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Mother Courage in Peru

Posted on October 3rd, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , .


The woman behind the South American nation's new medical marijuana law may yet face prison time. Her crime? Providing the only medicine that worked for her ailing son.

In the working-class Lima district of Pueblo Libre, I make my way to an apartment complex and up to the flat of Ana Álvarez—the unlikely woman almost singly responsible for Peru’s groundbreaking new medical marijuana law.

In a bedroom, 18-year-old Anthony watches a noisy Spiderman movie, occasionally interrupting through the open door as I chat with his mom in the living room. Anthony suffers from tuberous sclerosis, a severe form of epilepsy, and was the voiceless central figure behind the events that led to a major reform of Peru’s drug laws in 2017.

It is difficult listening as Ana Álvarez, a single mother of four who works as a dental technician, relates the years of anguish that led up to this.

"Anthony has suffered from severe epilepsy since he was three years old," she tells me. "For years, he had seven or eights fits each day. Pharmaceuticals would work only for three or four months. Trying one medicine, another—that's how the years passed. We went to different neurologists, they all said the same thing—there's no cure. And with each fit, neurons are killed, and the condition worsens."

At 11 years old, Anthony was suffering from moderate mental retardation. By 16, he was in what Álvarez calls a "psychiatric crisis." He had scars from falling, there were emergency room visits, periods of internment in neurological hospitals. His muscles atrophied, he couldn't sleep—and he was "acting out emotionally."

Finally, Ana's two young sons from a second marriage, Hugo and David, were sent to live with their father in the neighboring district of San Miguel because it was no longer safe for them to share an apartment with Anthony. Álvarez starts to cry as she recalls this. "I'm sorry," she says. "It was a very difficult time for us."

She checks off a litany of pharmaceuticals she tried—each associated with side effects such as liver damage, or loss of appetite. "Each would calm him a little, but damage something else. And none worked for long. By 2015, he was having five to 20 fits a day. He was taking 16 different pills a day for epilepsy, and six more for psychiatric problems. Life didn’t seem worth living."

Hope after tribulation
Then on October 10, 2015, Álvarez saw a CNN report on Charlotte’s Web—the cannabis variety heavy in the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD, whose efficacy against epilepsy was then stirring new medical marijuana laws in several states of the USA.

"One day in desperation I made a máte of marijuana, which I bought on the black market," she says, using the Peruvian word for any herbal tea preparation.

Anthony's reaction was dramatic. "His eyes turned red and he slept and slept—almost 72 hours. His pulse and breathing became relaxed. He went two days without a fit for the first time in years. And I began investigating."

Álvarez established contact with Paulina Bobadilla of Mamá Cultiva, the Chile-based cannabis advocacy organization which led the effort behind that country's medical marijuana program, then just getting off the ground.

"She told me I had to cultivate, prepare my own medicine for my son. But I knew nothing about this. It was something totally new for me."

With Dorothy Santiago, another Lima mom whose infant son was suffering from a similar ailment, Álvarez in December 2015 started the instant-messenger group Buscando Esperanza—Seeking Hope—after they found each other on Facebook.

The turning point came when Álvarez and Santiago went to the meeting of a mutual aid group for family members of epilepsy sufferers, and one member said she "used gotas to control it." Drops of cannabis oil, administered orally.

In April 2016 Javier Pedraza of the Barcelona-based Spanish Observatory of Medicinal Cannabis did a talk at the Peruvian Medical College in Lima. Through connections made there, Álvarez got a contact to provide "gotas"—but at cost of 1,320 soles a month. That's a prohibitive $430, more or less.

Under administration of the gotas, Anthony began to come back from the brink. His fits became less frequent. "He began to eat and sleep, his manner became more calm, he began to connect. His quality of life improved very much."

Now convinced that cannabis oil was the vital medication for her son, Álvarez launched a public campaign—petitions, marches, vigils outside the Congress building and Ministry of Health. And interviews with the press—including an appearance on the national TV news show "Punto Final."

"After the TV report, many people contacted us," Álvarez says. Buscando Esperanza was formally launched as a collective. The initial members were five mothers, with children suffering from epilepsy, fibromyalgia and cancer.

With help from figures with cultivation experience in Lima's traditional cannabis activism scene, Buscando Esperanza established a grow site in an apartment in the San Miguel district.

The collective was just drying its first harvest, and not yet producing oil extracts, when the police raided the apartment on February 7, 2017. Álvarez and two others were facing criminal charges—and the possibility of 15 years behind bars.

