BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — Valeria Salech wouldn’t normally have considered giving her epileptic, autistic son cannabis, but he ran out of his conventional medications at the start of a long weekend. Pharmacies wouldn’t open again for days, and every hour that passed brought 9-year-old Emiliano closer to convulsions.
Desperate, she remembered a headline she’d seen on the cover of a pro-cannabis magazine, about mothers who gave cannabis oil to their ill children. It wasn’t hard to find some oil herself — her husband had a friend who grew the plant for personal medicinal use — and she placed a drop on a cookie and gave it to Emiliano. It was an illegal act: Marijuana use is not permitted in Argentina.
But shortly after he ate the cannabis oil, Emiliano, stationed in front of a televised episode of “The Pink Panther,” laughed. He rarely expressed himself in that way, Salech says. Then, there was another burst of laughter, and another.
That was December 2015. By Christmastime the next year, Emiliano’s symptoms of both autism and epilepsy began to fade. He no longer needed diapers, and he could clean his face and blow his nose without help.
“I cry all the time. The change shocks me,” Salech says. “If I only had this information two or four years earlier, I can’t imagine how much better he’d be now, because each convulsion causes neurological damage.”
Now president and founder of Mamá Cultiva Argentina, a group of families that grow cannabis to treat their children, Salech is part of an effort to push lawmakers to decriminalize cultivation, commercialization, distribution and consumption of marijuana and its products for medicinal, therapeutic and scientific use. Under a bill that the group is championing, a registry would be created to track people who are exempted from prosecution for growing cannabis for those purposes. Argentina’s Cámara de Diputados, one of the nation’s two legislative houses, unanimously approved the bill in November. The Senate is expected to consider it in March.
Right now, people who share information about how to grow or consume cannabis face prison terms of up to eight years, and people who grow it can be sent away for up to 15 years.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
A harbinger of this potential change came a year ago, when Argentina’s national food and medicine administration approved the importation of cannabis oil for use by children and young adults who have a prescription.
But that particular oil doesn’t work for every patient, Salech says. Parents should be allowed to choose the best type to treat their children, she says.
Gabriela Troiano, a congresswoman who has long supported the proposal, notes that decriminalizing personal cultivation of cannabis is key to the success of medical marijuana in general.
“We were able to raise awareness among our colleagues, to explain to them that this isn’t about drug trafficking but about public health,” says Troiano. “I have high hopes, because we achieved a lot in little time.”
But some marijuana advocates say the proposal is insufficient. The ability to grow cannabis in one’s own home without joining the government’s registry is key, says Matías Faray, a member of the Agrupación de Cannabicultores del Oeste, an organization of cannabis growers in western Argentina. Imported cannabis is expensive and offers little variety, he notes, and the law would only allow people to grow cannabis for themselves or an immediate family member.
“Their proposal doesn’t change anything,” he says. “Now growers are even more persecuted — now they can be additionally penalized for the illegal production of medicines.”
On the other hand, Dr. Claudio Santa María, a physician, worries that it would be difficult to regulate home growers, both in terms of how they’re cultivating the plant and how they’re using its products.
Still, he acknowledges that cannabis has been effective for patients with certain illnesses. If the benefit is scientifically proved, he says, then patients should be able to use cannabis.
Argentina’s shifting approach to marijuana use reflects a global movement. A growing number of U.S. states do not prosecute people for personal cannabis consumption. Multiple countries, including Germany and Mexico, decline to prosecute people found in possession of varying small amounts of marijuana. Uruguay legalized and regulated marijuana growth and use in 2013.
Cannabis is widely used in Argentina to treat symptoms of epilepsy, autism, multiple sclerosis and many other conditions, doctors say.
Research shows that some forms of cannabis can help children with epilepsy. In a 2015 online survey of 117 parents, conducted by researchers at UCLA’s children’s hospital, 85 percent reported a decrease in seizures after giving their epileptic children cannabis enriched with cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis (often called CBD) that has been shown to have therapeutic effects, and 14 percent reported that their children were seizure-free after taking it.
The plant’s effects vary depending on the form it takes, says Diego Nutter, a cannabis grower and member of Cannabis Medicinal Argentina, which promotes medicinal marijuana legalization. It can be consumed via cream, gel, tincture, oil or inhalation, he says. Inhalation causes relaxation, increases appetite and reduces pain, he says, while other forms of consumption have benefits with lesser psychoactive effects, or none at all.
Advocates say that legalization could improve safety and quality standards for people who already use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Mamá Cultiva relies on informal support from two universities that analyze some of the cannabis oil produced by families for children, Salech says.
“The seeds supposedly reveal the content of THC and CBD, but it’s not always exact,” she says, referring to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive compound in cannabis, and cannabidiol, the main therapeutic agent. “We need to be able to do firm studies involving science, so we can standardize treatment.”
Argentina’s medicinal community is slowly shifting its attitude toward medicinal marijuana. Some quietly recommend it to their patients, says Carlos Laje, an ophthalmologist and founder of a cannabis clinic that opened in 2016.
Carlos Magdalena, a neurologist, says doctors are now asking questions that were once considered taboo. There’s little quality research on marijuana, he says, because it has for so long been considered an illicit drug. Magdalena is working with other doctors to organize a conference on marijuana use, which he hopes will be held this year.
Meanwhile, more parents are cultivating cannabis for their children, Salech says. Between 150 and 180 people have attended Mamá Cultiva’s workshops, and at least half of them have started growing cannabis themselves.
“Even my aunt, who threw a fit when she found my cousin with a blunt, now grows her own for her grandnephew,” she says.
Sources: World Health Organization, Drug Policy Alliance, American Lung Association
Danielle Mackey, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.