If Jose Rizal were alive today, he would probably be found dead on a Manila street with a crude cardboard sign identifying him as a drug user. Rizal, after all, admitted taking hashish when he was 18 years old. But someone should explain to the trigger-happy police or vigilantes that in Rizal’s time, hashish, which we know today as marijuana, “Mary Jane,” or “jutes,” was not what it is now: a prohibited drug. It was considered medicine and was dispensed freely from a drugstore.
We know that Rizal experimented with hashish from a letter he wrote to the German anthropologist Dr. A.B. Meyer of Dresden on March 5, 1890, in answer to a query on hashish in the Philippines. Translated from the original German, the letter reads in full as follows:
“My distinguished friend:
“I received your letter of the 27th of last month and excuse me for not having answered you before this, for I have had to consult some countrymen and books concerning your question about the hashish.
“No book, no historian that I know of speaks of any plant whose use is similar to that of the hashish. I myself, though, in 1879, used hashish, did it for experimental purposes, and I obtained the substance from the drugstore. I do not believe that its use had been introduced before or after the arrival of the Spaniards [in the 16th century]. The Filipinos drank arak, nipa-palm and coconut wine, etc. and they chewed buyo before the arrival of the Spaniards, but not hashish.
“Neither is a word resembling it found in the language. The is-is or asis is a kind of wild fig tree.
“If I had Fr. Blanco’s Flora [de Filipinas], I could find out if this plant exists. I believe therefore that its use is unknown. Opium was introduced only after the arrival of the Spaniards. We Tagalogs call it apian.
“I am here at Brussels at your disposal as always. If you could give me an introduction to some employee of the library, I would appreciate it.
“Most affectionately yours, Rizal.”
The thought that Rizal could be executed without trial today, based on his admission made in the letter, made me rethink a position I have long held regarding the national hero’s chance of being elected president of the Philippines. Knowing what Rizal was like as a person, and how he was first rejected in the election for the leader of the Filipino community in Spain, when he ran against Marcelo H. del Pilar, I am of the opinion that he will not even be elected barangay captain in Calamba or Dapitan: He will be too serious for voters who elect people who can dance and sing at the drop of a hat. Since he will be too principled to buy votes or pay poll watchers, this significantly trims his chances of election victory.
I used to say that if Rizal were alive today he would probably be shot in Luneta all over again because he would rail against the people and structures that make life in the Philippines unbearable. Now he may be killed for simply admitting to experimenting with marijuana.
I will not speculate on why the 18-year-old Rizal was experimenting with marijuana, but we see that in the 19th century some things we consider dangerous drugs today—like cocaine and heroin—were medicines dispensed by drugstores.
Opium was confined to the Chinese; its sale and distribution were regulated because it brought in revenues to the government. When the First Republic under Emilio Aguinaldo was established, opium was still considered part of the revenue track. That all changed when the Americans took over, and it has been banned ever since.
If you take the trouble to read the Epilogue to “Noli Me Tangere,” you will see a reference to opium use and how it changed the once jolly Kapitan Tiago into a shell of his former self:
“Not one of our readers now would recognize Kapitan Tiago if they saw him… He already fell into a state of total depression such that he began to lose weight and became morose and brooding and suspicious… He wanted to live alone. He took to playing liampo and to cockfighting with such a frenzy that he began to smoke opium… If at any time, when afternoon comes, and you pass the first street of Santo Cristo, you will see seated in a Chinese store a smallish, jaundiced man, thin and bent, with sunken sleepy eyes and muddied lips, and nails, staring at people as if he does not see them. At nightfall you will see him rise painfully, and leaning on a cane, head for a narrow alley to enter a filthy hut at the entrance of which there is a sign in big red letters: Fumadero Publico de Anfion (Public Smoking Den for Opium).”
One other relic of the opium days is Fumadero street in San Nicolas near Binondo that is classified today as a commercial area, with price per square meter recorded in the internet at P23,625.
Reflecting on the growing number of corpses of suspected drug pushers and users found on the streets daily made me ask how long it will take before people realize that extrajudicial killings are not right. Despite the glare of the media, both local and international, and a touching front-page photo in the Inquirer, it seems that most Filipinos think the victims deserved what they got.
There was a recent high-profile rally in Luneta to protest the planned burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. But there has been no such turnout for the victims of the extrajudicial killings, or even the innocent people killed in the Maguindanao massacre, the trial of which is still ongoing, and will probably linger on until people forget or become jaded.
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For the love of languages