Congress responds: partial victory
But this had the effect of forcing the issue before the public eye—and in the outrage over the raid, the moral arch of Peru's political process began to bend toward justice.

Shortly after the raid, Congress members introduced a bill to legalize medical marijuana, under government supervision. The bill won support from lawmakers of the ruling centrist party of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Peruvians for Change (spelled Peruanos por el Kambio, so both the man and his party share the acronym PPK). It also won support from figures in the left opposition bloc. This alliance was able to overcome intransigence from die-hard elements the right-wing bloc in Congress. The bill was approved by the Health Committee and (a greater surprise) the Defense & Security Committee.

On October 20, after four weeks of debate, Congress approved the bill—by a vote of 60 in favor, four against and six abstentions. (The most strident opponent was Bienvenido Ramírez of the right-wing bloc, who called medical marijuana "an open door to narco-trafficking." He had just weeks earlier won ridicule with his public speculation that reading too much can cause Alzheimer's disease.)

Álvarez is not entirely happy with the law, which still awaited PPK's signature when we spoke. It bars homegrown, permitting cultivation only by laboratories (not actually defined in the law's text), universities and "public entities." It assumes importation will primarily meet retail demand.

Álvarez fears this will mean high costs that will keep cannabis products inaccessible for many families. She also emphasizes that personal cultivation affords greater control over cepas—varieties.

"Even if a patient has the same diagnosis as another, it doesn't follow that the same variety will work," she tells me, citing the experience of her collective members. "We also want control over cultivation to know that no chemicals are used, that the product is all natural. We want the law to meet needs of patients, not the big industrial companies."

Standing up to the US embassy
In Lima's fashionable Miraflores district, I visit with Ricardo Soberón, Peru’s foremost drug-policy reform advocate, in the apartment he shares with his family, filled with folk art and trinkets from coca-growing campesino communities. As an advisor to Tania Pariona, an indigenous lawmaker from Ayacucho region, Soberón helped draft the medical marijuana law.

He also briefly served as Peru's drug czar under President Ollanta Humala in 2011, and called a halt to coca eradication before losing his post in a cabinet purge. He continues to promote his tolerant views through his non-governmental organization, the Investigative Center on Drugs and Human Rights (CIDDH), which has received funding since 2009 from Open Society Foundation.

Soberón emphasizes that the bill he helped craft was far more liberal than the version that finally passed. "We had a much more ambitious proposal, which included personal cultivation. But these were blocked by APRA and fujimoristas." That's the two big conservative parties in Peru's Congress—the latter being far-right followers of two-time presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori.

The conservatives also added provisions mandating registration of all users with the Health Ministry, which will issue licenses to sell or conduct research with cannabis.

But Soberón sees another hand behind the official intolerance. "The influence of US embassy is still very strong," he says. He especially cites the "conservative current" around the Education Center for the Prevention of Drug Abuse (CEDRO), a Peruvian NGO funded by USAID, and the drug czar's office—officially, the National Commission for the Development of Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA). Carmen Masías Claux of CEDRO replaced Soberón as DEVIDA chief in January 2012—and she was re-appointed to the post by the new president Kuczynski in September 2016. She also pushed hard for a restrictive version of the law.

Soberón does see some progress over the years. Personal quantities of illegal drugs were depenalized in Peru in 1991. In a 2006 reform of Article 299 of the criminal code, these quantities were defined as eight grams of cannabis (about a fifth of an ounce, maybe five fat joints worth), five grams of pasta (cocaine paste) or two grams of powder cocaine. (Articles 296 and 297 impose harsher penalties for cultivation and trafficking.)

But the law is not always honored. One of the things his CIDDH does is help operate a hotline—dubbed the Green Line—"for users who are apprehended anyway," Soberón says. "People don't know their rights under the law, and the police exploit that. Between detection and arrival at the police station, all the bribes take place."

In 2018, Soberón hopes to design a new law further challenging the prohibitionist model. "With medical marijuana, everything came together, we were very lucky. We passed it in seven months, with support from all the parties. But this is only a start. Next year, we want a change to the total legal approach to coca cultivation. We are talking with campesinos from Cuzco, Puno, the Central Jungle—all the coca-growing regions. And as soon as we have the social approval we will introduce it."

