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‘Cannabis saved my life’

THEO PANAYIDES meets the man who stood in the recent parliamentary elections with a single issue on his ticket – to legalise marijuana

Look at this, says Giorgos Christoforou, pointing to the ashtray on the table between us. We’re in the half-empty lobby of the Londa Hotel in Limassol on a Monday afternoon – the outdoor area, where you can smoke – and I duly take a look in the ashtray: there are two cigarette butts (he’s been smoking steadily since we started talking) and another little stub, thin and white, like the end of a roll-up. “I was here five minutes before you,” he explains, “and I still had my joint, I was just putting it out. Right now, basically, I’m what you might call – well, I’m stoned. Okay. For me, that’s become a daily reality.”

Just a few years ago, such an admission might’ve seemed too risky in public. Even now, every week sees a new report of people in Cyprus being arrested, remanded, charged or imprisoned for growing or using marijuana (pot, weed, cannabis, call it what you will). Even Giorgos, though he quite happily walked into the Londa holding a joint, is reluctant to light up another one now with strangers around (he’s worried about the smell) – yet Giorgos is the most obvious proof that things are changing, having stood in last month’s parliamentary elections as an independent candidate with one message only: “Legalisation Now”, as it says on his banner.

How did he take the decision to go into politics? “Let me explain,” he says portentously, then pauses and takes a long sip of water. That’s the way he speaks, in a heavy, deliberate fashion, like a man in a village coffee shop making a point. He’s 58, bull-necked, bespectacled and usually silver-haired, though he’s dyed his hair and beard on the day of our interview – and of course you watch someone closely after they admit to being stoned, but I really didn’t see much evidence. He’s a bit verbose and hard to interrupt, but that’s probably just his character. His expression seldom changes (even when I ask him to smile for a photo, he remains implacable) but he is, after all, a public figure, and has to project a certain gravitas. He seems to be a man in constant need of stimulation: as well as smoking tobacco – and the just-finished joint – he’s drinking an espresso, and later orders another one.

“Let me explain,” says Giorgos, and does so. “I have been smoking – to be honest with you, and with all the people reading this – I have been smoking cannabis for 40 years. I’m 58 now, I started when I was 18. That’s 40 years.”

So he’s been smoking almost every day?

“Not ‘almost’ every day. Every day! If you exclude certain times when I was arrested, or in prison – for this very reason, for cannabis use. And I smoke a quantity, let’s say, which is… Well, I might have three or four grams of weed every day.”

He has a joint every morning, with his coffee, then another at work, around 10 o’clock – “and from then on it’s a question of friends and acquaintances. So a friend might drop by, have a smoke, then he might leave and another one might come five minutes later”, or alternatively he might not get any visitors and go for hours without indulging. “But three grams a day is a given,” he concludes.

That’s all well and good – but it doesn’t explain why he’s decided to become a politician now, after all these years in the shadows. Well, he demurs, he wasn’t always in the shadows: he did go on a few TV shows with the late Dr Yiangos Mikellides, whom he met during his time inside (Mikellides was working as a prison psychiatrist) – but that was in the 90s, before medical science began studying cannabis in earnest and reporting “all kinds of wonders”. Giorgos puts it succinctly, using a metaphor he’s employed in other interviews: “If you don’t smoke at least two cannabis cigarettes every day, and you’re over 40, it’s like you’re standing in the rain without an umbrella. This is what science has discovered”.

Has it? Trying to reach a definitive answer on the science is something of a minefield, not least because information so often gets filtered through particular agendas. A Google search shows, for instance, that a recent study of New Zealand users earned the alarming headline ‘New Study Reveals the Health Risks of Smoking Marijuana’ – but in fact what that study showed was merely a higher rate of gum disease among long-time smokers, without any more serious adverse effects. “Overall damage to physical health is not apparent in this study,” the Duke University professor who co-authored it is quoted as saying – though another co-author admits that “other studies on this same sample of New Zealanders have shown that marijuana use is associated with increased risk of psychotic illness [and] IQ decline” (so maybe a better headline would’ve been ‘New Study Reveals Fewer Health Risks Than Old Study’). Giorgos, on the other hand, links on his Facebook page to an article headlined ‘There Are Now 100 Scientific Studies That Prove Cannabis Cures Cancer’ – but that article appears on a fluffy-looking pop-science website called higherperspectives.com, where a current top story is titled ‘New Research says Smelly Farts can Prevent Cancer and Benefit the People Around You’. Who can you trust?

All that said, no-one’s ever claimed that cannabis causes cancer, like tobacco, or makes people violent, like alcohol (more on this later). The main fear has always been one of addiction – which is nonsense, says Giorgos, pointing out that he never had a problem when forced to abstain during his two stints in prison. It’s a mental craving, he shrugs, like Nescafe, or halloumi with watermelon: “It’s a habit that gives you pleasure – but if you don’t get it for a period of time, nothing happens”. And of course there’s ample evidence that cannabinoids can fight disease, from epilepsy to Parkinson’s, MS, Alzheimer’s and indeed cancer. THC, the active ingredient when you smoke or eat cannabis, “cuts off the blood supply to the carcinogenic cells,” he claims, citing Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, “with the result that it forces them to commit suicide, that’s what Mechoulam says”. It’ll either destroy them or at least shrink them, so the cancer is unable to metastasise.

