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The Doobie Underground

ROME, Italy—

Alberto Sciolari keeps offering me cheese. It’s a small wheel of Brie, sharing table space with rolling papers, loose tobacco, and several plastic vials of marijuana. Of all the things on the table, a ripened dairy product is not what I thought I’d first be offered.

I’m visiting an underground cannabis social club (CSC) that provides medical marijuana to patients, based out of a centro sociale—social center—in the heart of Rome. (The centro’s organizers asked for its location to be withheld). All CSCs are non-commercial organizations that internally organize the production and distribution of tiny quantities of marijuana, just enough to cover the needs of members. Though two other centri in Rome help to organize CSCs, this is the only centro that allows medical marijuana to be grown on its own property.

Alberto, 59, is in charge of growing and harvesting marijuana for members suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), and other illnesses. He is also the vice president of Pazienti Impazienti Canapa (PIC), a national grassroots self-help patient group recognized by the Italian Ministry of Health. (PIC is unaffiliated with this CSC.) He points to the cheese again. “It’s very good,” he says. “Are you sure you don’t want any?” I decline. He shrugs and rolls himself a joint as we begin to talk.

While smoking a doobie for personal consumption is somewhat tolerated in Italy, cultivating, buying, and selling weed is illegal. After years of protests from both medical and recreational marijuana supporters, including PIC, Italy legalized cannabis for medical purposes in 2013 under a special program overseen by local healthcare services, Azienda Sanitare Locale.

Medical marijuana is currently imported from the Netherlands, and tax and transport costs have driven the price up to nearly double what it originally sells for. A gram can go for 38 euros ($49). Depending on how much is needed, a patient can easily pay up to 1,000 euros ($1,200) a month for treatment. As a result, only about 60 patients have signed up for the program. For those who want cheap and easy access to weed to alleviate their medical symptoms, the restrictions put in place by the government are at best a nuisance and at worst, dehumanizing.

“It’s your health. It’s your life. You manage it; no one else can manage it for you,” Alberto says. He knows from personal experience: In 1989, he was diagnosed with HIV. In addition to his prescribed HIV medicine, he self-medicates with marijuana. He likes to smoke when working; certain strains of marijuana energize him and allow him to work long, concentrated hours. “It’s just another medicine,” he says. Plus, he points out, it doesn’t come with the same nasty side effects “chemical” medication does.

Alberto knows many people who have smoked to alleviate their medical symptoms, sometimes to dazzling effect. One man, diagnosed with MS, began to lose his vision. “One eye went like this and one eye went like that,” Alberto says, his fingers pointing in opposite directions. “He can’t drive, he can’t even walk without someone helping him… When he smokes, though, he’s able to see.” He filmed the man smoking medicinal marijuana with a vaporizer; a doctor was present. Ten minutes later, the doctor performed an eye exam. The man was able to clearly read the writing on the prescription bottle.

He prescribed cannabis to relieve Queen Victoria’s menstrual cramps

Documents espousing marijuana’s medical benefits first appeared in 2900 B.C. in China, but medicinal cannabis in Europe is indebted to one over-achieving Irishman. Born in 1809, Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy invented the modern treatment for cholera, laid the first telegraph system in Asia, contributed inventions in underwater engineering, and effectively pioneered the use of medical cannabis in Europe. Inspired by the use of cannabis in Ayurvedic and Persian medicine, O’Shaughnessy conducted the first clinical trials of marijuana, treating rheumatism, hydrophobia, cholera, tetanus, and convulsions.

Influenced by O’Shaughnessy, Sir J. Russell Reynolds prescribed cannabis to relieve Queen Victoria’s menstrual cramps. “When pure and administered carefully, [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess,” he wrote in 1890. But the widespread use of the syringe a few years later, which allowed drugs to dissolve quickly into a patient’s blood stream, ended medical marijuana’s popularity in Europe.

Following an international drugs conference in Geneva in 1928, marijuana was banned in the UK after allegations from the Egyptian delegation that the plant was as dangerous as opium and a threat to society. Hashish was already illegal in Egypt, where it was negatively associated with Sufis and the fellahin, urban and rural poor, who used it both recreationally and medicinally. “Hashish addicts,” delegate Mohammed El Guindy declared, “are useless derelicts.”

Between 1912 and 1953, multilateral drug control treaties were negotiated around the world. The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs consolidated these in 1961. The convention classified marijuana at the same level as opiates and cocaine, Schedule I, as drugs “having strong addictive properties” and “a risk to public health.” While the UN permitted medical use, in 1969 the World Health Organization determined that “medical need for cannabis as such no longer exists.”

Vigorous debate and liberalized policy changes immediately followed the UN Convention, leading certain European countries to adopt their own stance on both medical and recreational marijuana. As a whole, though, the EU has yet to come up with a unified approach to medical marijuana. Sweden, often seen as one of the most progressive European countries, doesn’t recognize marijuana to have any medical benefits. In Ireland, people who use cannabis to relieve medical symptoms are fined 2,750 euros and face criminalization, though policy makers are looking to change this.

Eighteen EU countries have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, most recently France, the Czech Republic, and Romania. The Netherlands has historically been the most forward thinking when it comes to medical marijuana. In 2003, the country set up Europe’s only Cannabis Bureau, which ensures that patients with doctor’s prescriptions are receiving tested marijuana. The Bureau also provides its own prescriptions for patients and facilitates the distribution of weed to various EU countries through the Ministry of Health.

