Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
There was no denying that our national heroes were great, as after all, they won’t earn their hero status if they accomplished nothing. The freedom we are enjoying right now as an independent nation, and not as a colony of a superpower were their legacy. They also contributed greatly to the progress of Filipino society through the ideas they explored and shared, while some like Juan Luna championed Filipino pride with his world class talents and skills. But as much as they are revered today, they are not exactly perfect. They are as much as a human as the rest of us, with flaws and faults of their own. And I know, that Antonio Luna will come to mind once we talked about flawed heroes. But Antonio wasn’t the only less than perfect heroes in our pantheon. His own brother, Juan murdered his wife and mother and law in a fit of jealousy. Emilio Aguinaldo was always criticized for being cunning, while others might say that Bonifacio’s approach to revolution was sloppy.
But the thing here was these people overcame their human flaws, and for me that's beyond heroic. And a good example goes by the name José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda, or simply Jose Rizal. Beyond the mix of courage and intellect is a human that mirrors every modern Filipinos, from being a drinker to a womanizer. And be prepared to raise your brows, as Rizal once experimented with substance that will be considered banned these days.
Rizal as a Human
For me, the problem with most textbooks was that it presented an idealistic image of our national hero Rizal, free from his earthly vices he once indulged.
For a good reason.
We are not sure how the youths will react if they learned that Rizal was no different from their drunken dads who arrived late from work, or how these flaws will influence them later in life. But again, we couldn’t deny that Rizal once did stupid stuffs while he was still alive. Like how he and his fellow Illustrado Antonio Luna almost killed each other over a woman, or when he and the rest ended up in a drunken stupor, as a photo of them once showed (above).
But as we grow older, we then came to accept that flaws are just a normal part of being human, and overcoming these imperfections matter the most. And in the case of Rizal, spilling his misadventures in the public never really degraded his status as a national hero, and in fact it made him more fascinating. He is as much as a human as any of us, and prone to earthly mistakes.
But there was a certain moment in Rizal’s life that might put him behind bars these days. Or worse, be hunted down by crazed vigilantes. In one of his letters, he admitted that he experimented with substance known as hashish.
Rizal's Drug Use?
A letter by Rizal dated March 5, 1890 and addressed to a German naturalist and anthropologist Adolf B. Meyer mentioned how he experimented with a substance known as “hashish.” Now, hashish, also known as hash was derived by pressing the trichomes of the cannabis plant. And to people working in the law enforcement, cannabis is known through an assortment of names. It’s known as grass, pot, green, weed, dank, reefer, medicine, or the more popular nickname marijuana. And yes, it is a general knowledge that cannabis is a psychoactive drug, popular among the hippie subculture.
Now, it’s hard to imagine Rizal being stoned. And there is no evidence that he became high. The effects of hashish, an extract of cannabis could impair a person, and Rizal never exhibited any symptoms of drug use. Its effect was said to be more potent that the dry leaves of cannabis. But his letter, written in Spanish (Meyer also spoke Spanish) described not just its use, but how he obtained the substance:
“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.”
What was Banned Back Then
Rizal courting with dangerous substance might ruin his squeaky-clean heroic image. But as historians pointed out, his status as a clean hero will not be ruined by his admittance on drug experiments.
Reviewing the letter reveals that he got his substance not from a shady drug dealer, but from the local drugstore. Yes, he bought his drugs through legal means, because back then hashish was not banned and considered as medicine you could obtain over-the-counter. Even the sale of opium was regulated as it brought revenue to the government, though the harm it caused was detailed in Rizal’s book Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
But why did Rizal even bothered messing with potentially addictive substance? Again, referring to his letter answers such question.
It was all for Studies
The letter never showed Rizal as a crackhead, but Rizal as an academic. At that time, Rizal was a medical student in UST, and his exposures on various journals and literatures by doctors gave him interests in cannabis, and its medicinal values. Simply, he bought the drug for scientific and historical purpose, as the opening phrases of his letter answered his friend’s inquiry on the history of hashish in the Philippines. And past forward to present times, there are proposals on the legalization of cannabis for medical and scientific purpose. When not abused, humanity might benefit on that curious plant with multi-fingered leaves. But until people stopped pursuing the substances for pleasure, its legalization is up for debate.
- Ocampo, Ambeth, (19 August 2016), Rizal the user, Inquirer.net.
- “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Jose Rizal.” Spot.ph. Date published: 14 June 2011. Date accessed: 22 June 2011.
- Ocampo, Ambeth, (15 January 2014), Rizal tried hashish, Inquirer.net.