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When Malek Asfeer immigrated to the United States from Saudi Arabia in 2011, he viewed cannabis in a similar way to heroin or cocaine: a dangerous substance that should be avoided at all costs. Still, he soon found himself at the forefront of efforts to legalize CBD and hemp in America.
Asfeer began volunteering for Realm of Caring, the cannabis nonprofit founded by Paige Figi (mother of the late medical marijuana patient Charlotte Figi) and the Stanley brothers (the family of cannabis growers behind the CBD). Variety Charlotte’s Web). Asfeer finally became Art Director of the organization in 2015 and produced video testimonials in which the experiences of cannabis and CBD users were exchanged. Now he wants to tell similar stories in the Middle East.
All forms of cannabis are illegal in Asfeer’s native Saudi Arabia, with possession usually leading to jail time. However, possession of cannabis didn’t result in execution until 2014, and the country does not distinguish non-psychoactive forms of cannabis like CBD and hemp from high-THC marijuana. Asfeer’s new project, Cannarab, hopes to initiate talks on cannabis that will “change minds and laws across the Middle East” before advancing lobbying in the countries of the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf.
We caught up with Asfeer to learn more about his experience of advocating hemp legalization in the US and his hopes for cannabis in the Middle East.
Westword: When you grew up in Saudi Arabia, what do you think of cannabis?
Malek Asfeer: Saudi Arabia did not escape the war on drugs. The war on drugs has hit the whole world, and I think Saudi Arabia has taken it over too. Growing up, cannabis, marijuana, hemp – all of these were considered drugs, just like cocaine and heroin are considered. You didn’t want to get close and you didn’t want to get close. This is how I grew up and this is how I looked at the plant before meeting Joel Stanley.
What are the current laws and attitudes in Saudi Arabia regarding cannabis? What about non-psychoactive forms like hemp and CBD?
People don’t differentiate between cannabis and marijuana. There isn’t even a word for hemp in Arabic. It’s all grouped together. The entire system is banned in Saudi Arabia and cannot be sold or used. You could go to jail for it, and in some cases you can be executed for it. I’m not sure if that’s still the case, but I know it was ten years ago, at least in terms of execution. But you can safely go to jail for the plant.
What made you get involved in hemp and CBD legalization out here?
I first met Joel Stanley, one of the Stanley brothers who started Charlotte’s Web. Then I met Paige and Charlotte Figi and from then on everything changed. You can’t see that, and you can’t reevaluate and rethink everything you’ve been taught [about cannabis] and followed your whole life. There I had to change my mind and learn more about this plant.
I learned more about Realm of Caring, a nonprofit founded by Heather Jackson, Paige Figi, and the Stanley Brothers. Paige Figi is Charlotte’s mother, and Heather Jackson is another mother of one with a case similar to Charlotte’s. So I started volunteering for the Realm of Caring because I was a student and therefore couldn’t work legally. I also couldn’t legally participate in cannabis as an immigrant because I have to obey federal law. That was a problem and my lawyers told me I could be deported for volunteering and work.
I got involved because I saw a good cause and couldn’t look away. I’ve seen the nonprofits have to tell their story in order to make a difference, so I fit right in there. That was what I did to tell stories, and it was an honor to know that it made a difference.
Have you ever expected to work in the cannabis industry?
No, not in a million years. As I said, this is something that goes against everything I have learned and taught. From the very beginning, when I came to the US and saw people interested in cannabis, such as college friends and the like, I advised against it. Working in the industry today doesn’t make sense in retrospect, but I’m glad I work in this industry.
Her new project, Cannarab, aims to start cannabis talks in the Middle East. How important are these conversations?
It is extremely important. I think it’s almost as important in the Middle East and North Africa as it is here, if not more. People [in other parts of the world] I still believe that someone who has epilepsy or any form of seizure is someone possessed by the devil. Not only is this terrible, it’s something we need to change.
A few years ago my cousin was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 30 years old. At that point, he was an adult, he had his life – and some of his family believed he was obsessed. That caused him to lose his marriage, his child, and then he died alone after having a seizure episode, falling on the floor and hitting his head.
Just seeing that and knowing that something like this is happening is what makes it so important for me to start the conversation about cannabis and about changing perspectives on certain diseases.
How are you starting these talks in the Middle East?
We start with educational content and work with various heads of state and business leaders in Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the Arabian Gulf countries. Our goal is to start the conversation and try to speak to the leaders of these countries. Hopefully we can relax some of the laws that allow us to start the conversation locally in the Middle East.
But we also look at countries like Lebanon that have legalized cannabis [with medical marijuana] and Morocco [where cannabis is illegal but the law is rarely enforced; there have been multiple legalization efforts in recent years]and are looking for opportunities to start research in these countries. Hopefully the research will come up with evidence and studies to show that this is a plant that can help people and that there is so much potential.
Education is the first thing we have to do. I am using my experience in the US to help Realm of Caring and Paige Figi. … It is important to educate people. I believe education is more important than activism because once you educate people you are giving them the tools [to change laws and attitudes] instead of just fighting them and asking them to get those tools themselves. Education will be key to legalizing cannabis in the Middle East.
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Clara Geoghegan is a graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder where she studied anthropology with an emphasis on public health. She worked at Radio 1190’s News Underground and freelanced for Denverite. She is now the cannabis intern at Westword.