Patients Wait As Ecuador Gets Ready To Put Medical Marijuana Laws Into Effect

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QUITO,
Ecuador (AP) — Unrelenting pain in her hips and weeks of insomnia left
Nelly Valbuena desperate for relief from her metastatic breast cancer.

The university professor found freedom from her disease’s cruel side effects in an unexpected remedy: CBD, a compound extracted from the cannabis plant.

Now Valbuena is pushing Ecuador’s government to put into effect recently passed legislation permitting medicinal use of cannabis products so others like her suffering from agonizing illnesses can have new options for pain relief.

“I desperately needed
something to help,” she said. “Only someone living in pain and unable to
sleep could know what that means.”

Ecuador’s legislature approved medical use of cannabis containing less than 1% of THC, the high-producing ingredient in marijuana, in September. President Lenín Moreno was given a month to veto but did not. Now Ecuadorians are waiting for the new norm to be published in the official register.

When
the law is officially put on the books, Ecuador will be the latest in a
tide of Latin American countries approving some form of medicinal
cannabis use. Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay
have all signed off on permitting therapeutic usage, giving rise to a
new industry now growing at a rapid rate and with expanding
opportunities.

“In Latin America, with a population of 625 million
people, there is great potential,” said Álvaro Torres, a Colombian
businessman who co-founded Khiron Life Sciences Corp., which produces
and distributes medical cannabis.

Valbuena’s fight against cancer
began in 2012 and within four years it had spread to other organs,
making her daily life a battle with pain.

Morphine patches
provided temporary relief but were soon no longer covered by insurance
and purchasing them was prohibitively expensive. The patches also had
uncomfortable side effects, like vomiting, nausea and headaches.

Valbuena
read about cannabis and put a plea on Facebook for help. Within a day, a
doctor responded, offering her an oral CBD spray.

“I fell asleep for 16 hours,” she remembered. “It was a huge relief.”

Valbuena
isn’t the only one benefiting from medical cannabis in her household.
So does Tahis Ponce, her husband’s 18-year-old daughter, who has severe
cerebral palsy. The couple says CBD helps calm her laughing fits,
anxiety and insomnia.

Valbuena and her husband have embarked on a
media campaign to chip away at cannabis’ stigma in the socially
conservative country.

CBD is often derived from hemp plants, which
look a lot like another type of cannabis, marijuana, but contain only
trace amounts of THC. The U.S. government removed industrial hemp from
its list of illegal drugs last year.

Though CBD has boomed in
popularity, there is very little evidence to back up the health claims
the industry touts. Proponents say it treats pain, reduces anxiety and
helps with insomnia. But relatively little research has been done on
humans to confirm those assertions.

Independent legislator Lourdes
Cuesta recalled that before proposing the legislation, lawmakers called
in patients and relatives to explain how traditional medicine left them
without any quality of life, “but therapeutic cannabis returned it to
them.”

Government institutions have not yet commented on how
importation and production of medical cannabis will be regulated under
the new norms.

Omar Vacas, a scientist at Ecuador’s Catholic
University who has studied therapeutic cannabis, said that in the small
South American nation it is already possible to find 30 different brands
of national and imported medicinal cannabis on the black market.

Once such products are sold legally in pharmacies, there could potentially be a million consumers, he said.

Oscar
Farith Pino Herrera, founder of a non-profit group promoting industrial
hemp, added that Ecuador has ideal climatic conditions for growing hemp
plants, which he said have a wide variety of potential uses beyond
treating medical ailments.

“It could also help in the generation of jobs,” he said.

Alexis Ponce, Valbuena’s husband, said his family takes comfort in knowing that their own battles will one day help others.

“The relatives of someone with cancer or pain suffer just as much as the patient,” he said.

By Gonzalo Solano