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When Malek Asfeer immigrated to the United States from Saudi Arabia in 2011, he viewed cannabis much like heroin or cocaine: as a dangerous substance to avoid at all costs. Yet he soon found himself on the front lines of CBD and hemp legalization efforts in America.
Asfeer began volunteering for Realm of Caring, the cannabis nonprofit co-founded by Paige Figi (mother of now-deceased medical marijuana patient Charlotte Figi) and the Stanley brothers (the family of cannabis breeders behind the Charlotte’s Web CBD strain). Eventually becoming the organization’s art director in 2015, Asfeer produced video testimonials sharing the experiences of cannabis and CBD users. 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 resulting in jail time. However, cannabis possession has led to execution as recently as 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 start conversations that “change minds and change laws throughout the Middle East” regarding cannabis, he says, before ramping up more advocacy efforts in Middle Eastern and Arabian Gulf countries.
Westword: Growing up in Saudi Arabia, what did you think of cannabis?
Malek Asfeer: Saudi Arabia didn’t escape the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs affected the entire world, and I feel like Saudi Arabia adopted that, as well. Growing up, cannabis, marijuana, hemp — all of that was considered drugs in the same way that you look at cocaine and heroin. You didn’t want to get near it, and you didn’t want to get close to it. That’s the way I grew up, and that’s the way I looked at the plant before meeting Joel Stanley.
People don’t distinguish between cannabis and marijuana; there isn’t even a word for hemp in Arabic. It’s all grouped together. The whole plant is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, and you cannot sell or use it. You could go to prison 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 that was the case ten years ago, at least in terms of execution. But you can certainly go to prison for the plant.
I first met Joel Stanley, one of the Stanley brothers who founded Charlotte’s Web. Then I met Paige and Charlotte Figi, and everything changed from there. You can’t see that and not re-evaluate and reconsider everything you’ve been taught [about cannabis] and followed your entire life. That’s where I had to change my mind and learn more about this plant.
I learned more about Realm of Caring, which is the nonprofit started by Heather Jackson, Paige Figi and the Stanley brothers. Paige Figi is Charlotte’s mom, and Heather Jackson is another mom of a child with a similar case to Charlotte’s. So I started volunteering for Realm of Caring, because I was a student, so I wasn’t legally allowed to work. I also couldn’t legally be involved in cannabis as an immigrant, because I have to follow federal law. That was an issue, and my lawyers were telling me I could be deported for volunteering and working.
I got involved because I saw a good cause, and I couldn’t look away. I saw that the nonprofit needed to tell their story in order to make a difference, so I fit right in there. That’s what I was doing, telling stories, and I was honored to know that it made a difference.
Did you ever expect to be working in the cannabis industry?
No, not in a million years. Like I said, this was something that goes against everything I learned and had been taught. Even in the beginning, when I came to the U.S. and saw people interested in cannabis such as friends in college and stuff like that, I was advising against it. So to be working in the industry today makes no sense looking back, but I’m glad that I am working in this industry.
Your new project, Cannarab, wants to start cannabis conversations in the Middle East. How important are these conversations?
It’s 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] still believe that someone who has epilepsy or any form of seizures is someone who is being possessed by the devil. That is not only horrifying, but it’s also something that we need to change.
A few years ago, my cousin was diagnosed with epilepsy at thirty years of age. At that point he was an adult, he had his life — and some of his family believed that he was possessed. That caused him to lose his marriage, his kid, and then he ended up dying alone after having a seizure episode, falling on the ground and hitting his head.
To just see that and know that there are things like that happening makes it so important to me to start the conversation around cannabis, and around changing perspectives around certain illnesses.
How do you start these conversations in the Middle East?
We are starting with educational content, and we are working with different heads of state and leaders in Middle Eastern countries, especially the Arab Gulf countries. Our goal is to start the conversation and to try to talk to the leaders of these countries. Hopefully, we can loosen some of the laws that will allow us to start the conversation on the ground in the Middle East.
But also, we are looking at countries that legalized cannabis, like Lebanon [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 at opportunities to start research in these countries. Hopefully, research will come forward with evidence and studies to show this is a plant that can help people, and that there is so much potential.
Education is the first thing we need to do. I am using my experience in the United States while helping Realm of Caring and Paige Figi. … It is critical to educate people. I believe that 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 is going to be the key to legalizing cannabis in the Middle East.
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