Empathy in the corridors of power
A few days later, I make my way to a government office building near Peru's Congress, in Lima's downtown historic center. Tania Pariona, the legislator with the leftist Nuevo Perú party who sponsored the medical marijuana law, is out of town visiting her constituents. So I meet with her co-sponsor of the legislation—Alberto de Belaunde, who represents Miraflores district with the centrist PPK party.

A personable, bearded and surprisingly young man (just 31), de Belaunde welcomes me into his office and immediately starts telling me how he arrived at his commitment to the medical marijuana issue.

"Prejudices and fears prevent us from arriving at a better quality of life," he says. "That's why I fight for marginalized people, like the LGBT community, and for reproductive rights." De Belaunde has even advocated removing penalties for abortion—although he acknowledges, "That's a very difficult position in a conservative country like Peru."

If Pariona was open to medical marijuana because of traditional indigenous use of medicinal plants, de Belaunde's own life experience also led him to his stance on this question. In 2016, he was elected as Peru’s second openly gay congressman. (The first was Carlos Bruce, who came out as gay in 2014, while running for a second term. This makes de Belaunde the first Peruvian lawmaker to be elected to a first term as openly gay.)

De Belaunde says he really became aware of the issue when the February 2017 edition of the magazine Somos ran a feature on Buscando Esperanza and other such collectives that were forming elsewhere in Peru. A week later, the raid happened. As a human rights advisor to the Kuczynski administration, de Belaunde knew he was well placed to see the medical marijuana law through.

"The law is too restrictive," de Belaunde admits. "Medical marijuana is very personalized; different cepas have different effects on different individuals."

He is still trying to craft a way around these restrictions. "We are hoping for legalization of patient collectives in conjunction with state institutions and universities in the regulations," he says. The implementing regulations for the law would still have to be worked out by Congress in a 60-day period after it received President Kuczynski's signature.

Beyond that, de Belaunde says he favors legalizing recreational use of cannabis. "But in the current Congress, it is not possible. It's too conservative."

Despite the remaining challenges, de Belaunde thinks that a corner has been turned with the medical marijuana law.

"This is an historic step," he tells me. "This process could be a model for laws in Peru: not an abstract debate, but bringing empathy to the process along with scientific evidence—the faces of these mothers who found in cannabis the only thing to bring their children a better quality of life."

Compassion on trial
In Lima's bohemian enclave of Barranco, I visit with Luis Gavancho, Peru's premier cannabis activist, in the ramshackle old house he shares with his buddies a few blocks from the cliffs overlooking the sea. A surprisingly clean-cut young man with short hair and the body of a fitness freak, Gavancho is the leading light of the group Legaliza Perú, which (among other activities) has each May since 2010 organized Lima's entry in the Global Marijuana March. He is now among the three facing charges in the Buscando Esperanza bust.

Despite the threat of prison time, Gavancho exudes only defiance. "There was no order from a judge or prosecutor for the raid," he says. "It was totally illegal."

While Ana Álvarez was charged as the president of Buscando Esperanza, Gavancho was charged because his passport was found on the premises. The third was Dr. Juan Lock, a physician who was advising the group, and whose name was on the lease.

Gavancho believes the police acted unilaterally, entirely on the basis of a neighbor's suspicions. Ironically, while the nosy neighbor may have smelled cannabis, all she could see was the apartment's rooftop garden where strictly legal vegetables were being grown—carrots, radishes, and the like. One of these was huacatay—a traditional herb used in Peruvian cooking, whose leaves happen to look somewhat like those of the cannabis plant. On this (false) visual evidence, she apparently dropped a proverbial dime. The cops raided, and found the indoor cannabis grow op below—680 grams drying from the first harvest of seven plants, with eight new clones also on the premises.

But Gavancho says his argument in the courtroom will not be the illegality of the raid. He intends to use a medical necessity defense—which is completely unprecedented in Peru.

The crime the three defendants are charged with is "traffic in illegal drugs" under Article 296 of the penal code, with language in the statute citing threats to the "public health."

"Yet eight grams is allowed under the law," Gavancho says. "This is presumably per person and per day. And we are a collective, growing for medical need. So we have a right to produce enough to meet our daily needs." Gavancho is also a medical user, using cannabis to relieve his lumbalgia (lower back pain) from a sports injury. He plans to demand the charges be dropped.

But this may not be decided for a while. As we speak, the entire legal process is on hold, because Poder Judicial, Peru's justice department, is shut down by a strike. Gavancho laughs and rolls his eyes as he tells me this. "Peru!"

Celebration in a secret grow room
On Nov. 16, my last day in Peru, President Kuczynski signed the medical marijuana law—officially PL 1393, "Regulated Use of Cannabis for Medicinal Ends."

