The following article, written by journalist Vanessa Adachi, was originally published in Portuguese by Reset on November 24th.
Lawyer and businesswoman Patrícia Villela Marino doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. As well as being an activist for the rights of women in and out of prison, she has also become one of the most vocal advocates of regulating the medicinal and industrial use of cannabis in Brazil.
“Brazil can move the needle on the world stage,” says she, who is CEO of the NGO Humanitas360 and married to Ricardo Villela Marino, from one of the three controlling families of Itaúsa and Itaú Unibanco, the country’s largest private bank.
She defends the country’s vocation to stand out in the nascent cannabis economy, with potential for social inclusion and regenerative agriculture, and has put her capital and her rapport in the business and political circles in favor of the cause, whether personally exercising advocacy or supporting the country’s main accelerator of cannabis business startups.
The schedule is intense. On the day she spoke to Reset, Villela Marino had just arrived from a public hearing at the São Paulo Legislative Assembly organized by the Parliamentary Front for Medicinal Cannabis and Industrial Hemp.
She has also traveled frequently to Brasilia, where she is a member of the Council of the Presidency of the Republic and participates in a working group on cannabis whose mission is to standardize understanding on the subject within the government.
She entered the field just over ten years ago. Her son, Daniel, was a newborn and she was approached by the directors of the documentary “Ilegal”, Tarso Araújo and Rafael Erichsen, in search of funds to finish the production.
“They caught me at a very special moment. As demanding as motherhood is, I had a child who slept peacefully. And I put myself in the place of those mothers in the documentary, whose children’s brains fried 60 times a day, with convulsions,” she says. “I was in the first cycle of breastfeeding, pumped full of the hormone of love. It was a very important moment for my transformation, for my cultural literacy, and after that came racial literacy.”
She co-produced the documentary, started attending conferences and immersed herself in the subject, never to leave.
“Today, in order to have access to quality medicinal cannabis, we have to buy a very expensive medicine. The fight for national cultivation is essential so that this medicine is not elitist.”
In the following interview, she talks about the urgency of approving the regulatory framework that has been in Congress since 2015 so that Brazil can use its potential for planting, producing medicines and industrial applications, ranging from textiles to plastics and cosmetics, one of the most promising business fronts.
What exactly have you been advocating in relation to cannabis?
I have advocated for the legalization of the medicinal use of cannabis and I have advocated for the legalization of the industrial use of hemp. It’s all in the Bill 399, which is in Congress.
It’s fundamental for us to have a framework that provides legal certainty for investment. Investment in agribusiness, investment in research. Embrapa needs to do for hemp what it did for soy; and for that it needs to do research. And for that it needs to have an appetite for investment; funds that can invest because there is legal certainty in the scenario.
We need security to be able to test and prove the decarbonization that hemp can promote, for example.
It’s not even possible to do research today?
The law now ensures that cultivation for scientific research is possible. The Federal University of Viçosa, for example, recently asked Anvisa for permission to plant 5,000 cannabis plants.
Which countries have good examples of legal frameworks?
Medical use already happens in the United States, but not under federal regulation, but under state regulation, which is a very negative point because it makes financial transactions from one state to another impossible and creates the need for a cash economy, which is very bad.
Canada and Uruguay, especially Canada, might be a good example of sustainability and diversity to look at. Germany should be another good example. I look to Switzerland with good expectations because of the pharmaceutical industry.
Brazil can now move the needle on the world stage. Because of its territorial size, climatic conditions and necessity. Some families could grow their own industrial hemp without any psychoactive risks involved. The installed scientific capacity is also a differential: today the world’s largest collection of CBD studies is at USP in Ribeirão Preto.
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that has no psychoactive properties, right? Shouldn’t it be considered a plant like any other, which can be cultivated?
On purpose, everything has been put in the same pot. I don’t even like to use the word drug for the psychoactive substances in cannabis, because it’s pejorative. They are important substances for life and not for narcotics. If we’re going to talk about drugs, I’m going to talk about fentanyl, which is killing people without any benefit. In the same pot you have opioids, LSD, MDMA and cannabis is there. And, worst of all, hemp is there.
