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Essay

Today’s poison, yesterday’s medicine

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Sometime in 1890, Dr. A. B. Meyer, the director of a museum in Dresden, Germany, wrote Jose Rizal, asking about hashish in the Philippines.  Rizal, who was in exile in Dapitan at that time, wrote back to say that there were no local names for hashish  but revealed that in 1879, he himself had used it “for experimental purposes” and that he obtained his hashish from a drugstore.

Hashish is marijuana. Rizal was 18 at the time he tried “grass,” and it’s impossible to speculate now what his experimental purpose was, but his letter is a reminder that in the 19th century, many of what we call dangerous drugs today were legal, used as medicine and easily purchased from drugstores.  These included cocaine, morphine, heroin and, as Rizal writes, hashish.

It was not until the turn of the 20th century that the United States took the lead to begin banning these drugs. It is interesting to note that the Philippines played an important role in criminalizing these drugs.

To understand why this happened, we would have to go back in history.  Starting in the late 18th century, England, and later the United States, flooded China with opium.  It was a trade that destroyed many lives.  By one estimate, in 1880 a third of China’s population of 360 million was using opium regularly.

In Rizal’s letter to Meyer, he notes that opium is used in the Philippines, unlike hashish.  This was because the Spanish government capitalized on the Chinese addiction to opium, allowing its importation and the operation of opium dens for local Chinese residents, and gaining from the taxes collected for these operations.

When the Americans took over the Philippines, they initially wanted to keep opium legal but heavily regulated.  But American Protestant missionaries objected.  Dismayed by the way opium was destroying China, they lobbied hard for stricter measures in their new colony.  The missionaries were successful in their campaign and in 1905, the US Congress rejected proposals to keep opium legal with taxes, and instead chose an absolute prohibition on its importation and sale.  More laws were to be passed in succeeding years placing strict restrictions on various substances seen as dangerous.

The ban on opium was poorly enforced in the Philippines, however, with opium dens operating with police protection in Chinatown.  In the United States, any kind of mind-altering substance, including alcohol, became the target of lobbying from religious conservatives to have them banned.  For several years, even alcohol was banned in the US, but this period of Prohibition failed as alcohol production was driven underground.

(It’s interesting that although the Philippines was an American colony, Prohibition was not extended to our islands. Even if it had been though, I doubt if it could have been enforced, given that so much alcohol production, for example that of tuba and lambanog, was home-based.)

Today, there are debates around the emphasis on criminalization and police action in dealing with drugs.  Despite the continuing “war on drugs” of the US government, the trade in narcotics continues to grow, involving billions of dollars and vast networks of criminal syndicates. The recent execution of three Filipinos identified as “mules” or couriers for heroin was inevitable.  The Chinese government, still mindful of how China was disgraced in the 19th century, was intent on sending a strong message to would-be drug  traffickers.

So where does tobacco figure in all these debates?  Social attitudes to tobacco have been generally favorable, mainly because it was seen primarily as a pastime.  The tide changed beginning about 50 years ago, when medical research began to establish definite links between tobacco use and lung cancer, emphysema and cardiovascular ailments.  These problems came mainly from tobacco’s many toxic chemicals and gases, but medical researchers also singled out problems with the chemical nicotine, pinpointed as the source of addiction to cigarettes.

The legal battles took an interesting twist with electronic cigarettes.  Initially, the US government wanted to classify e-cigarettes as drug delivery devices, the drug being nicotine.  This would have meant e-cigarettes would have to go through clinical trials to prove their safety and efficacy.  In the end, US courts ruled that e-cigarettes should be regulated as tobacco products, still with certain restrictions such as the prohibition on sale to minors.

The many legal debates give a new twist to the old saying “One man’s poison is another’s medicine.”  Today we would say “Yesterday’s medicine can become today’s poison.”  Or vice-versa.

Rizal’s hashish, first classified as medicinal, then as a dangerous drug, is now being legalized in many states for medicinal use, with special training and licenses for people who want to grow and sell the plant.


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