In 2016 California’s Ballot Proposition 64 legalized recreational marijuana in California. Heralded by marijuana advocates as a great victory, since January 1, 2018, the smell of pot wafts through the air at many public places and has become part of the cultural milieu in California.
Although this may seem like a liberation to those who have used marijuana illicitly, it has led to collateral damage around the world in more conservative cultures.
While visiting Singapore not long ago, I sat across the table from a dear Indonesian friend whose face was troubled.
“It is a shame for my family, but it’s even more of a tragedy for my nephew,” Edward said slowly.
Edward's nephew, Bobby, had been an international student at a university in California for two years. He had struggled with depression.
“I think that’s why he tried pot,” continued Edward. “He was looking for something that would pull him out of his depression. I don’t really think it helped his emotional condition because he continued to have suicidal thoughts, but I know he continued to use it throughout his time in the U.S.”
“I thought it was illegal in California at the time he was there,” I replied.
“It was for recreational use, but he discovered he could buy it through a U.S. mail order company if he said it was for medical purposes. That was a big mistake, however.”
“What do you mean?”
“He continued to order from this U.S. company once he got back to Singapore. I don’t know if you know this, but Singapore is very strict on drugs. You can easily get the death penalty for trafficking drugs here.”
“So how did they find out he was using?”
“Someone smelled it and reported him. After the police researched where he was getting it, they put him in jail. After a year and seven months of being in jail, they determined that he was not a drug trafficker, so at least he won’t be killed, but he has received a seven-year sentence.”
“I’m so sorry to hear about this. I feel bad that my country’s laws led your nephew astray.”
“No, it’s not your fault. But pray for him as his parents, his siblings and I are heart-burdened for him. We are very sad. It is our lowest point in our lives.”
Failure to Consider the Unintended Consequences
As I listened to Edward, I felt disturbed about how Americans hadn’t thought through the way our policies could affect people elsewhere in the world.
In some ways Bobby’s case ended up better than it could have. He could have received a death sentence, for example. It struck me, however, that many people in conservative countries like Singapore or China or many countries in the Middle East must have lost their lives after being persuaded in the U.S. that drug use was okay.
“The thing we fear is that Bobby’s depression will lead him to try to commit suicide in prison. We pray that, instead, he will come out a new person who knows how to avoid evil things like this.”
What is Freedom, Really?
As I heard these words, I thought about how excited some of my U.S. high school students had been when California legalized recreational pot despite the fact that it was still illegal to them as minors. I’m sure it never crossed their minds that actions like this could get people around the world imprisoned or killed.
Sometimes what we call freedoms in one country can produce bondage in another country, and young people need to start thinking about the repercussions of their actions, not only in their own communities, but in places around the world.
It may be great to have the freedom to eat dark chocolate or smoke marijuana or buy cheap running shoes, but if those freedoms in the U.S. create child slavery, imprisonment and sweatshops in other countries, should we be encouraging these freedoms? I don’t have all the answers, but global thinkers need to take other cultures into consideration while making decisions.
As an American high school teacher, I didn’t like it when Californians voted to make recreational marijuana legal. I personally think it will not lead to greater freedom in the U.S., but greater bondage to a substance that saps the motivation out of students like air out of a punctured tire.
And when I think about the repercussions in other societies of this decision, it makes me doubly sad that we are so short sighted.
How does this cross-cultural perspective give you a new angle when considering societal challenges such as recreational marijuana use?
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