But cannabis is essentially a plant. And I like to say it’s a plant so that people don’t confuse it with a joint. You’re talking about cannabis and the person is thinking about that “big joint”. And if you analyze it, you’ll see that there’s urea, feces and a lot of things that really damage the neurons.
We’re talking about a plant and what’s going to be made of it are its branches for industrial and medicinal use. And all of this is absolutely traceable.
How do the associations that produce cannabis in Brazil for medicinal use work?
They are supported by habeas corpus that allow them to exist in a regime of exception.
In industrial use, which is less talked about, what are the possibilities?
There are at least 25,000 direct and indirect uses. It’s a plant that can be used in its entirety. The leaves can be used for one thing, the flowers for another, the stem for another, the root for another.
I had to cancel a trip to Israel recently and ended up going to the Venice Biennale, where, to my surprise, in the Belgian pavilion I saw that they had developed a type of brick with fungi that proliferate and create a very consistent weave. These fungi need a body to integrate. Today, at Alesp [where a hearing on cannabis took place], a scientist brought up exactly that: the hemp stalk can be this structure for the fungi to manifest themselves and we can produce elements for the construction sector.
It can be used as animal feed and also for us, as a superfood.
In the United States, the FDA has already approved it and you can buy hemp flakes to put in your food.
Hemp also plays a regenerative role for the environment. At the same time as it treats the soil, sucking out heavy minerals and other things, it decarbonizes the air and retains that carbon. Hemp production is carbon neutral, taking into account planting, transportation and everything else.
What are the most promising applications?
The cosmetics industry is one of the most promising. Today, studies show that it already generates savings of US$ 800 million worldwide. By 2030, it is estimated to be worth US$ 10 billion.
Even before the legal framework, there seems to be an intense business movement establishing itself in Brazil, around medicinal use, the use of hemp in the textile industry and others. A whole business ecosystem seems to be forming. Is that so?
Yes, there are many businesses speculating that we will have the regulatory framework in this government and wanting to understand how they can position themselves. Even companies that preferred to come to Brazil, but had to go elsewhere and set up in Colombia, for example, and then come here.
I have a very close relationship with The Green Hub platform and they are very often called upon to make business plans for companies.
I’m fighting with many other people for legalization to be a regulatory framework for Brazilian industry. Because if the legislature delays, it will create ways for companies from other countries to take over what should be a place for Brazilian startups, Brazilian industries and Brazilian pharmaceutical companies.
And what is the Green Hub and what is its involvement?
I’m an investor, if not the biggest, the only investor. And they have some startups in their portfolio. And I got involved with them because of the concern they have always shown for being articulators of an ecosystem of inclusion, reparation and knowledge production.
Much more than aiming for production itself, on the shelves of pharmacies, they have always sought to produce knowledge, education and cannabis culture.
In terms of financial contributions made to startups, they are small. The job is much more about providing tools and monitoring than writing a check. It’s how we make sure that this startup doesn’t prostitute itself along the way, but is faithful to its commitment to be a partner in the formation of a Brazilian market that is aware of the cannabis philosophy.
We don’t want businesses that simply take money and then sell it on to someone else.
And what exactly do you want?
That these companies can be constantly testing technologies, delving deeper into the creation of a cannabis market that is extremely committed to the environment, to governance and to the social responsibilities that we have in Brazil, of reparation, of inclusion.
But what is the way forward for Brazil to have a regulatory framework?
Today we have to talk about Bill 399 of 2015, which is in Congress. That’s all we have for the day. And then carry out a very assertive, conscious and responsible regulatory process within PL 399.
And what is being done in the Council? It’s not related to the legal framework, right? What exactly is it?
What we’re going to do within the Council is to bring about qualified debates, understandings and perhaps a possible common statement or resolution for the whole government, which can help the executives, the ministries, the regulatory agencies, everyone to understand what we’re talking about.
