In an op-ed on Friday, Chen Hung-hui (陳宏煇), a former university military instructor, applauded the government’s efforts to reduce the “supply, demand and harm of cannabis.” (“Cannabis use booms on campuses,” Sept. 10, page 8). Chen recounted a story of a boy who partied with the “wrong crowd,” smoked cannabis and died.
This story cannot be true, because cannabis is not deadly. Consuming too much can feel mighty unpleasant, but it will not kill a person. This fact is not only backed up by science and statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control, but is well-known in countries where cannabis is widely used.
Being from Canada, I can tell you that if we heard stories of people dying from “cannabis overdoses,” it would not be a popular nor legal drug.
The story related by Chen might be based on some grain of truth, but the details certainly are not complete. Perhaps other drugs were present at the party, or perhaps the boy died from something else, just not the cannabis.
As Chen mentions, no autopsy was performed, so why is cannabis assumed to be the cause?
The deeper problem with this tale is that it reflects the moral panic and dangerous false beliefs toward cannabis that are typical in Asian countries. I say “dangerous,” because many people have their lives ruined and families broken apart by criminal charges and long jail sentences for a drug that is not physically addictive and is well-tolerated by the body.
Additionally, when a society not only has strict laws against cannabis, but also punitive enforcement, the drug is driven so far underground that the people who sell it are often involved in criminal activities and the sale of other drugs. Indeed, it becomes easier to fall into the “wrong crowd,” not because of cannabis itself, but by society’s approach to the drug.
In Canada, calls for cannabis legalization started not just from public pressure, but from some police departments. Several police chiefs in the province of British Columbia called for its legalization because criminalization of cannabis, in their perspective, had little merit. They recognized that, unlike the heavy drinkers who stumble out of the bars late at night, cannabis users were not violent, did not cause social disturbances, and did not require emergency medical attention.
Lax enforcement made for easy availability, and cannabis dealers tended to be friendly folk who never involved themselves with other drugs.
The dealers I knew in Vancouver included a retired hairdresser, a retired school teacher and an artist. When cannabis shops opened after legalization, they were filled with some of the community’s most peaceful and kind people.
Even if you do not believe the facts showing that cannabis is less harmful to the body than alcohol, it certainly has a less toxic effect on society at large.
I have no personal interest in advocating for cannabis in Taiwan. It is just a shock when I hear the apocryphal stories about the boy who died, or the girl who collapsed on the sidewalk and stopped breathing, or the man who went psychotic and ran down the street with a butcher’s knife.
Who is making this stuff up? Medical science does not back up such tales, nor does the experience of anyone coming from a place where cannabis is commonly used.
This is not to say that cannabis is harmless. It is believed to stunt the growth of developing brains, and research suggests that it should not be used frequently before age 25, or at all by teenagers.
The “lazy calm” cannabis creates could also interfere with a life of studying and learning. Most notably, habitual use can make a person “emotionally unavailable” to their loved ones, and in that way it can harm relationships.
Psychological dependence — the kinds of addiction associated with video games, sex, or shopping — can also become a problem for some cannabis users.
However, daily users I knew in Canada had no problem going without it for weeks or months if they had to — while traveling, for instance. It is not a drug that puts the body in shock upon withdrawal.
I have heard of situations in Canada where someone checked themselves into hospital after consuming high doses of cannabis through edibles. The worst effect of an “overdose” is extreme panic that can feel like dying. In these situations, doctors give the person a bed to sleep off the effects. The feeling of being taken care of by people is the best “cure” for a “weed attack.”
My first job in Taiwan was working for a monthly English-teaching magazine used in high schools. As a joke at one of the editorial meetings, I submitted an article about how cannabis was once an important ingredient in Chinese medicine. I thought the matter was such a taboo that it would be the last subject ever allowed in an Asian high-school classroom. I thought the Taiwanese editors would have a good laugh.
To my shock, they thought it was an important topic and printed the article, with the inclusion of a unit on how to hold a debate on cannabis legalization. I expected some teachers to complain, but none to my knowledge did. I took this as a sign of growing tolerance within Taiwan toward cannabis use.
Taiwan has proven to be a leader in Asia on human rights and equality. I realize that cannabis legalization is still a step too far for most Taiwanese, but perhaps the government and society could treat its users with more humanity.
An overnight arrest or a fine perhaps, or telling the police to use their judgement and turn a blind eye once in a while. Lengthy stays in jails and criminal records are more harmful to a person’s life than the drug itself.
If a teenager is caught with cannabis, private counseling would be more beneficial, to help the youth understand what pressures they might be trying to escape from.
If you are one of those people who still cannot accept cannabis use in Taiwan, I understand and respect your position. This is not my culture and not my place to tell you what should or should not be accepted here.
However, when debating the topic, it is important to stick to the facts and not repeat urban legends.
The facts I have outlined above can be discovered through basic online research, and by looking at the experiences of countries and states that have legalized the drug.
Michael Riches is a copy editor at the Taipei Times. The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the Taipei Times.
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