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Argentina Debates Medical Weed

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At 1:30 p.m. in a dimly lit reception of a downtown hotel in Buenos Aires, a patient meets with his doctor. On the table between them lies a small bottle of Charlotte’s Web cannabis oil, a topical, and a syringe containing Rick Simpson Oil.

As the patient gets up to leave, he reaches for his wallet. The doctor shakes his head and sends him on his way.

The doctor is ophtamologist Carlos Laje, the director of La Clínica del Cannabis Córdoba, possibly the first clinic in the continent to openly discuss cannabis therapies. He is also the Director of the provincial government’s Health Observatory.

Since opening his clinic in May 2016, he has attended over 800 patients with various conditions. While the clinic first made headlines in September, Carlos has a history with medicinal cannabis that dates back to 2011, when Magdalena, his 5 year-old daughter, asked him to play doctor with her.

Instead of letting her listen to her own heartbeat with a stethoscope, as most other doctors would, he checked her eyes with his ophthalmoscope, a device used to see inside the fundus of the eye as part of most eye exams or routine physical checkups.

“It was bedtime for her, so I playfully gave her a quick eye examination and found a very large injury inside her eye which at first glance seemed like a very advanced glaucoma,” he says.

“As you can imagine, the world seems to crash down on you in that instance, especially after years of listening and preaching about ways to control glaucoma, which is a very complicated disease.”

Magdalena underwent surgery on both her eyes, and Carlos quickly began researching alternative ways to treat/control her condition. One day his father passed him a paper on cannabis and its role in treating glaucoma and neurodegeneration in the eyes.

Up until then he only knew marijuana as a recreational substance but soon learnt of both the scientific and legislative changes taking place around the world which were previously unbeknownst to him and his colleagues in Argentina.

The cultivation, sale, and possession of cannabis, both for medical and recreational purposes, remains illegal in the country and is punishable by law with a prison sentence ranging from four to 15 years. But now a key legislative session, to be held Oct. 13, will consider bringing medical week to the country.

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Currently, patients may apply to import either Charlotte’s Web or Sativex via La Administración Nacional de Medicamentos, Alimentos y Tecnología (ANMAT), the federal body that regulates medication, cosmetics, foods, etc.

Doing so requires a prescription from a doctor and can cost upwards of US$300 per month. Patients also need to apply for this exception at ANMAT offices in Buenos Aires and collect their medication from customs at Ministro Pistarini International Airport, roughly 20 miles from the center of the capital.

Over the last two years, roughly 120 families have successfully imported Charlotte’s Web or Sativex through ANMAT. Others choose to cultivate/manufacture their own medication but constantly risk persecution.

However, there is a growing body of activists joining the fight to raise awareness for medical marijuana and change legislation.

Ana Garcia Nicora is a mother, medical imaging specialist, and President of Cannabis Medicinal Argentina (CAMEDA), a non-government organisation hoping to help end prohibition.

Her daughter, now 27, was diagnosed with herpes simplex encephalitis, a potentially fatal viral infection targeting the central nervous system, at the age of 3. The condition left her with severe neurological damage and refractory epilepsy.

Much like Carlos, Ana first learned of the medicinal potential of cannabis in roughly 2014 through her search for alternative ways to help improve her daughter’s quality of life.

“There was complete ignorance of medical cannabis among medical professionals here in Argentina, and a lot prejudice towards it,” she says.

Through her research she met two other mothers who were trying to treat their children with medical cannabis. Together they started researching and trying to educate both medical professionals and other parents. This was the start of CAMEDA.

“Today, our latest seminars are drawing in around 800 people,” says Ana.

CAMEDA was founded in 2015 and officially earned the title of NGO in August 2016. The group combines patients, parents, cultivators, and medical/legal professionals, and aims to help Argentine families gain safe, regulated access to medicinal marijuana.

Diego Nutter is an advisor on medicinal cultivation and cannabis therapies at CAMEDA. He has been growing cannabis since 2000 and, in January 2016, had his first run in with the law.

“I lost all of my grow equipment and about 50 plants, all of which were in their flowering stage,” he says.

Diego helps CAMEDA provide informational seminars on cannabis cultivation, the plant’s varying chemical and terpenoid profile, and the latest scientific findings on the plant’s medicinal properties.

Outside of CAMEDA he also helps patients cultivate and provides them with a variety of homemade oils and cannabis flower.

“Apart from wanting to be able to work legally and peacefully, I want to see medicinal cannabis legalized so that we can analyze the plant and in the end provide a quality product that’s free of pesticides, has the right chemical balance, and so on,” he says.

Prior to meeting Ana in 2014 and helping found CAMEDA, Diego also founded Agrupacion Marplatense de Cannabicultores, an activist group fighting for legalized recreational use and the destigmatization of marijuana in general. He left the group last year.

Carlos, Ana, and Diego are not alone in their fight to educate people in Argentina, break the stigma around cannabis, and change legislation; there are numerous other activist groups spread throughout the country, all with slightly different approaches to the same goal. Today they’re closer than ever before to achieving that goal.

On October 13, the national congress will be debating the decriminalization of medical cannabis in Argentina. On September 22, Chubut province signed into action a new law making Charlotte’s Web available at all public hospitals in the province.

Appearing on Mexican television at the beginning of August, Argentine President Mauricio Macri also publically declared that he was open to legalizing medical cannabis in the country, but that he wanted to wait and see how it has been done in other countries around the world.

Argentine’s activists, patients, parents, cultivators, and medical professionals are hopeful that October 13 will mark the end of a long era of prohibition.

“From what we can see with our interactions with congress, it’s not so much a question of ‘if’ medical cannabis will be legal in Argentina, but of ‘how’. There obviously need to be solid regulatory systems in place and I think that’s what congress is mainly concerned with,” says Ana Garcia Nicora.

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