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Sharing a 'Chillum' with a Pundit

Independent - September 13, 2000
By Raffique Shah

Because so many people have joined the "ganja debate", among them social workers who have endured the horror of dealing with drug addicts and who speak or write from experience, I believe it's important to keep the discussions going. It's not that I regard the issue of whether or not we move to decriminalize the use of ganja as a burning one (no pun intended), given the myriad problems our society faces, especially challenges in dealing with our youths who are desperately seeking direction. But I detect a disturbing lack of knowledge among those who, although they are well-intentioned, they are relying on skewed statistics and unscientific theories to back a legal position that is counter-productive when it comes to fighting the very drug menace they hope to defeat.

Hulsie Bhagan and Selwyn Bhajan (no, they aren't related, as far as I know), two persons who have worked with addicts, have come out strongly against any move to decriminalize the herb, far less to legalize its use they way Holland has done. They both have advanced strong arguments in favour of at least keeping the current laws intact, if not strengthening them. Having had to cope with addicts, 90 per cent of whom will never be weaned off substance abuse (especially if they are cocaine addicts), they will have been exposed to the really ugly side of a horror story that haunts so many parents and relatives of such derelicts.

I can empathize with Hulsie, Selwyn and all those who have seen the effects of Lucifer's "bag of white powder" on hapless souls, to paraphrase Ras Shorty's immortal anti-drug song. Let me tell them why. As I mentioned in the last column in which I addressed this topic, I was among the thousands who were introduced to "pot" in the 1960s, and because I loathed the taste of alcohol, I found it a better way to get a "decent high". I can say now that use of marijuana among soldiers was high (!!) during that period even though the use of alcohol was higher.

Years after the 1970 revolt and imprisonment, one ex-soldier who was close to us fell victim to cocaine abuse. He became an addict in short time, and despite several efforts on our part to rehabilitate him (we added open hostility and threats of violence to the more sedate approach used by drug counsellors), we failed. In the end, which came two years ago, he had contracted AIDS and died on a sidewalk in Port of Spain. Because he was close to us for so many years, we often tried to analyze what went wrong with his life, and we came up with some interesting theories of our own.

Firstly, there was the environment he came from-the murkiest part of East Dry River-where all kinds of.... let's say unconventional activities, took place. From domestic violence to alcoholism, public cussouts to incest, that area was not exactly a monastery garden. By the time he entered the army in 1966, he was already a heavy drinker. Soon, with money in his pockets, he turned to abusing alcohol: he would drink until he became uncontrollably drunk. Then ganja drifted in, and whereas the average user shared a recreational smoke with his friends, this soldier would smoke at every opportunity he got. In other words, he was soon abusing marijuana, maintaining a "high" from day into night.

Later, when other more sensible marijuana users saw the dangers in cocaine, he never did. He embraced it much the way he did alcohol and marijuana, and soon he became hooked. At some point-this was after he had been sent to "rehab" a few times, I got so damn mad, I asked him: "How the hell an intelligent man like you could get yourself in this sh*t?" He calmly responded: "Raf, intelligence has nothing to do with addiction." Truer words I've never heard. Because along the way I met or learnt of people, many of them professionals-doctors, attorneys, pharmacists, university lecturers, teachers-who fell victims to abuse of cocaine.

Addiction, therefore, does not come about via experimentation with drugs, and least of all on the say-so of people like Ken Ramchand or me. It is largely the result of people's personalities, their capacity to resist abusing any substance, be it food or alcohol or even sex. And therein lies the problem with our current laws that govern the use of ganja, not to add the uninformed, if not stereotypical approach to dealing with it. Maybe Bhagan and Bhajan (and others who are calling for harsher penalties for possession of marijuana) would want to explore the use (note, not abuse) of the herb by Indian immigrants. Why did the British colonial authorities make it lawful, allow it to be imported from India and sold in shops? Was there a ganja addiction problem among those Indians? And if there was, wasn't there a bigger problem with alcoholism?

Let me tell Bhagan and Bhajan another story. In 1974 or thereabout, when I first began mobilizing cane farmers, I attended a meeting at Mohess Road, Penal, one day. Afterwards, an older farmer (Muslim) invited me into his closed shop. When I got there, there was only one man seated-a pundit. To my surprise, he was preparing some ganja to put in a "chillum", the first time I would see the smoking device. The conversation among us continued as if nothing unusual was happening, and after he finished his rituals and lit the "chillum", he offered it around, even as the conversation continued. That pundit remained an upstanding resident of that district until he died, as did the shop's owner. I would later have a similar encounter in Aranjuez, this time with a mixed group, young and old, only this time they were food crop farmers.

I need add that out of these experiences, I know for a fact that many people who were close with politicians (including prime ministers) smoked the herb. Indeed, I know of several ministers, past and present, who did. And while we may look at their "crimes" and say, "Aha! You see how destructive ganja is!", the truth is they were no different to the non-smokers around them. And in many instances they were much more effective ministers or representatives than the alcoholics in their respective parties. There is nothing more embarrassing than to witness one's political leader in a totally drunken state, making an ass of himself (and his party), and here I speak again from experience.

To adopt a holier-than-thou attitude towards ganja is the worst approach to tackling its abuse. It is better to educate young people on its effects on the mind (and lungs), on abuse of any and all substances, on trying to walk the narrow, drug-free, alcohol-free path. The worst aspect of adopting an uninformed stance towards usage of marijuana is the criminalizing of thousands of upstanding citizens who are law-abiding except for recreational use of a substance the law says is illegal.

One final note: I saw where, in reviewing the current laws, it is proposed that possession of a kilo of ganja, or less, will constitute "possession" as opposed to "trafficking". Let me say that anyone who has more than an ounce of the herb in his possession is not out for recreational use. That's a "pusher" or worse, an exporter. The law should not treat with a one-joint user at the same level it deal with some who totes around a kilo of the stuff. It's like allowing alcoholics to walk around with gallons of puncheon rum. Or cocaine addicts to cart around kilos of "white powder". The AG should amend that provision before it reaches the debate stage in Parliament.

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