SANTIAGO Latin America's largest medicinal marijuana farm was formally inaugurated on Tuesday, marking another step in the region's growing acceptance of therapeutic uses for the formerly illegal plant.
The 6,900-stalk plantation, located in the small town of Colbun, some 275 kilometers (170 miles) south of Santiago, will help treat some 4,000 patients from across Chile, organizers said.
This project follows on the work of a smaller, experimental plantation at a secret location in the capital, Santiago, and comes as Chile's Congress debates the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use and cultivation.
The head of the foundation behind the project, Ana Maria Gazmuri, said opinions about the use of cannabis were shifting in traditionally conservative Chile.
"This farm will further permit people to see for themselves the reality of the plant, and what its uses are," Gazmuri, a 1980s TV soap opera star and advocate of "holistic" medicine, told Reuters.
Project organizers hope to harvest 1.5 tonnes (1.65 tons) of marijuana between March and May, under the supervision of the government's agricultural service.
Organizers told La Tercera newspaper they will be working with a variety of laboratories and universities to develop cannabis-based therapies that can help patients with chronic pain, complications from cancer and epilepsy, among other conditions.
In 2013, Uruguay moved to fully legalize marijuana, a pioneering step that has been watched closely across the globe.
A Mexican court ruling in November opened the door to limited amounts of legal cannabis cultivation. Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos in December signed a decree that legalized medical marijuana, which he said does not weaken the government's fight against illicit crops and drug trafficking.
Gazmuri said some government officials had opposed the initiative, delaying its approval and causing headaches for her group.
But she added that despite Chile's conservative reputation, there were signs that attitudes were changing, at a time when the center-left government has been pushing for reforms to abortion and same-sex civil unions.
"Regarding marriage equality, regarding cannabis, regarding abortion - the majority opinion is in favor of securing these rights," Gazmuri said.
(This version of the story correct figure in paragraph 6, to 1.5 tonnes from 1.5 million tonnes)
(Reporting by Gram Slattery; editing by Rosalba O'Brien and G Crosse)