Cannabis as Totem and Connector: An Interview with Allison Ray Benavides

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Allison Ray Benavides is a forty-year old mother of two little boys and lives with her husband Rob in San Diego County. Robbie is their oldest son, now aged six, and Oscar their youngest at three years old. Rob is a renowned tattoo artist, and Allison wears his art all over her body. Tall and graceful, she has an easy elegance that belies her very interesting and often tumultuous personal history. Allison juggles their business, Flying Panther Tattoo, her two sons, cannabis medicine advocacy and a career as a medical social worker working in palliative and hospice care. We met several years ago through our main occupations of late – being passionate advocates for cannabis medicine, propelled by the successful treatment of our own children. I talked to Allison for a long time last week after she returned home from a trip to Utah to see family. I learned a little of her background and what brought her to being such a powerful force for good in the cannabis community.

 

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INTERVIEWER

 

Hey there, friend! Why don’t we start with you commenting a bit on what’s going down in Utah right now? Were you there because of all the fracas in the legislature with those CBD bills?

 

 

ALLISON

 

Actually, no. I was in Utah visiting relatives. I grew up in Orange County, California as a Mormon although I’m not one anymore.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Wow! I had no idea! Tell me a little bit about your background and what you think of the Mormon Church’s stance on marijuana.

 

ALLISON

 

Well, I grew up in Orange County in a traditional Mormon home. I’m actually directly descended from Brigham Young’s first wife. I left the church when I was a young woman, but that’s a long story for a different interview! As far as what’s going on now in Utah with the marijuana bills and the Mormon Church’s coming out against them – well – it doesn’t surprise me. The entire crux of being Mormon – the entire reason the Church exists at all — is that Joseph Smith was told to restore the gospel by becoming a modern-day prophet. Now the prophet is the head of the Mormon Church, and he talks directly to God. The Mormon people define themselves by this notion of purity, and because it’s a very patriarchal and authoritative system, they’re not really allowed to think for themselves. You can’t go against the prophet because that’s going against God.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

And this notion of purity, I guess, extends to the group? Is that why you aren’t allowed to drink Coke or alcohol and, of course, drugs?

 

ALLISON

 

Yes. So many proscriptions – and every choice or decision you make determines whether or not you get into heaven. There’s a lot of pressure to be Mormon, you know. And they’re not going to be connected to drugs. I wasn’t surprised that the CBD law initially passed, because those women who initially orchestrated it are powerful mamas, but once you start getting into THC – no.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

So, given your background, what was your path to marijuana anyway?

 

ALLISON

 

It started when I found marijuana for myself. I’ve struggled with depression since I was ten years old. Beginning in my teens, I self-medicated and used my friends’ pills, illegal drugs and so on. I even hesitate now to talk about it because there was so much shame and confusion about it all. I’d wonder, “Am I a drug addict?” I was profoundly depressed – even suicidal. It wasn’t acceptable to medicate yourself that way, but because of it I knew eventually what it did to me, and it wasn’t good. Today, I’m more scared of morphine and prescription drugs than anything else. I eventually used marijuana instead of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs, because it really helped me.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Tell me a little more about that. When did you really start treating your depression and anxiety with marijuana?

 

ALLISON

 

I was a college student at the University of California at San Diego, studying medical anthropology. I had always been told, remember, that marijuana was bad, that its effects on the brain were terrible, that I’d fail in school and on and on. I went to a psychiatrist on campus, and he gave me a prescription for Klonopin for my anxiety. I’d literally pass out after using it and couldn’t go to class. When I smoked, I could go to class. I made straight As. Because I was studying medical anthropology, I was learning about all these different health systems and how medical systems collide with one another. I was learning about things like hegemony and authority, the whole “we’re the ones with the answers” mindset. It’s like everything was being set up for me and what would eventually happen.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What do you mean? Can you elaborate?

 

ALLISON

 

Well, where the story really began for us as a family was back when I was nursing my youngest son Oscar in the middle of the night. Robbie, my older son had not been diagnosed, yet. I happened to read an article about Jason David, the father of this young boy with seizures who was treating them successfully with marijuana. Now, remember my own son was “normal” then, and I had no idea what was coming, but because of my own experience with marijuana, I just started crying. I was literally sobbing, so impressed and moved and proud of this guy Jason.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

It’s almost like the story was written for you.

 

 

ALLISON

 

Yes. Exactly. Two weeks later, Robbie had his first seizure. He was totally healthy.

elizabeth

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Yikes. That’s some serious synchronicity. What were you thinking aside from the obvious?

