When medicines fail, marijuana is moms’ last hope

Jee Y. Geronimo

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A group of Filipino mothers is seeking access to medical marijuana in the country

MANILA, Philippnes – On television a week ago, Senator Tito Sotto made yet again a controversial statement – and he was not even joking in a noontime show.

In an interview on ANC Prime Time, the staunch anti-illegal drugs advocate was asked what his message was for the group of Filipino mothers who want to raise awareness on the medicinal use of marijuana.

“The problem kasi is that they probably used marijuana when they were pregnant. That is the problem na nakikita ko. There are no studies that will back them up, but all the empirical studies that we have will tell them otherwise. As a matter of fact, kung nagkaproblema ka, baka gumagamit ka nung araw, kung yung anak mo nagkaproblema,” he said.

(The problem is that they probably used marijuana when they were pregnant. That is the problem I see here. There are no studies that will back them up, but all the empirical studies that we have will tell them otherwise. As a matter of fact, if their child experienced problems, it might be that you used marijuana before.)

He said he was quoting reports from the Institution of Medicine and the American Psychiatric Association, even admitting his statement was probably dangerous.

After all, in a separate statement, he said he did not want to “indulge” the “hallucination” of some sectors urging the legalization of marijuana use. 

These mothers, however, want legal access only to medical marijuana, and some are conservatives who are only resorting to marijuana because they have long given up on ineffective medicines. 

“We’re talking about conservative mothers here. If you [could] only see how conservative these parents are and the process they went through just to accept marijuana as a medicine,” Kimmy, founder of the Philippines Moms for Marijuana, told Rappler.

Moon Jaden’s story

The group came into the public’s awareness around October 2013 when they helped Jun and Myca Yutuc advocate for legal access to medical marijuana in the Philippines.

The Yutucs lost their daughter Moon Jaden to Dravet Syndrome, a rare, severe form of intractable epilepsy with seizures that cannot be controlled by medication. It was also the condition of Charlotte Figi, whose 300 seizures every week were reduced to 2-3 seizures a month after medical marijuana calmed her brain.  

Her story was featured in a CNN documentary by Dr Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent. After watching the feature, Kimmy said, the Yutucs were convinced marijuana can cure their daughter.

Even doctors  after realizing Moon Jaden could no longer handle the spasms  advised Jun and Myca to bring their daughter home to seek alternatives means, ABS-CBN News reported.

They were already working on arrangements with suppliers underground when Moon Jaden unfortunately died on September 19. 

Moon Jaden became a celebrated case in the Philippines – a story that brought thousands of parents to the Philippines Moms for Marijuana Facebook page. For the first time, they learned they are not alone.

Medical history

Dr Donnabel Cunanan, 38, is a dentist by profession. Her 2 year-old daughter Julia has a partial seizure disorder, and despite being on two medications already, the seizures continue, about 5-10 times a day. She had 55-60 seizures last August 2013, which led her neurologist to suspect Julia might have Dravet Syndrome.

For fear that the seizures might further affect Julia’s pancreas, kidney, and liver, Donnabel decided to seek other options, including marijuana.

“I won’t engage with something that has no basis,” she told Rappler. She did her own research, validated facts, and came across legitimate medical journals. The Cannabis plant, she said, is a medicine longer than it is not, as it was first used as a medical treatment in China in 1737.

Her plea is for lawmakers to at least allow a review of marijuana’s medicinal value in the Philippines.

HOSPITALIZED. During one of her seizures, Julia was brought to the hospital. File photo from Donnabel Cunanan

Philippines Moms for Marijuana is in talks with the government, specifically Isabela Rep Rodolfo Albano III and the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), to petition a formal research on medical marijuana that will be done locally.

Albano recently expressed his intention to file in March a bill that will seek legalization of marijuana use for medicinal purpose.

The group also met with a pharmaceutical company, as well as local and foreign experts as they continue compiling enough research materials they can present to the DDB.

If approved, the medical marijuana will be tested in a controlled environment for the entire research period which could go on for a minimum of 5 years.

Contrary to misconceptions, the medical marijuana will not be smoked. It will come in oil form which can be eaten with food. One of its components, cannabidiol (CBD), is considered to have a wider scope of medical application.

They hope they can begin soon, while the public discussion on medical marijuana is still ongoing. 

“I don’t encourage anyone to go underground. We’re willing to wait because we don’t want anyone to get in trouble,” Kimmy said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Saving grace?

But desperation can push anyone to do the unexpected.

54 year-old Cynthia Algas-Vargas from General Santos City once went to Manila looking for marijuana that can help her son.

For 21 years, her son JJ suffered from both a seizure disorder and autism which she said all began after he received a baby vaccine in 1992.

When told she could get jailed for looking for marijuana, she said, “21 years na kaming nakakulong sa hirap, suffering, agony, desperation [at] sa sakit. Ano pa bang mas lalala sa [pagkakakulong]?”

(We have already been imprisoned in hardships, suffering, agony, desperation, and pain for 21 years. What could be worse than this?)

Last Monday, January 27, JJ had 6 brain-damaging seizures. One tonic-clonic seizure can already be weakening, Cynthia said, recalling how the experience still frightened her despite seizures being a norm in their household for the last two decades.

What’s painful for her is not the millions spent in medication and treatment, but the thought that after doing everything, JJ is not improving at all.

The research on medical marijuana could just be his saving grace.

“For everyone who believes that marijuana is a medicine, I hope we encourage more people. I also hope we can already research about it and not wait ’til mothers find ways to go to Colorado for treatment,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.

In Colorado, non-profit organization Realm of Caring use concentrated medicinal cannabis oil as a form of alternative therapy for residents affected by cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions.

People from other states travel all the way to Colorado – where marijuana is legal both for medical-marijuana patients and for anyone who is 21 years old and older – just to avail of the therapy. 

CONSULTATION. Philippines Moms for Marijuana meets with officials from the Dangerous Drugs Board to talk about medical marijuana. File photo from Philippines Moms for Marijuana

Keep talking

After his “insulting” remark, the Philippines Moms for Marijuana asked Sotto to apologize not to the group but to all the mothers in the world with children suffering from different conditions.

A remark like that of Sotto’s shows that general acceptance of medical marijuana in the Philippines will not come anytime soon, Kimmy said. For now, the group will keep talking and raising awareness about it because they are willing to wait until the country is ready.

“I have information that other people might benefit [from]. Am I going to keep the information to myself? My conscience can’t take that. This is life saving, and I can’t keep silent about this.” – Rappler.com

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Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.