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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Latin America's first medical marijuana farm has taken root in a dusty yard at a secret location in Chile's capital, with the blessing of a prominent right-wing official and high hopes the idea could sprout elsewhere in the socially conservative nation.
A debut crop of around 100 kilos (221 lbs) of prime cannabis bud - with a value of $2 million on the street - was harvested this month from the farm in La Florida, a middle-class Santiago neighborhood, and sent to a laboratory for processing.
The project is the brainchild of a curious alliance between Rodolfo Carter, a right-wing municipal mayor with progressive tendencies, and a privately-funded foundation ran by Ana Maria Gazmuri, a 1980s TV soap star who is now an advocate for alternative "holistic" medicine.
Scientists plan to extract the active ingredients from the cannabis for use in the treatment of 200 cancer patients who signed up via the local healthcare system or through the foundation.
"If there is a therapeutic property to cannabis that relieves pain it would be a criminal irresponsibility as a leader not to give it to citizens who need it," Carter said at the farm, where the strong smell of marijuana lingers and security staff keep a watchful eye.
Although Chile has not followed Uruguay's lead in legalizing marijuana, it allows the cultivation and use of the plant for medicinal purposes.
Cannabis-derived treatments have been found to relieve pain and stimulate hunger in cancer patients, as well as help children with epilepsy. Demand in Chile for medicinal marijuana has far outstripped supply, Gazmuri said.
Municipalities from Arica in the country's far north to Punta Arenas in Patagonia have show interest in setting up a larger farm, she said.
"We are working with around 20 local governments, looking at a large plantation to optimize resources," she said.
Besides dealing with the logistical issues of growing a crop attractive to drug traffickers and only legal under certain conditions, the project had to overcome a social stigma attached to marijuana.
For some years following the 1974-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chile remained an extremely conservative country, where abortion and divorce were outlawed and illicit drug use heavily punished.
But left-wing governments have taken baby steps in recent years towards a more liberal path, legalizing gay and lesbian civil partnerships and proposing a loosening of abortion rules, as well as giving the nod to start up the La Florida project.
"I belong to a generation that considered marijuana was linked to people who lived on the margins of the law, but it's not like that," said Carter, 43.
"It's a change of mentality that began with me."
Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Paul Simao