A few years ago, the cannabis activist Nelson Guerrero had what he called the “hardest conversation of his life” with his family. The year prior, his grandfather, Jorge Gavilanes, saw his Stage 4 prostate cancer return after fourteen years in remission. His doctors had prescribed him oral chemotherapy, and he was barely eating or sleeping. He had been given six months to a year to live.
Guerrero made a proposal that may seem innocuous for some people, but for his Ecuadorian family, it was nothing short of radical: he wanted to get his grandfather to use cannabis.
Despite his family’s initial wariness, Gavilanes soon began consuming Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) three times a day. His health improved dramatically, and he has far outlived his doctors’ diagnosis.
“The first time I took the oil I didn’t feel anything at first but I would say about 20-30 minutes past and I got really hungry again. I wasn’t eating a lot before I started taking oil but my appetite came back tenfold afterward,” Gavilanes told Wikileaf through a translator. “The first time I took it before bed it gave me the best sleep in years.”
Earlier this year, Guerrero and Gavilanes embarked on a mission: to spread the word of cannabis’ medical value through a feature-length documentary film called CannAbuelo (“abuelo” is Spanish for “grandfather”). The film, which is scheduled for release next spring, aims to show older people that cannabis can help them live healthier, more productive lives. But it’s also specifically targeted at a Spanish-language audience (the film will be shown in Spanish with English subtitles) and meant to encourage more people of color and Latinx people to engage with cannabis and even enter the industry. Latinx people are still arrested at a significantly higher proportion than whites for cannabis use, and, at least as of 2017, make up less than a tenth of cannabis business owners nationwide.
“If we can help make that initial conversation happen, and be able to show [older people] an example of cannabis use that’s not someone hitting a bong, that would be the greatest outcome of this all,” Guerrero explained recently. “We can bring in a new wave of patients that aren’t going to be suffering or using a large amount of opioids but using something natural to get relief.”
The Best Man For The Job
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone better suited than Nelson Guerrero to convince his grandfather to try cannabis, or any older person for that matter. Guerrero got his start in the cannabis industry five years ago, when he wrote his college thesis on the economic potential of legalizing cannabis in California.
“My professors thought I’d end up a drug dealer on the street,” he recalled. “To each their own,” he added with a laugh.
He has since become one of the leading voices advocating for legalization in New York State. Along with his friend Jacob Plowden, Guerrero founded the Cannabis Cultural Association (CCA), a non-profit that advocates for and champions marginalized and underrepresented communities in the cannabis industry. Recently, they made news for succeeding to get a federal court to not dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutional legitimacy of cannabis prohibition for the first time in US history.
Despite Guerrero’s passion for cannabis advocacy, his family remained deeply suspicious of cannabis’ potential; as Guerrero explained, their hesitations illuminated some of the stigmas found in various Latinx communities.
“I come from a very Catholic background,” he said. “My grandma goes to church every Sunday, where cannabis is the devil’s weed.”
Gavilanes himself was particularly wary: he’d spent much of his career in the Ecuadorian Coast Guard, busting people for cannabis.
“I never tried it growing up and I thought of it as a contraband drug that lazy people smoke and get addicted to. When I worked for La Aduana on the coast (Coast Guard Customs) I spent a large chunk of my career stopping contraband enter Ecuador,” he said. “Marijuana was something we were supposed to search for and seize.”
Carol Ortega Algarra, who founded Muisca Capital, an investment group supporting Latinx involvement in the cannabis industry, argued that some of these stigmas are rooted in Latin America’s long history of drug wars. “It’s not just a stigma, it’s a fear,” she told Wikileaf. “If [cannabis] causes war and so much suffering, the stigma and the fear are going to be even bigger,” she added.
Despite these odds stacked against him, Guerrero was able to eventually convince his grandfather to give cannabis a try. “My grandma was the first one who said ‘if it’s gonna help, let’s do it.’ [Once I] had grandma on board, it was off to the races,” he said.
It took a few weeks of trial and error before they got the dose right. “We weren’t trying to get him high, or too sleepy,” he explained.
“I was hesitant at first because my only knowledge about marijuana at that point was as a drug that people smoke. But I trusted my grandson,” Gavilanes added.
Guerrero, along with a small film crew, began shooting CannAbuelo earlier this year. Gavilanes has dual citizenship and is a New York state resident; he resupplies when he comes to town (or, thanks to a reciprocal program, in Washington DC, where medical marijuana is significantly cheaper). So far, they’ve captured tons of footage of Guerrero and Gavilanes in the States.
Earlier this week, however, Guerrero and his crew headed to Ecuador to visit Gavilanes at home in the city of Cuenca. The timing of their visit couldn’t be better: the Ecuadorian government is currently meeting to discuss legalizing the sale of medical marijuana in the country (possession of up to ten grams is currently legal).
Guerrero is thrilled about the trip; beyond the film shoots, he and Plowden, of the CCA, will also meet with the Ecuadorian press and members of the government.
Carol Ortega Algarra, of Muisca Capital, argues that legalization could provide a huge boom for the Latin American economy. “Every aspect of the economic system can benefit,” she said. “Cannabis is projected to be bigger than the banana, coffee and flower industries together. (Coincidentally, she is leading a symposium on cannabis investment this week in Bogota, Colombia, called Cannabiz Latino Hub.)
The public will get a taste of Guerrero’s trip in an extended trailer for the documentary out next month. The full film is expected to be released next spring. In the meantime, Guerrero and his grandfather will continue to spread a message that needs to be heard.
“The community is very uninformed about the medical programs and medical benefits cannabis has for different illnesses,” Gavilanes said. “I use this as a medicine to help my way of life, this isn’t about me or other patients getting high in the clouds. People lack the education and oppose it rather than embrace it. My results, like many others, speak for themselves.”
For more information on CannAbuelo, check out the film’s website here.