Adental technician and mother of four, Ana Alvarez lives in a flat in Lima that she has converted into a cannabis laboratory. It is, she says, for the love of her son that she has become one of Peru’s leading advocates for liberalising drug laws in the conservative country.
Her mission started out as a desperate search for something to alleviate her son Anthony’s multiple daily seizures. Alvarez ended up turning part of her home into an improvised lab and informal medical practice where patients can be prescribed marijuana derivatives as a palliative for terminal illness, cancer or multiple sclerosis.
Now 17, Anthony suffers from a rare and severe form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, as well as tuberous sclerosis, which causes tumors to grow on the brain and other organs.
Fitting up to eight times a day, Anthony last year suffered a psychotic episode that pushed Alvarez, 43, and her family to the brink of despair: a period in which she admitted to having had suicidal thoughts. The cocktail of 17 pharmaceutical drugs she was feeding her son every day seemed to have little or no effect. She was ready to try anything.
“After three days of taking marijuana oil, Anthony started to reconnect with life, he began to socialize, he began to sleep, he began to eat, and little by little he started to recover,” she says. “The change after three days was something extraordinary and from that moment my fight began.”
With another mother who has a similarly afflicted child, she formed Buscando Esperanza (Searching for Hope), which campaigns for medicinal marijuana. Meanwhile, she taught herself how to make cannabis oil using clinical alcohol and buying black market marijuana, which is illegal in Peru in quantities larger than 8g.
Dorothy Santiago, a 29-year-old naval officer, was her co-conspirator. Santiago’s five-year-old son, Rodrigo, has the same clinical condition as Anthony.
Santiago recalls the moment when she accidentally wiped a drop of her son’s medicine on to her face and felt a burning sensation. It jolted her into questioning the mixture of drugs that she dutifully administered to him on a daily basis.
“I said to myself, ‘This is what I have been giving to my son since he was three months old. It does nothing but harm him.’ That was when I decided to stop the conventional medicine and opt for a natural alternative,” she says.
“Rodrigo took cannabis oil and his seizures stopped for two days. He started to eat, he started to sleep. Because he never slept, we could not believe it!
“He began to connect with people. He had never been able to make visual contact with anyone except me,” she adds. “We know this is not a cure but it gives our children quality of life. We want it to be available to other children with the same condition.”
Membership of Buscando Esperanza has grown to more than 200, and many members are attended by Dr Juan Lock in the informal surgery next to Alvarez’s flat.
Using homemade cannabis oil preparations with varying degrees of active ingredients CBD (cannabidiol) or THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), Lock provides palliative care. “We are helping many people with conditions which conventional and pharmaceutical medication could not resolve,” he says, adding that most patients are elderly, with afflictions ranging from arthrosis to terminal cancer.
After a police raid on Alvarez’s flat in February, an outpouring of public sympathy for the women prompted Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, to propose legalising medicinal marijuana for the “treatment of serious and terminal illnesses”, breaking step with long-standing bans on drug use in Latin America.
However, it is unclear whether the right-wing opposition-dominated Congress would pass a motion decriminalizing possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes or allowing it to be imported and sold for medical reasons. An Ipsos poll earlier this year suggested 65% of Peruvians supported the legalization.
Peru’s leading anti-drugs NGO, Cedro, would only support the use of cannabis oil for children if it contained virtually no THC, the principle mind-altering ingredient found in the plant, said the organisation’s scientific consultant, Dr Alfonso Zavaleta.
“This medication doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the world,” said Zavaleta. While he says that the cannabis oil “seemed to have a palliative effect, reducing the children’s convulsions”, like many scientists he remains concerned about the impact that THC could have on young and developing brains.
With fewer than 300 children in Peru with Anthony’s medical condition, the government could import the synthetic drug when it comes on the market without needing congressional approval, he says.
With three separate bills proposed in Peru on medicinal marijuana – with plans varying from importing synthetic marijuana-derived drugs to allowing cannabis clubs to produce their own – it could take years for them to be untangled from congressional committees before being debated and voted on in the chamber, Zavaleta estimated.
In the meantime, Alvarez continues to use the black market to provide the cannabis she needs to make the oil. The medicinal use is now legal in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Chile and Uruguay, where cannabis is permitted in all its forms.
“We do all this out of love for our children,” Alvarez says. “We are not criminals. We are mothers who are demanding our children’s right to well being.”