Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Right to Smoke

(Final paper submitted for IHR, II AY 08-09. This is more a reflection paper, not an academic paper.)

Let me start off by introducing you to Mario. Mario is a bright, recent college graduate. He graduated cum laude, and applied at once for a job. He was denied the position because it was found out that he smoked marijuana. He has been smoking pot since he was sixteen.

Then there's John, also a college graduate. He married a girl who was a US citizen. During the interview for immigration, he admitted to having smoked weed a few times when he was in college. He was denied immigrant status for something he smoked several years ago.

The names of these people are, of course, all fictional. But their scenarios are real. I personally know people who have experienced this kind of discrimination, all because of their marijuana smoking.

What I would like to point out here is that the right to smoke marijuana should be recognized. People should be allowed to smoke, or at least given the choice to smoke or not to smoke.

Before we start, let me just define some terms I will be using in this discussion. Marijuana is, of course, that infamous plant that is used for mind-altering purposes. Its active chemical is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The plant belongs to the genus Cannabis, of which the most popular species for human consumption is indica. It may be smoked, like tobacco, or it may also be ingested. The act of intoxicating oneself with marijuana is known as getting high.

Marijuana is also known by several names, the most popular being "weed" and "pot". The term "pothead" refers to chronic smokers, or those who get high at least once everyday, or almost everyday. I will be using the term "pothead" a lot in this discussion, simply because the alternative name "addict" is too harsh in my opinion.

Marijuana is of course outlawed by Western society, and by most of the world in general. They have declared potheads as criminals, because their acts (of getting high) are defined as criminal.

The criminalization of marijuana is rooted mostly in economics. This began way back in the early part of the twentieth century, and the war on marijuana was instigated by William Randolph Hearst, a rich American tycoon. Hearst owned a huge part of the US cotton industry, and declared war on the hemp industry to preserve his semi-monopoly on American fiber. He spread rumors about marijuana being "the devil's weed", used mostly by the African-Americans and Mexicans in committing atrocious crimes. In 1937, the United States Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act[1], which is the law that criminalized the marijuana plant.

But that's just the American scene. The rest of the world followed suit following the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs[2] in 1961. Previous treaties only mentioned opium and coca, and this is the first UN Convention that incorporated cannabis as a controlled substance. Several conventions followed, of which the latest is the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances[3] in 1988. And even today, marijuana still remains in the criminal category.

Of course, this is not to say that all states have the same marijuana laws. The Netherlands is one of the most popular countries where marijuana use is not considered criminal. The Dutch people actually “overwhelmingly approve of current cannabis policy which seeks to normalize rather than dramatize cannabis use.”[4] Take note that what the Dutch government decriminalizes is only drug use. “Production, trading and stocking drugs remain a criminal offence, as in any other country.”[5] Some American states and European nations have lowered the penalty for marijuana possession and drug use, but the Dutch government is still the leader in decriminalization for providing no penalty at all for personal marijuana use.

And since marijuana laws are not the same in all countries, despite the existence of all those conventions, then it follows that potheads are not treated the same in every country in the world. This then is where the problem lies. The right to smoke is recognized in some jurisdictions only. But I would argue that it is, and it should be, a universal right that must be enforced. The criminalization of marijuana has caused more harm to society, has broken up more families, and has shattered more futures than the actual plant itself.

Okay, so the anti-legalization advocates will argue that it is illegal because the law says it is, and because the United Nations classified it as such. And yet the power to reclassify marijuana, or to move it to a different schedule, also lies with the same body that declared it illegal. Somehow the illegal status of marijuana based on statutes is the first hurdle that must be overcome for decriminalization.

But assuming that there is no international convention or treaty in the way of decriminalization, marijuana use should still be afforded the same status as alcohol and tobacco. What alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana have in common is that these are all substances consumed for the sake of pleasure only. Alcoholics, smokers, and potheads should thus be given equal treatment, for the reason that people similarly situated should be treated equally. And the only thing that differentiates alcoholics, smokers, and potheads, is that potheads are, in the eyes of the law, dangerous criminals.

The difference in society’s perception between all these vices is actually one of the causes of discrimination. People who have drinking problems are sent to support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous; people who smoke pot are sent to jail. In the workplace, people who drink are reprimanded; people who smoke pot are fired. And again, what is the difference between the two but a few words on some piece of paper?

Another argument I would like to pose is that discrimination against potheads is a discrimination based on culture, or more specifically, a subculture. I firmly believe that pot smoking is already a valid yet unrecognized subculture. Among all the so-called substance abusers, the potheads are the only ones that satisfy the characteristics of a legitimate subculture. Let’s take for example the junkies (the heroin users), and the ravers (the party people who love dropping ecstasy). One could also argue that these people also form their own subculture, since they too have their own jargon, their own terms, and this subculture is also seen in the movies when they portray junkies and ravers, most of the time with startling accuracy.