 

 

ALLISON

 

You know, we went the traditional route back then, and it was only later that I began to think about the strange synchronicity of the events. I am 100% certain today that I’ve been guided – spiritually – on this path. The universe, God, whatever you want to call it – has guided me.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What do you mean by that? You went the normal route in treating Robbie’s seizures and then were guided to try something different?

 

 

 ALLISON

 

No, not exactly. Yeah, we went the traditional route first, the whole cliché. Robbie was diagnosed with the seizure disorder and came home on Keppra. The good thing about intractable epilepsy, the kind that resists medication, is that you find out pretty quickly.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

For people who don’t know, about 30% of people with epilepsy don’t respond to medication and continue to have seizures. They are considered refractory seizures, and the chances of them being stopped by subsequent medications drops rapidly.

 

ALLISON

 

Exactly. Within three months, Robbie failed two meds, and then a month later we got a second opinion and a definitive diagnosis of Doose Syndrome. It’s also known as Myoclonic Astatic Epilepsy and is characterized by difficult to control seizures. This neurologist in Orange County, here in California, who had studied in India was particularly kind to me and so good with Robbie. He was an empathetic doctor who left me with a hug and something that I’ll always remember. He told me, “Good luck. This is going to be the rest of your life.”

 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

That must have been devastating. I think everyone’s diagnosis story is one of the most powerful stories of a life. I know mine was, too. It’s like your life is one way and then in a flash, another. A new life. Or like your kind doctor said, “the rest of your life.”

 

 

ALLISON

 

You know, the whole time that I was going through this, I was thinking of Jason and his boy. I honestly felt comforted that I had a Plan B. I had been actively pursuing this marijuana thing, even as I learned everything about epilepsy and traditional treatments for it. As a trained social worker and medical anthropologist, I just dove in and learned about all of it. That being said, though, it was the most desperate scavenger hunt of my life. Don’t get me wrong. It was hell while we were going through the meds and Robbie was still seizing. It was horrible for our family. I honestly thought about driving off the Coronado bridge at times.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How aware were you of what was going on in the marijuana community? It was all so new then, I imagine, and from my experience, dealing with a seizing kid is all-consuming. I’m amazed that you had the time to learn about both simultaneously!

 

 

ALLISON

 

Well, I was watching what was going on in Colorado with Charlotte’s Web and Realm of Caring. I watched Heather Barnes Jackson and her son Zaki, and  I felt that I shouldn’t have to go through fifteen drugs like he did to get to the place to try cannabis for my son. It’s weird to me that it’s almost like my whole life up to that point was a set-up for that point. I just knew, you know? My own history as a Mormon, my depression and the marijuana that healed and continues to heal me, my background in medical anthropology and then, of course, my career as a social worker. My son then gets this disease whose cure – like magic – is…

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Marijuana! Of course!

 

 

ALLISON

 

Yes. It’s hard to believe and then, it’s obvious. I had been so comforted by Plan B, and Plan B quickly became Plan A when we got off the waiting list and were among the first small group in California to get Charlotte’s Web.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

O.K. Here we go. Tell me what happened. You started giving Robbie Charlotte’s Web high CBD oil, and …

 

ALLISON

 

He responded immediately and had his first seizure-free day on Christmas day. Over the next few months, we did a little dance with him and had to fiddle with the dosing, but he’s now been largely seizure-free for 2 ½ years with only a few breakthrough seizures.

 

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INTERVIEWER

 

Even though I’ve heard these stories over and over again, and even though our own story is similar as far as the efficacy of the CBD, it’s always amazing to me. It’s sort of like watching a baby being born. I’ve always been a sucker for that, can hardly stop crying even when it happens on some television show! I’m so glad for you and your family.

 

ALLISON

 

You know, I haven’t really gone into it with you, yet – have only really suggested it, but this whole thing has been an intense spiritual experience for me. It’s been the Universe telling me that here’s this PLANT. In my work as an anthropologist, I studied totems. Totems are symbols that represent a group, and even though they’re just symbols, over time they incorporate an energy and an ethos. I feel spiritually connected to the marijuana plant. I have an endocannabinoid system that is physically connected to it. As a social worker I connect where the plant connects.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

That’s so beautiful! I want to stand up and shout, “YES!” because you’re articulating so well my own experience.  Why don’t you tell us a little more about this community that you’ve nurtured and how it fits into this ethos of the the marijuana plant as totem?

 

ALLISON

 

I have a women’s group that is also connected to it. My other passion is women and empowering them. We meet once a month and share our experiences and resources. With marijuana – it’s bizarre. It was a beautiful thing. I could show up with all of my gifts and all my strengths and create this group. It really blew my mind. I couldn’t believe that it unfolded the way that it did. I’m learning that you have to collaborate with your community to use marijuana.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

I think I understand. I know from my own experience that I couldn’t have continued to walk this cannabis journey for my own daughter without the support of those who were around me doing the same. Is that what you’re talking about as far as your community?

