A Mother’s Courage in Peru: Facing Prison for Giving Her Son Medical Marijuana

The woman behind the South American nation’s new medical-marijuana law may face prison time.
A Mother's Courage in Peru: Facing Prison for Giving Her Son Medical Marijuana
Ana Álvarez and Dorothy Santiago of Buscando Esperanza stand together in the growroom; Courtesy of Buscando Esperanza

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 singlehandedly responsible for Peru’s groundbreaking new medical-marijuana law.

In a bedroom, 18-year-old Anthony, Álvarez’s son, watches a noisy Spider-Man movie, occasionally interrupting through the open door as I chat with his mom in the living room. Anthony suffers from tuberous sclerosis complex, a serious genetic disorder that is often accompanied by a severe form epilepsy, and he 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 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 3 years old,” she tells me. “For years, he had seven or eight 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 a moderate intellectual disability. By 16, he was in what Álvarez calls a “psychiatric crisis.” He had scars from falling and there were emergency-room visits and periods of internment in mental hospitals. His muscles atrophied and he couldn’t sleep—and he was “acting out emotionally.”

Finally, Álvarez’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 too distressing 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.”

Álvarez checks off a litany of pharmaceuticals she’s tried—each associated with side effects such as liver damage or loss of appetite. “Each would calm him a little, but damage something else,” she says. “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 in treating epilepsy was then stirring new medical-marijuana laws in several US states.

“One day, in desperation, I made a maté of marijuana, which I bought on the black market,” Álvarez says, using the Spanish word for any herbal-tea preparation.

Anthony’s reaction was dramatic. “His eyes turned red and he slept and slept—almost 72 hours,” Álvarez says. “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 MamáCultiva, the Chile-based cannabis-advocacy organization that 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,” Álvarez says. “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 started the instant-messenger group Buscando Esperanza—Seeking Hope—in December 2015, after they found each other on Facebook.

The turning point came when Álvarez and Santiago went to a 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 held 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 US $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,” Álvarez says. “His quality of life improved very much.”

Now convinced that cannabis oil was vital medication for her son, Álvarez launched a public campaign—petitions, marches, vigils outside the Legislative Palace 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 found themselves facing criminal charges—and the possibility of 15 years behind bars.

Congress Responds

The arrests had the effect of forcing the issue before the public eye—and in the outrage over the raid, the moral arc 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. It also won support from figures in the left opposition bloc. This alliance was able to overcome intransigence from die-hard elements of the right-wing bloc in Congress, and the bill was approved by Congress’s Health Committee and (to greater surprise) Defense and Security Committee.

On October 20, after four weeks of debate, Congress approved the bill—by a vote of 60 in favor and four against, with 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 earned 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 the president’s signature when we spoke. It bars homegrown cannabis, permitting cultivation only by laboratories (a term 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 to 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,” Álvarez says, citing the experience of the members of her collective. “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 the 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 adviser to Tania Pariona, an indigenous lawmaker from the Ayacucho region, Soberón helped draft the medical-marijuana law.

Soberón 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 nongovernmental organization, the Investigative Center on Drugs and Human Rights (CIDDH), which has received funding since 2009 from the Open Society Foundations.

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,” he says. “But these were blocked by APRA and fujimoristas.” Those are the two big conservative parties in Peru’s Congress—the latter being far-right followers of two-time presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori.

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

A Mother's Courage in Peru: Facing Prison for Giving Her Son Medical Marijuana
Drug policy reform advocate Ricardo Soberón shows off folk art in his home; Bill Weinberg/ High Times

But Soberón sees another hand behind the official intolerance. “The influence of the 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 succeeded Soberón as DEVIDA chief in January 2012—and she was reappointed to the post by the then-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 decriminalized in Peru in 1991. In a 2006 reform of Article 299 of the criminal code, these quantities were defined as eight grams of cannabis (a little more than a quarter of an ounce), 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 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.”

Empathy in the Corridors of Power

A few days later, I make my way to a government office building near Peru’s Legislative Palace, in Lima’s downtown historic center, to meet with Alberto de Belaunde, who represents the Miraflores district in Congress and co-sponsored the medical-marijuana law. A personable, bearded and surprisingly young man (just 31 years old), 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,” de Belaunde says. “That’s why I fight for marginalized people, like the LGBT community, and for reproductive rights.” He’s even advocated removing penalties for abortion—although, he acknowledges, “That’s a very difficult position in a conservative country like Peru.”

De Belaunde says he really became aware of the medical-cannabis 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. A few months after that, in June, Kuczynski was elected president. As a human-rights adviser to the president, 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.”

De Belaunde 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.

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

Despite the remaining challenges, de Belaunde thinks that a corner has been turned with the medical-marijuana law. “This is a historic step,” he says. “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. Gavancho 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 Álvarez was charged as the president of Buscando Esperanza, Gavancho was charged because his passport was found on the premises. The third arrestee was Dr. Juan Lock, a physician who was advising the group, and whose name was on the building’s 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, the neighbor 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 lower back pain from a sports injury. He plans to demand that 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 Growroom

On November 16, my last day in Peru, President Kuczynski signed the medical-marijuana bill into 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 members of Congress who pushed for the law, 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 President Kuczynski, also accompanied by the minister of health, Fernando D’Alessio, stressed that “the government is in charge of supervising the operation of the law.”

With the president’s signature, the clock was ticking. Peru’s Congress had 60 days to work out a regulatory 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, a 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 Chem Dog 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.

Saúl, whose collective is dubbed Jepelacio Farms, 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 growroom uses—his own design of pipes and pumps to recycle water.

The lights, reflectors, fans and other electrical equipment were mostly brought in from the United States. 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.

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 codefendants will face prison time as the cost of their victory.

This feature was published in the June 2018 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.

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