But the pothead universe goes way, way deeper than the other so-called subcultures of the drug users. Potheads have their own websites, and their own literature. They have their own monthly publications, like High Times and Cannabis Culture, both very popular magazines with international circulation. Potheads also have a wide range of paraphernalia, which include, among others: bongs, or water pipes; rolling papers, with different grades, depending on the thickness of the papers; rolling machines, for those who do not know how to roll a marijuana cigarette with their hands; pipes, literally in all shapes and sizes, wooden, glass, and other materials, and even special pipes for smoking hashish; and hookahs, also in all shapes and sizes. These paraphernalia are sold online through the websites, or through the magazines, or physically at the marijuana coffee shops in the Netherlands. The companies who make these paraphernalia are devoted solely to that. They don’t make pipes on the side. They make pipes especially for these customers. These companies were created to cater solely to the potheads’ needs.

The potheads have their own line of clothes, the most popular being ordinary t-shirts emblazoned with the marijuana leaf. They also have their own music, embracing the laid-back sound of Jamaican-born reggae as their own, being compatible with their own laid-back lifestyle, and declaring Bob Marley as their official icon. They also have major organizations like NORML (National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws), whose sole mission is to see that potheads are protected from the unjust arms of the law. And they have countless celebrities, including famous actors, as well as athletes, all endorsing their call for decriminalization. Now I’m pretty sure the alcoholics, smokers, junkies, and ravers have nothing like this under their belt.

Much as I would like to stretch this topic into a full-blown academic paper, it would require tremendous research on my part, which I am not sure I would be able to do right now. But still, I hope I got my point across. Though some people may not recognize the right to smoke marijuana as a human right, something still has to be done about the discrimination that potheads go through simply because they refuse to stop smoking. Despite its illegal and criminal status, marijuana smokers continue to thrive, and I don’t see them decreasing in number in the years to come. So either the governments of the world start to reform the marijuana laws, or the potheads of the world will unite and start demanding their rights.



  1. You can't really compare ecstasy users to heroin addicts or alcoholics. MDMA is even less harmful than alcohol. It's on par with marijuana.

  2. erm.
    Manhori Lal loves porn. He does not deny it. His friend, Kanhaiya Lal, and his brother, Chintudas (an introverted but promising young fella), pretty much (for the lack of a more appropriate word) love porn too.

    One quiet evening, they sat in silence in Chhachhundar Lal's basement in absolute awkwardness. Why? Well Chachhundar Lal was a terrible bore, but I digress.

    Suddenly, in a stroke of brilliance and absolute pseudoism, they started discussing the human instinct and the their common affection for pornography (especially the deviant kind). Soon, one of them thought out loud (it's still a mystery which one of them it was) - "Hey! Why can't we have porn on TV instead of that mundane saas-bahu shyte? Thats right, I said it - I want an Indian television channel dedicated to porn!"

    What followed was a stimulating debate, and a series of mind numbing blogs, on the right to have an option to access porn on Indian prime time TV.

    The factors in the equation? Well, there are those who love it and there are those who don't. There are those who profit from it and there are those caught in its web. There are those who are convinced that its the road to our 'Kalyug', and there are those who feel clever when they equate this 'movement' with one of liberation and freedom.

    After all, the porn industry is thriving anyways. Why can't we have it out in the open?

    (Sarcasm. IMHO, this talk is a fancy pile of crow-crap. The above post was an analogy.)

  3. @Anonymous Aug 11: Oh if only Extasy were regulated...what a better place this would be.

    @Anonymous Jan 2: I know, right. Respect.

  4. When will we have drugs that make you smarter? We have too many that make you dumb, including pharmacudicals. Getting baked is no way to experience life, I want a new drug!

  5. @Anonymous Jan 11: They actually already have that. I saw it on National Geographic or Discovery, I forgot which. It's a drug that creates more neurons, or connectors between your synapses. It actually gives five to ten times more brain power, because the information processed by your brain travels five to ten times faster.

  6. Legal or Illegal, people around the world will smoke Marijuana an continue to live their lives.

    I do not condone the use of Unfair Drugs, To me Tobacco is an unfair drug..
    Marijuana however is a fair Drug like Alcohol, A Fair drug that has such a mass sub culture that contributes to life, the world, an Ones Homeland (Workers and Parents) should be/remain legal.

    It is Unethical and encroches The Human Lifestyle Freedoms Act I also have coined

    The Human Persons Freedoms Right:

    One may not be Discriminated against for their choice to use psychoactive drugs, psychopharmaceuticals or psychotropics, These drugs may be used recreationally to purposefully alter one's consciousness, as entheogens for ritual or spiritual purposes, as a tool for studying or augmenting ones own mind, or therapeutically as medication.