AMSTERDAM—The distinctive aroma of cannabis is unmistakable, and there are parts of the city where, even with my eyes closed, I can tell that I’m in Amsterdam.
For four years now, I have kept coming back to this city for my graduate studies at the University of Amsterdam. Before our university moved further away from the city center, our department building was right in the red-light district, and when I had not yet mastered my way around the confusing streets and canals that look the same, I would sometimes end up in alleys where sex workers sit in their glass cubicles—and where cafés are suffused with the unerring vapor of the weed that is inexorably associated with the city itself.
As any local would point out, however, the moniker “Weed Capital of the World” is a misrepresentation of Amsterdam—a city that many of its residents love for its “small town” feel, as well as its pragmatic sensibility. And while the city itself capitalizes on its reputation to attract tourists, the Dutch government has introduced restrictions, and since 2013, laws limiting the use of marijuana have come into force, partly under pressure from the European Union of which the Netherlands is part.
Yet it is still acceptable to smoke cannabis here, and if I were to smoke a joint in Dam Square or the Museumplein—home of Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum—no one will arrest me. The city’s official website states that “those aged 18 and above are permitted to smoke cannabis outside as long as doing so does not create nuisance to others.”
In one of his imaginative pieces in the Inquirer, columnist Ambeth Ocampo interviews Jose Rizal and gets the national hero to admit that he tried marijuana (a fact supported by Rizal’s own diary). If our national hero used marijuana, why can’t I?
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Smoking weed, of course, has become morally and politically contentious in ways Rizal never anticipated (like many youths today, he was most likely just “trying out stuff”). A series of legislation starting in the early 20th century turned marijuana into a forbidden substance, even as its very forbidden-ness increased its appeal (“Masarap ang bawal”). By 1972, following the US-led “war on drugs,” the Dangerous Drugs Act classified marijuana as a “Schedule 1” drug, making it even more forbidden than “shabu.”
Supporters of this drug regime justified these draconian measures by asserting that marijuana is a “gateway” drug that could lead to “hard” drugs such as shabu and cocaine. Thereafter, the war on drugs was taken for granted as the right thing to do. Politicians readily took up the cause, and then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo even made the penalties harsher in 2002, restoring reclusion perpetua.
Meanwhile, some countries took a decidedly different approach, favoring decriminalization and harm reduction. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Dutch, with their long tradition of tolerance, would take the lead: In 1980 the Netherlands enacted a policy of nonprosecution, citing studies that failed to show any harm in the use of marijuana. Take note: Methamphetamine and cocaine were never made legal. But the Dutch made a distinction between these “hard drugs” and “soft drugs” like marijuana, whereas in the Philippines, all drugs were lumped together in one category.
Decades later, the drug use rate in the Netherlands is no more than that of other countries, and the crime rate is much lower than that of America. As sociologist Craig Rimmerman commented: “Dutch drug policy makes pragmatic distinctions based on relative risks. Despite lawful availability, the majority of Dutch people never try marijuana, and most who do try it don’t continue to use even marijuana very often, much less harder drugs.”
In the United States, on the other hand, the “war on drugs” has become what one writer calls a “trillion-dollar failure”: Drug use has not been controlled, and the drug cartels have only thrived in this framework. Interestingly, today the United States has begun to legalize marijuana: Over 20 states have legalized medical marijuana, and some have legalized it for recreational purposes as well.
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The Dutch context, of course, is very different: Euthanasia, abortion and gay marriage have been legal here for decades—and we shouldn’t uncritically and automatically follow the lead of other countries, including our usual template, the United States.
Nonetheless, both the Dutch and the American experience in cannabis should call into question the policies that have been blindly followed. If, as data show, marijuana is less of a risk than alcohol use or even cigarette smoking, and it does not really lead to the use of other drugs, why impose such a heavy penalty on its users? If, as research shows, it holds promise in chronic pain relief, why ignore its potential health benefits? Even the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines concedes that medical marijuana should be taken seriously.
Right now, however, we are stuck in the 1970s paradigm of drug control—a paradigm that has overwhelmed our criminal justice system and needlessly compromised the lives of many people. While a man found in possession of two sticks of marijuana can get jailed for
15 years, we have failed to control the far more serious problem of hard drugs, with methamphetamine and cocaine use continuing to rise.
We need a vigorous national conversation about marijuana. Not because someone like me can smoke it in Amsterdam, but because many are smoking it in the Philippines—and are needlessly suffering the consequences of laws that don’t make sense.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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