(AFP) Uruguay wants to join the club of legal exporters of the drug that, according to United Nations data to 2016, headed the United Kingdom (67.7% of the total), the Netherlands (16.4%) and Austria (8, 7%). With the sale of cannabis for therapeutic purposes abroad, the South American country has finalized its commitment to the total legalization of the plant.
"Here we are. Cutting marijuana. This is the extraction of flowers. A plant has to take between five and 10 minutes per person "to be processed, explains to the AFP Santiago Bardanca, of 33 years, while pruning a plant of cannabis and neatly places branches and flowers in boxes of colors.
Bardanca is an expert in cultivation. He supervises his own work team at Fotmer, the US company that installed 18 greenhouses – almost 30,000 m2 roofed – for the production of marijuana for medicinal purposes in Uruguay.
The marijuana, cut and dried, will be prepared for export to Europe, Canada and Australia.
The dream and the opportunity
Inside a 1,800 m2 greenhouse, Jordan Lewis, 46, examines the plants. He is a training veterinarian. The Uruguayan law gave him the opportunity to realize the dream of having his own business linked to a plant that he has studied in detail and whose economic potential he considers enormous.
Uruguay "has been a visionary" and now "the market is growing", that is why the country can make a point in the production of medicinal cannabis, explains the businessman.
Its goal is clear: this year will have six tons of production. The second stage will reach 10 tons, then 30, and the final goal 400, for a total investment of 15 million dollars.
Behind them, the marijuana plants stand up to two meters high, fed exclusively through irrigation. The crop has plants of the same size and state of development, something key to a highly "standardized" production. The entire process follows specific protocols to supply the pharmaceutical industry, which is, Lewis explains, the main destination of its flower and extract production.
"Our goal is to become a leading supplier of cannabis for medical use" taking advantage of the legal and institutional advantages offered by Uruguay, he says, while the boxes destined for the drying plant advance isolated from the outside world, in a highly secured perimeter.
The harvest is intense and stressful. It is done in a few days, in shifts that cover 24 hours. Flowers are prescribed as medicine in countries such as Germany; other chemical components are destined for specific remedies, explains Lewis.
The flowers enter a chain of processing that unites the industrial with the artisanal. The harvest is done manually. A cutter allows to detach the remains of leaves. The final classification or "manicure", by size of the flower, is done by hand. Each area is separated. Going from one to another involves changing clothes, masks, and footwear, countless times. Between one room and another, a pressurization system prevents the doors that connect each area from being opened at the same time and there is even air passage between them.
"This is 'hyperparanoia'," describes Asim Beg, scientific director of Fotmer. It is essential to minimize the risk of contamination of a biological product that, in short, "is a medicine like any other medicine".
The steps are calculated in detail: after cutting at the exact moment, six days of drying and six days of rest or "stabilization" for the flowers, during which the chemical components reach their final state, come. The packaging takes two days.
The result: only 12% humidity in the flower and a record that allows to trace each step of the product. "The whole life of the plant is followed from the plantation to the sale," explains Beg. It is "a requirement" of the pharmaceutical industry, he adds.
It all started with 10 seedlings that were cloned until they reached 10,000. "It's exciting," Lewis says with his team at the end of the process, holding the first silver bags loaded with marijuana for export.
They weigh three kilos. At a price in the international market of three to seven dollars per gram, the burden of each bag ranges between 9,000 and 21,000 dollars.
Photo of equipment, bag in hand. First production, first export. Your destination, Germany, from where the distribution will begin.
In the American continent, the states of Colorado and Washington in the United States, and countries such as Canada, Colombia and Chile have advanced in different schemes of drug regulation. Uruguay established a pioneering law to regulate its recreational use, and now it is betting on medicinal cannabis to take economic advantage of the initiative.
Source AFP / Portal 180
Photo: Pablo Porciuncula