Peru’s chronically ill seeking right to grow cannabis for medicinal use

By Carla Samon Ros

Lima, Jan 19 (efe-epa).- Obtaining unfettered access to medical marijuana and the legal right to grow the plant are key concerns of patients with chronic ailments in Peru, where a lawmaker’s frank talk about his recreational cannabis use has reignited debate about that nation’s drug policies.

Cannabis has been legalized for therapeutic purposes in that Andean nation since 2017, but in practice it is only distributed to laboratories, none of which have a license to grow the plant, and is sold directly to the public at just three pharmacies in Lima.

But now a bill is pending that aims to loosen the legal restrictions and allow for the prescription-based self-cultivation and associated cultivation (the joining of patients and care providers in associations to collectively grow their own medicine) of marijuana.

The 2017 law that authorized the importation, production and sale of cannabis and its derivatives for therapeutic use was a “cultural victory” for the South American country yet insufficient for the needs of chronically ill patients, who are still forced to acquire the product on an unregulated parallel market.

That is the assessment of actress and activist Francesca Brivio, who was diagnosed with systemic mastocytosis (a disease in which an excess number of abnormal mast cells accumulate in the body) in 2009 and has become a key voice in the struggle for the rights of patients who, like her, rely on cannabis to mitigate the symptoms of chronic diseases.

“My illness is one that could potentially be fatal. There’s no cure, and it’s in the blood,” said Brivio, who suffers from fatigue and pain, organ inflammation and gastrointestinal problems and has had to have her uterus, several rips and the top portion of one of her femurs (thigh bones) removed.

Although she had never been a habitual cannabis smoker, she told Efe that she smoked “a couple of puffs” in late 2013 and thought she had not “felt that good in a long time.”

Brivio soon afterward substituted cannabis, which she obtained from a dealer on the parallel market, for “absolutely all” of the 32 medicines she had been taking for her illness.

Surgeon Max Alzamora told Efe there is “conclusive evidence” that the cannabis plant, which can be administered in different concentrations and modes of delivery, offers benefits that include pain relief and antiemetic effects (nausea reduction and improved appetite among cancer patients).

He also pointed to cannabis’ anti-convulsive, anxiolytic, anti-depressive and anti-inflammatory properties, adding that consumption of that drug can provide a wide range of benefits for patients who suffer, for example, from glaucoma or Parkinson’s disease by reducing ocular pressure and acting as a muscle relaxant.

“It won’t be the cure for the illness, but it’s an additional tool,” said Alzamora, who criticized the fact that since the passage of the 2017 law medical marijuana in Peru is only available in three pharmacies and only one product is sold: cannabis oil.

The difficulty in obtaining legal access to cannabis for therapeutic purposes led Maria del Rosario Montoya of Trujillo, a city 560 kilometers (350 miles) north of Lima, to become an activist.

She said her 22-year-old daughter was born with cerebral palsy and refractory epilepsy due to “medical negligence” and suffered for 16 years with severe problems in her bronchial tubes, constant pneumonias, convulsions and hospitalizations.

Montoya said she decided to research the use of medical cannabis in 2016 and began using it to ease her daughter’s symptoms.

“I began giving her cannabis oil every day” and “in two and a half months the whole bronchial problem went away,” the woman said, adding that her daughter’s epilepsy improved to the point that by late 2016 “she no longer was taking any anticonvulsant” and “it’s now been five years since she set foot in the hospital.”

Montoya, founder of the Medical Marijuana Trujillo-Peru association, said she buys her daughter’s remedy – a “Colombian oil” – at an affordable price on the parallel market and that many other mothers of sick children do the same while anxiously awaiting the passage of a new law for the legalization of cannabis self-cultivation or associated cultivation.

Brivio also is fighting that same legislative battle through her Lima-based “Cannabis, gotas de esperanza” (Cannabis: Drops of Hope) association, which together with the Medicinal Cannabis Federation of Peru was the driving force behind the introduction of a new bill that will allow the self-cultivation or associated cultivation of the plant for medical use.

While the law works its way through Peru’s unicameral legislature, the debate over drug policy was revived by statements made last week by a lawmaker from the liberal and progressive Purple Party, Daniel Olivares, who acknowledged being a regular user of cannabis and admitting to smoking it during a conversation with his party’s candidate in the April presidential election, Julio Guzman.

“I’ve been a marijuana smoker my whole (adult) life, for 20 years,” said Olivares, who could face an investigation by the Congress’ Ethics Committee when that legislative body reconvenes in March.

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