative Assembly by independent lawmaker Zoila Rosa Volio, an agronomist by training. She is pushing both medical marijuana and industrial hemp as a solution for Costa Rican farmers who have been hit hard by free-trade policies that undermined prices for traditional crops.
“It is a market of billions of dollars, and Costa Rica could be a part of it,” Volio said in a 2018 interview, as recalled by the English-language Tico Times.
Last month, the bill cleared the Environment Commission, which means it can now go to a floor vote. It is certain to meet stiff opposition from the powerful evangelical bloc in the Legislative Assembly. This bloc only controls 14 of the 57 seats, but the remainder may be swayed either way. President Carlos Alvarado of the center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC) says he supports a hemp industry for the country but isn’t yet convinced on a medical marijuana program.
As the Tico Times reports, Health Minister Daniel Salas recently acknowledged that there is “a growing body” of research demonstrating the benefits of medicinal cannabis. However, he added that he opposes recreational use and that production can only take place “when the country has all the conditions to guarantee that there will be no vulnerability in security.”
A powerful moral voice for medical marijuana in Costa Rica is Rodrigo Martín, a cancer patient in the town of Santa Ana who was given six months to live by oncologists in 2018. He credits cannabis oil treatments with extending his life and is now a partner in California’s CannaMed Life. “I decided to live, I lead a totally normal life and I owe it to God and to cannabis,” he told Tico Times.
Martín openly acknowledges that he obtains the oil illegally—of necessity. He said that a doctor friend brings in cannabis from abroad and produces the oil for him.
Having to skirt the law to survive has given Martín an intransigent posture. He emphasized that, contrary to all the security concerns, he would push to make cannabis more freely accessible. “What Doña Zoila Rosa Volio is doing seems phenomenal to me, but I would make it more open, make it more available, so that anyone can buy it without the need for a prescription,” Martín said.