 

ALLISON

 

Yes, partly. I couldn’t have gotten there without the support of my community. Facebook. Individuals, other mothers. Developing friendships and relationships. I’m thinking, too, of the relationship between curing and healing. Curing fixes and healing integrates. Cannabis comes with something, it integrates. Depakote – the drug my son Robbie is on – it doesn’t come with anything. Does that make sense?

 

INTERVIEWER

 

It does. As a writer, I’ve used as a sort of touchstone this saying about healing and curing – how the two are very different but also integral to one another. I think you’re saying that this women’s community that you’ve created is an act of collaboration, that the marijuana plant afforded that collaboration and that it’s that collaboration itself that is healing.

 

 

ALLISON

 

Yes! Exactly. And you know what? Putting Robbie on cannabis healed me as much as it helped him. Our family was being destroyed by his seizures and the medications. I had no idea, either, when Robbie was first diagnosed, how many people I would lose. Preschools turned us down when they found out that they’d have to administer emergency medication if he had a prolonged seizure. People didn’t call me back. I was really craving connection, reassurance, friendship and a soft place to land. I started to think, who are the people in this community that can help us? How can we make this easier for one another? I gradually started meeting other women who were doing the same thing. We met one another in Glendale where we congregated one day to hear about Charlotte’s Web coming to California. We networked on Facebook. I believe that the marijuana plant is, essentially, a connector, and that we just couldn’t do it without these connections. This group of women is a powerhouse. I am inspired by them. It’s been a blessing.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

You know, I’m so struck by your beginnings as a Mormon, albeit a little depressed Mormon girl. Do you have any reflections about that?

 

 

ALLISON

 

Well, yes. I do reflect on that. You know, cannabis has reconnected me to the spiritual side of myself that I had lost from being damaged by the Mormon Church. Cannabis reconnected me to my family. I can honestly say that Robbie’s diagnosis and the struggles we had trying to help him made us all crazy. If it’s possible, we were almost a suicidal family. Healing Robbie with cannabis healed all of us. The women’s community, my tattoo community – all these communities were afforded by cannabis. I am just so grateful.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Allison, this interview has just been mind-blowing. I am going to be visiting your women’s community group meeting soon and wonder if you have anything else to add today? Maybe tell us a little about your website.

 

 

ALLISON

 

Hegemony is based on consensus. Part of my intention in nurturing the group and then creating my website is to be bold and to work toward a growing consensus that using cannabis is GOOD, that this is SAFE. That’s a direct threat to the current consensus. We’re beholden to pharmaceuticals because that’s good for them. They don’t like that we’re pulling people to our side, that we can grow this plant in our backyard and make our own medicine. How that played out is that even our own Epilepsy Foundation affiliate here in San Diego refused to refer people to our group. I started a website so that people could find us. The epilepsy affiliate was not helping. They didn’t get it at all. It’s an oral tradition – see! My anthropology training! It’s women coming over for a potluck and full glass of wine with tears and hugs to figure it out. It’s a good model. It cured me and it cured my son.

 

 

 

 

Interviewer Notes:

Allison is very invested in continuing to spread information about cannabis and offer support and community to those who are seeking it. Her website is Pediatric Cannabis Support, and she wants you to know that it, and the monthly meetings, are places where people can come and find information and know exactly what to do and where to go to empower themselves to get that information. She says, “I don’t want you to leave our group with more questions. I don’t want you to be desperate. That’s so 2012.”

I will be visiting Allison’s group this month and reporting on it next week.

 

 

About Author

Elizabeth is a writer living in Los Angeles with her three children. Her work has been published in numerous literary anthologies and journals as well as The Los Angeles Times, and Spirituality and Health Magazine. She received a prestigious writing residency at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island and is currently working on a memoir about the challenges and joys of raising a child with significant disabilities. She is intimately and passionately acquainted with medical cannabis as it dramatically reduced her daughter's previously uncontrolled seizures. She blogs daily at www.elizabethaquino.blogspot.com. In her vast amounts of free time, she also wrangles two teenaged boys and attends a bewildering number of sports practices and games.

  • Lawrence Goodwin

    Immensely moving interview, Ms. Aquino. Thank you so much for sharing. This is perfect follow-up to a recent newspaper article that mentioned Ms. Benavides and the seizures afflicting her tough little son (“Drug Based On Cannabis Meets Goal Of Big Trial,” New York Times, 3/15/16).

    • Thanks for your comment, Mr. Goodwin. Allison definitely packs a punch!

  • Mandy McGaugh

    Moved to tears and rendered speechless. Thank you for sharing your selves and this potent medicine of the heart.