And is this being echoed within the government?
I’m not going to speak for our president by saying he’s going to do one thing or another. But we are in a democratic government that gives us the openness and breadth to exercise our citizenship and our votes. And that’s what we’re working towards.
Do you think there’s a real chance of the Cannabis Bill being approved?
I’m an enthusiastic person with a lot of faith, so the answer is yes.
But today it’s in the drawer…
Today it is. But the states are starting to move. In São Paulo, it took us three years to have a bill for distribution in the SUS, right? In February we had the governor’s signature and now the regulatory process is underway. The way I see it, it’s a little weakened, because there are only three diseases that have been listed for patients to receive via SUS. But we are moving forward in this democratic process.
You often mention the narrative of the fight against drugs. Can you explain what you mean?
It began with the Nixon administration in the United States. We’re talking about a hygienist policy, linked to white supremacy, of turning everything that is out of line with this context into an outcast. The black population had traditionally consumed hashish since Africa. And there was a policy of criminalizing and penalizing these people with the intention of leaving them on the margins of our decision-making.
The legalization of cannabis in New York State, for example, only happened when the black movements supported it; and it happened with requirements to reparations for historical, racial damages.
What kind of reparations?
For example, there is an incentive for [cannabis-related] businesses to be opened by the black community. People who have paid the price of the law should be reintegrated into society and supported, so that they can be employed without the stigma of having been arrested for trafficking.
It’s something we’re going to have to think about when it comes to Brazilian regulations, if we ever get our legalization: how we insert a very large population group that has paid a huge price.
It’s the same as tobacco becoming an outlawed substance and you being arrested because you smoke it. Except that wouldn’t happen to us whites. But it did happen to black people with regard to their customs, which were marginalized.
The legal framework for cannabis that’s in Congress doesn’t include mechanisms for reparations and you’ve said that you can’t have a perfect law.
I think that when the law is regulated, we’ll be able to build the production and business matrices and detail how they will happen. And then we’ll be responsible for inserting these people into the startups that work on developing this economy.
Do you mean to define in the regulations how the population marginalized by drugs will be included in this new cannabis economy?
That’s right. Because the text of the law today defines cannabis for cosmetic use, the law defines hemp for agriculture, family farming, so there are all the productive sectors there, including pharmaceuticals, and in these productive sectors I think we should put quotas, for example, for people who otherwise wouldn’t be included in the labor market.
But when it comes to making investments, creating companies, doesn’t cannabis tend to become a white man’s business?
The majority of financial capital, let’s say, is white. But there is a great intellectual capital that is not only white. Within academia, we have great intellectual capital that is not represented by the white supremacists who hold the economic capital in the country. And I think that it is in this combination of capitals that we create the most important capital of all, which is civic capital.
Of course, at a second stage, you have to create forced, if not natural, conditions for economic capital to be less white.
The coffee economy is gone, the milk economy is gone. It’s in this new economy that we have the capacity to make it more inclusive. That’s what I believe in.
Being part of one of the richest families in the country opens doors for you, it gives you the rapport to take this agenda forward, right?
It also closes.
Where does it open and where does it close doors?
If I was interested in creating a white economy with the cannabis agenda, I would only have open doors. But that’s not my purpose and then I find some closed doors.
People also see me with this stereotype of being a white woman who represents capital. And it’s these closed doors that I really want to open. Or to have them opened for me.
Can you mention an example?
Parts of the academic community, for example, turn up their noses. Some parts of the black movement turn up their noses. I’ve participated in lives where I’ve been extremely harassed.
There must be a distrust of what your real agenda is.
That’s right. But then I have an ancestral responsibility and I take it on, not with guilt, but with responsibility. And so I make an effort to ensure that this stereotype is no greater than the truth I have to tell.
And in your social circle?
“Here comes Patricia with her business…” It used to bother me more. I think it’s the exercise of living with discomfort that will show you the eternal and enormous discomfort that these people who need this medication or who need to be included in this new economy go through every day. Without that, we’ll never be able to get any closer.