Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, Barcelona, Spain

The major victory medical cannabis advocates won last month at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was the result of long years of efforts by many advocates from around the world. One of the tireless champions of patient rights who worked to achieve this is Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, a French-Algerian researcher who lives in Barcelona.

Kenzi is one of many collaborators with ASA and other advocates who pressed the 53 member states of the CND to accept the recommendations of the World Health Organization’s expert review of cannabis and cannabis extracts. Among Kenzi’s projects is the CND Monitor website, where information about international drug scheduling is available.

Kenzi became interested in cannabis policies in 2011 as part of a general interest in the human rights problems associated with drug prohibition. That’s when he met U.S. cannabis patient-advocate Michael Krawitz, who is executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. From Michael, Kenzi says he learned useful strategies for navigating the bureaucracy of the U.S. federal government, strategies that proved useful in wrestling with the U.N.

“The U.S. is a bureaucratic monster,” says Kenzi. “But the U.N. is a series of bureaucratic monsters.”

After meeting Michael, ASA founder and President Steph Sherer, and members of other NGOs working on drug policy in Geneva at the WHO and UN, Kenzi got drawn further into the world of international drug policy. In 2015, he decided to devote himself to the issue full time, founding a non-profit, non-partisan and non-governmental international advocacy and research organization known as FAAAT (For Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think & do tank) that was active until last year working on policies of addiction and controlled/illicit drugs, plants, products or substances liable to produce harms or health disorders.

“I was concerned with the devastating impact of drug policies generally, the criminalization of behaviors instead of helping them manage their conditions,” says Kenzi. His awareness of the medicinal potential of cannabis dawned slowly.

“I had been influenced by the propaganda mainstreamed for almost a century,” Kenzi says. “I was aware of medical use, but thought it was for milder conditions. I was unaware of the actual pharmacological effects on many more conditions than those used by opponents to pretend that it is fake medicine.”

Then he met actual patients who were cured or managed difficult medical conditions with cannabis. Kenzi came to believe that the most pressing issues are medical access issues.

“This is an emergency, a human rights issue,” Kenzi says. “Full legalization comes after medical, after the benefits become clearer and people see how we can handle it, that will help change attitudes.”

His work with patients has changed Kenzi’s attitude about his own cannabis use. He found it useful for the insomnia that runs in his family and his anxiety, but those conditions seemed too trivial to be serious. The patients he talked to helped him see that he was actually a patient, too--another human being deserving of care and relief from suffering.

Once the WHO and UN recognize cannabis as not just medical but as a legitimate medicine, Kenzi believes the mechanism of human rights will then oblige member states to reform prohibitionist policies. The CND decision this month enables radical change in drug policy but does not directly create it because international drug scheduling and the controlling treaty are complex and interconnected. It’s not as simple as descheduling in the U.S.

“Moving cannabis out of schedule IV is the first step,” he says. “Then the treaty must change. That is up to governments to change. That takes political steps.”

The challenge is, Kenzi says, to move beyond old postcolonial concerns to a modern kind of treaty that reflects contemporary national law and is fully based on access for patients. The current approach was created by the U.S.’s “just say no” prohibitionist eradication strategy that seeks to eliminate all illicit drugs.

More systemic reform of international law will require nations to do more than opt out of the drug treaties. All countries are supposed to harmonize their laws with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Now that this chapter with the CND draws to a close, Kenzio is turning to human rights and the environment, intellectual property and health, and the preservation of traditional medicines and cannabis cultures.

He wants to create tools for traditional cannabis communities, both rural and urban, to avoid the destruction of their cannabis-related traditions, cultures and landraces

This profile was originally published in the December 2020 ASA Activist Newsletter