The Israelis are apparently on top of this particular game, exporting cannabis-based drugs to the US and offering 100,000 hospital beds for cannabis-based treatments. Cyprus, unsurprisingly, is way behind. At the very least let’s think of the economic benefits, he pleads: medical marijuana is huge in Europe, currently imported from Holland where the plant is grown in greenhouses and sold at premium prices – yet, if we only legalised cultivation and supply like he urged in his manifesto, we could grow better-quality, sun-ripened stuff (our local weed is superb, he says knowledgeably) and make loads of money before bigger countries got in on the act. Not to mention medical tourism, not to mention all the young tourists who currently shun Cyprus because they’re afraid of getting into trouble. Giorgos shakes his head, with the air of a prophet without honour.

He only received 561 votes in the elections (mostly, he admits, because those who might’ve voted for him are the apathetic young, who don’t bother voting), and is unlikely to run again unless he can find the resources to create a proper party with multiple candidates. He is, after all, just a struggling small businessman with a wife and 12-year-old son to support – his wife knew him for years before they were married, he adds parenthetically, and has never asked him to change his lifestyle – and in fact we’re interrupted a few times by his phone ringing with questions and mini-crises from his shop, the Paphos Pawn Shop. (“You tell him that for €50 we’ll give him all three. And he can do what he wants with them!” he tells whoever’s minding the shop in his absence.) He doesn’t need the aggravation of having to fight for TV time, and implicitly being dismissed as a nutter along with the other independent candidates.

Maybe they’d have taken him more seriously if he wasn’t just a one-issue candidate, I suggest.

He scoffs: “No way would I ever want to be part of their coffee shop – the parliament, in other words. I don’t want to be with them, nor do I respect them, nor do I want them”. He has no interest in becoming a politician; his only aim is legalisation – after which, were it ever to be achieved, he’d immediately resign his seat.

Giorgos strikes me as a man who bears grudges. He’s furious with the TV channels for having ignored his candidacy, and has even approached a lawyer for a possible lawsuit; all he got were three and a half minutes on CyBC, plus a five-second sound bite on Ant1 (neither of those channels would be part of any suit) – vastly less coverage than the big parties, who of course had vastly more resources. He’s scathing on the Drug Squad cops with whom he’s tangled over the years, calling the Squad a creature of the Americans and most of its officers “fascists”. He despises the media, whom he calls biased: “Go to the channels, if you get beaten up – go and tell them ‘The cops blackened my eyes, they caught me with a joint and beat me senseless’ – and see what they do. They’ll probably beat you up themselves, then throw you out!”. He’s also been sending angry letters for three decades regarding his first conviction, in 1986, when he did six months for possessing 380mg of hashish (about the size of two matchstick heads, he says), insisting even now that the drugs were planted. You’d think he’d be less enraged, given that he has in fact been using drugs every day for 40 years – but he won’t let it go.

Maybe it’s because that 1986 arrest was connected – according to Giorgos – with an earlier brawl in a Nicosia cabaret, after which he was charged with GBH (having pushed the other guy through a shop window) and fled abroad for a few years, becoming a student in order to avoid a custodial sentence. The owner of the cabaret was the father-in-law of a top cop, which was why the police had their eye on him (he says) when he came back to Cyprus – and it’s hard to know if that’s true, but the more intriguing fact is that Giorgos, in his teens, was apparently a frequent brawler and troublemaker. The problem, he recalls, was that he drank, and drinking made him anti-social. “We’d get into fights – young guys, you know. ‘Why did he look at me the wrong way’, that kind of thing… I was angry in those days. All that’s disappeared, mate”. He pauses again to field another call from the pawn shop, this one from a customer: “No, my friend, we don’t have any television sets…”

Marijuana may not be for everyone (some folks “freak out”, he concedes, and become paranoid), but it’s easy to surmise that marijuana was – and is – for Giorgos Christoforou. “I believe that it saved my life,” he says simply. “Firstly from the drink, secondly from my bad temper. I mean, how many people can you beat up? Eventually, you’ll meet your end”. Alcohol is the worst drug, he reckons – but fondly recalls the first time he tried hashish, how he laughed all night and laughed even more to find no hangover the morning after. “We’re the lucky ones, those who’ve ended up with cannabis when we could’ve ended up with something else. In fact we even feel like we’re better off than you lot, who don’t smoke at all.”

It’s a constant battle, of course, staying within the limits of what’s considered recreational use – though he insists his drug use was always recreational: “Never a business, never!” – and always pursued by the police, who’ve not only searched his house many times but also made life difficult in his previous businesses (before the pawn shop he used to own a bookmaker’s; before that, he sold vending machines and pool tables). And of course there’s the expense, the street price of marijuana being more than twice what you’d pay in Europe – though I assume someone with Giorgos’ knowledge of cannabis horticulture has some access to raw materials. You need to cut and dry the plant as soon as it flowers and begins to get sticky, he warns, that way you get the psychoactive ‘high’ associated with THC; otherwise it’ll turn to CBN, which just makes you sleepy. I’m always learning something new in this job.

Is cannabis really an amazing plant, “the Jesus Christ of plants” as he enthuses? Will we someday look back on today’s attitudes with embarrassment, and wish we’d followed Giorgos’ advice instead of voting in the same old party apparatchiks with the same tired ideas? Time will tell – but you don’t have to approve of Giorgos Christoforou to feel that he’s led an uncommon life, stubbornly doing his thing on the fringes of what’s legal and socially acceptable. As for legalisation… well, 561 votes was a disappointing result, but he believes it’s just a matter of time. “There’s no doubt, it’s coming. It started in America, now it’s in Europe – it’s coming. They’ll open the doors [in Cyprus] whether they want to or not. Whether they want to or not”. He looks around as if for confirmation, at his half-drunk espresso and the contents of his ashtray.

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