Before returning home to England, Clark French — a charming 27-year-old with the accent and turns-of-phrase irresistible to the kind of Americans for whom public television is a ritual — capped off a December visit to San Francisco in typical tourist fashion, with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ho-hum for Marin commuters, the long walk was for him a life-changing experience. Back home, he can't walk.
At 24, the onset of multiple sclerosis put French in a wheelchair or, at best, hobbling to appointments with the help of a walking stick. That ruled out a normal job, and home life wasn't much fun when the drugs prescribed for the condition left him feeling like he was in treatment for cancer (they're chemotherapy drugs).
Bed-bound and house-bound: That was life for French for two years. After a month in the United States, "I was walking again," he says. The answer? Not our health care system. Our legal weed.
He first came here "on a wish and a hope" after hearing what cannabis oil did for other MS sufferers. He met some people, bought oil and buds in legalized Colorado and in California, where, French says, he received a doctor's recommendation (which are technically reserved for California residents only, but that's another story). The oil beat the pain and stiffness MS wreaked on his body.
In America, he could ditch the chair and even the walking stick.
With long hair stuffed under a flat-brimmed cap and a wardrobe heavy on hoodies and jeans, French would fit right in in California. He would also be healthier. He's thought about emigrating to the United States solely for his health — for marijuana. He is not alone.
In America today, there are native-born citizens who are leaving their homes, abandoning jobs, friends, and family. They are vacating places like Pennsylvania and other points (mostly east), and relocating to Colorado. Some are parents, and they're leaving their lives for weed — for their children.
The story of adults going to states where they can buy over-the-counter oils, sprays, and teas that sometimes bring their children's uncontrollable epileptic seizures to heel made The New York Times last fall. Think it's bullshit? Think again: Big pharma and big medicine are getting into the game, with a yearlong study of a weed-based epilepsy drug now underway at UC San Francisco.
America is supposed to be a haven for refugees. Now, weed laws are creating them.
French's cousin, Dale Beaumont-Smith, is a filmmaker. He was in California to film French's's walk, and in Colorado to capture his visits to dispensaries and farms, for a documentary on the effort in the U.K. to make medical cannabis legal.
In the U.K., cannabis was downgraded from the canon of dangerous drugs — for five years, from 2004 to 2009. It's now a Class B drug again. He can get weed in the U.K., for about £20 for 1.2 grams, all from Vietnamese gangs, French says, who pull cartel-like tricks like smuggling adolescent boys on container ships to tend giant gardens. "They're not very nice at all," he says. "But that's it. That's what's out there."
And reform on cannabis policy is completely stalled. Only Parliament in London can move it forward, and very few members of Parliament will even touch it. Without a federal system where voters in individual states can change laws, it's smoke what the Vietnamese have — or slowly sink back into the wheelchair.
So French almost stayed. "It was for selfish reasons, really," he says. "I wanted to be well." Instead, he's spending part of the winter closer to home, in Barcelona. Spanish policy on activities conducted within one's home is nonintervention, so someone in the know can buy cannabis from private "clubs," not unlike the speakeasy-style Measure Z clubs in Oakland.
So in Barcelona, a cheap flight on Ryanair away from his new home in Brighton, Clark French can walk. And he can stay closer to the U.K., where he can work. Marijuana activism in England is staging "cannabis picnics," smoke-ins surrounded by police and by media, where French — a co-founder of the U.K.'s NORML — is a regular presence.
"I never thought I'd be able to be a workaholic," he says. Something else amused him: So many people he met, in San Francisco and in Denver, gave him so much free weed that California was, well, cheap. "I was actually saving money in California."
Land of the free, indeed.