"Here we are breaking with a myth," Kuczynski said, referring to marijuana's reputation as a dangerous drug. "Peru is turning several pages, moving toward modernity."

He congratulated the congress members who pushed for the law, especially naming de Belaunde and Pariona, who both attended the signing ceremony at the presidential palace. Also in attendance were Ana Álvarez and Dorothy Santiago of Buscando Esperanza, standing proudly alongside Kuczynski wearing the green scarves they had adopted as the symbol of their cause.

But PPK, also accompanied by his Minister of Health, Fernando D'Alessio, stressed that "the government is in charge of supervising the operation of the law."

With PKK's signature, the clock was ticking. Peru's Congress had 60 days to work out a regulation regime for the law—determining whether patients will have access to herbaceous cannabis (something the text of the law is ambiguous on), or, more ambitiously, be able to cultivate in regulated collectives.

Immediately after the signing ceremony, I accompany Álvarez and Santiago as they are driven across the city to an industrial sector of south Lima. In the front seat of the car is Saúl, member of a new cultivation collective that is now helping Buscando Esperanza. We pull into a warehouse, and Saúl leads us down a narrow stairway to a basement room where a veritable jungle of cannabis plants flourishes under an array of grow lights.

The variety is impressive—from the bright greens of Chemdawg to the deep purple of an indica-heavy LA confidential—and some cepas are the collective's own creations. Saúl proudly points out Pisco Sour, named for Peru's national drink (a cross between Sour Diesel and Sensi Star), and Mandarina Sour (Sour Diesel x OG Cheese). The original seeds were brought in personally by collective members, or purchased by mail from Canada and the Netherlands.

A member of the collective, which is dubbed Jepelacio Farms, Saúl is also seeking to commercialize these strains through his enterprise Growers Peru, under the brand-name Next Level. Saúl points out the "deep water culture" method the grow room uses—his own design of pipes and pumps to recycle water. The plants are potted in either organic soil or hydroponic solution, alternating between the two.

The lights, reflectors, fans and other electrical equipment were mostly brought in from the US. However, with the recent opening of Lima's first grow shop—Marley's Planet, in Miraflores—this kind of equipment is now available locally.

Saúl tells me this is one of five such grow ops in the Lima area, and he has already sold seeds (clandestinely) to outdoor growers, mostly in the Norte Chico area. This is the stretch of coast north from Lima through the adjoining region of Áncash, which is emerging as Peru's key cannabis cultivation zone. The inter-Andean canyons of the Norte Chico have seen several huge police raids of peasant marijuana farms in recent years, and the area is coming to rival the jungle coca cultivation zones as a focus of Peru's war on drugs.

"The Peter Tosh picture!" Saúl laughs as he motions for the two Buscando Esperanza mothers—still wearing their nice clothes and green scarves from the signing ceremony—to pose for the camera amid the plants.

I take the opportunity to speak with Dorothy Santiago. She lives in Callao, Lima's neighboring port city, and is a housewife. Her story is similar to that of Álvarez. Her six-year-old, Rodrigo Quispe, was diagnosed at six months with tuberous sclerosis. "We tried every pharmaceutical available in Peru, and then from other countries. He didn't respond. He was having up to 30 fits a day. With cannabis oil, he dropped to two or three fits a days. Now we have him down to one fit every four days, after experimenting with different cepas."

She says the strains high in CBD and the terpene linalool have been most effective. Rodrigo takes just one gota of oil at night. "My son is walking and eating after years of having no appetite. And he's not taking any pharmaceuticals—none."

As for Ana Álvarez, she is visibly relieved at her son Anthony's progress. Her two younger sons Hugo and David are now living back at home with her. Her family is reunited. And she was the prime mover behind the most significant reform of her country's drug laws in a generation.

But the months to come will determine how much freedom the hard-won medical marijuana law will really afford—and whether Álvarez and her co-defendants will face prison time as the cost of their victory.

This story first appeared in the June 2018 issue of High Times magazine.

Top photo: Dorothy Santiago and Ana Álvarez of Buscando Esperanza stand together in the growroom; courtesy of Buscando Esperanza

Second photo: Drug policy reform advocate Ricardo Soberón shows off folk art in his home; Bill Weinberg/ High Times

Third Photo: Legislator Alberto de Belaunde in his office; Bill Weinberg

Fourth photo: secret grow room; Bill Weinberg


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