There are no light drugs

Italian Senator Carlo Giovanardi, who co-authored a recently overturned law setting out penalties related to the sale and possession of illegal drugs, doesn’t want Italy to follow in Holland’s footsteps. “In the scientific literature there are no light drugs. There is only one UN chart, and only one European chart, and cannabis has always been the front-door entrance to cocaine or heroin,” he told Al Jazeera in 2014.

At first, the CSC Alberto now helps run wasn’t a club for medical patients—the centro sociale grew its own marijuana for the personal use of its members. In 2001, the centro identified three of its members who were medical patients, gave them their own bags of cannabis, and began looking for more people who could benefit from easy, continuous access to weed. The CSC was born.

“CSCs are based on the empowerment and responsibility [of individuals],” says Alberto, though he notes that they are difficult to set up. Since the beginning, there have been a maximum of twenty patients a year; time and labor constrain this number. “How can you grow for everyone?” Alberto asks, hands spread wide. The members have now dwindled to four. The rest of the patients have either passed away or left the program.

For many years, Alberto worked with several other members from the CSC who assisted in the growing and cultivating process. As the years have gone by, however, he is the only one whose health has remained stable enough to allow him to continue farming. Many of the patients, constrained by debilitating diseases, are physically unable to move; their relatives help out instead. A daughter of one patient and the father of another have pitched in during the growing season and harvest.

This summer, Alberto planted seeds in a small garden in the centro; he’s previously grown in a member’s backyard. No high density fluorescent lights here, just the strong Roman sun. There’s a wire fence around the plot and a thick padlock barring the gate. The garden is a jumble of herbs, vegetable plants, and Tibetan prayer flags. In the back, I spot a few marijuana plants. It’s December, and almost everything has been harvested; only a few telltale leaves poke out.

The entire operation is not-for-profit. “It’s a closed circuit,” Alberto stresses. “We don’t buy and we don’t sell.” In theory, this helps to shield them from legal concerns. In February 2014, Italy overturned Senator Giovandari’s co-authored bill that equated cannabis with heroin; the penalties for possession are now much less strict. And the CSC benefits from Article 12 of the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights of the European Union, which states, “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association at all levels.”

Pino Cucci, who died of multiple sclerosis three years ago. Photo: Alberto Sciolari

Despite operating in a gray area and providing what many believe is a valuable service for people, the CSC is still vaguely illicit. I ask Alberto if he is worried about running into legal problems. “Patients are not too afraid,” he later writes in an email. “Health is a basic human right.” Some members have gone to court for growing (the cases have been thrown out), and the police once visited Alberto. But as a CSC member’s daughter points out to me later, “Who’s going to arrest a sick person?”

Members are required to cover the base expenses with an up-front cash advance of about 50 euros. Typically, another 50 euros are required at the end of the year, though this still means members pay a fraction of the state’s price. Everyone pays the same regardless of the amount of weed they require. One woman, Carlotta, needs 90 grams a month. Another member, Gianna, suffers from MS and is paralyzed from the neck down. She only smokes a small nightly joint to help her fall asleep, so she doesn’t lie in the dark staring at the ceiling.

The type of weed each patient requires is unique, depending on their illness and the symptoms they are trying to alleviate. Though there are over 400 different chemicals in weed, researchers really only understand the ways in which THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) work with the human body. Varying levels of CBD and THC in different strains means that one type of marijuana might be great for alleviating pain, while another may be better suited to physically energizing a person. Alberto grows five different strains of weed; the members share their preferences with him before the growing season.

While research on medical marijuana is still limited, several studies have illustrated its benefits. A 2014 study by the Canadian Medical Association found that a few days of marijuana smoking can bring relief to muscle “spascity” in MS patients, though it’s unclear if there are any long term consequences. CBD may also help in preventing cancer from spreading, according to researchers from the California Pacific Medical Center. But the most important advantages might not be found in medical journals—legalizing medical marijuana allows patients to take control of their own health, an important psychological factor for people whose lives have effectively been ripped from their hands.

I ask Alberto how he ensures prospective members require this treatment for medical purposes. Surely some healthy interlopers try to take advantage of the cheap and abundant weed? Everyone must show signed medical documentation clarifying their sickness and diagnosis, he explains, and all patients must already be consumers. “I get a lot of people who call me, telling me they read something about how beneficial medical marijuana is,” he says, “but we don’t want to spread the use of marijuana. No, we are all already consumers.”

Later in the afternoon, Alberto shows me the rooms he uses to dry, store, and bundle the harvested marijuana. Huge weed branches dangle from the ceiling, forcing us to duck as we cross the room. Boxes of dried weed are stacked on top of each other, and brown paper bags are filled with the members’ monthly quota. It smells very potent. There’s a large wooden table covered with weed scraps, seeds, a vaporizer, and a microscope the size of my thumb. I hold up a piece of bud under the glass and the trichromes burst into view. I can see each individual detail perfectly, the plant hairs glistening with what look like tiny diamonds; it’s like peering through a kaleidoscope. The future of medicine looks pretty dank.

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of certain individuals.

Sarah Souli
Sarah Souli is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis, formerly on staff with COLORS magazine. Her work has also been featured in VICE, Al Jazeera, Quartz, and The State. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania.
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