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The irony of sovereignty

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpet. – Voltaire

I cite a quote on irony from the observation of a popular philosopher, obviously about wars waged by kings. A witty irony, though a sad one, if you are able to find some application on internal wars waged these days on one’s own people.

This Sunday, I wish to take up an irony that I took interest in during my recent trip to Vancouver. I recall my thoughts on Canada and cannabis. Canada has consistently placed top 10 in the best countries to live in, and Vancouver at the top three in the Global Livability Report. So forgive me when I say that I’m a bit surprised to see that what we would label as narcotics here, are being sold freely (subject to regulations, of course), not only for medicinal purposes but for recreation – in this best place to live in. How, I ask? And with some levity, I wonder: Is legal cannabis part of the reason why people think it’s the best place to live in?

To be sure, it will not be the only irony (if you will grant me that it is one), that I observed in this most livable city. The street dwellers are especially plentiful in East Hastings Street of Vancouver. And you would think that their government would have all the resources and political will to rid the place of people who lie and beg along the sidewalk. Perhaps there is always something that can be improved even in the most beautiful of places, but I digress from the point I am in the process of making.

I will cut to the chase – this is not a pitch to legalize marijuana in our country. Even I am not ready for the thought. And it may be a bit taboo even to talk about legalizing the recreational consumption of a drug that can be the pathway to the use of other substances, some of which may be deadly.

It is already legal in some states in the US like Alaska and Washington, D.C.; and in countries in South America such as Uruguay and Colombia. Some countries in Europe like the Netherlands, Spain and Germany have legalized cannabis as well. What I have read as origin in many of these places is that the legalization of recreational use was preceded by legalization of medicinal use. And this is true for popular alternative dwelling places for Filipinos, such as California and Vancouver.

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Canada, for example, is about to pass legislation that is projected to take effect in 2018 on legalizing cannabis under well-defined regulations and stiff penalties for violations. The proposed law contains the limit on ounces one can possess, buy, or grow; limit on the age of who can consume; some conditions on when not to consume; etc. It may be a valid observation that this could be a global trend (that’s set in slow motion) not much unlike the complete legalization of alcohol after futile attempts to ban it in the US during the 1920s.

I know what you’re thinking, and I think you may be right. Legalization may not work here because Filipinos have the tendency to be not too compliant, especially on what we feel are small rules. We drink and drive, so some may smoke it and drive. Even if minors are not allowed to buy them, it would be easier to access if there’s a store that actually sells them legally. Countries that legalize marijuana have, no doubt, strong confidence in their enforcement, and they value their citizens’ rights to the extent of toleration.

What seemed to be dangerous and wishful thinking though for those who implemented it, turned out to be true. Cannabis is a downer and a relaxant, and therefore users most likely do not resort to violence (unlike alcohol, as some may argue). Studies also show cannabis is not addictive (unlike cigarettes, as many would argue). Regulation and enforcement costs for them also turned out much, much cheaper and they collected tons of taxes too on the regulated planting and distribution of the product. The economic progress in those cities or states regulating cannabis as a product were not negatively affected, to say the least.

As to cannabis use being a gateway to other drugs – well, the theory is if you allow and regulate distribution and consumption of a non-harmful narcotic, people will make do with this rather than try other illegal substances. I know: say that here and you may be called an “idiot”. To write off this dialogue though amid the lack of less deadly options may be a resignation to defeat.

As I said in the beginning, this is not a pitch for cannabis legalization. This is a pitch for something else. Elsewhere, the use of a narcotic is being decriminalized and regulated, with users not being treated as criminals. We do not even pitch that no fault be found among users here. We can even go on to say these users must be punished. But their lives must be protected, their future must be spared, their rights must be upheld, and they must be treated like any other human being who deserves a chance.

We will excuse our government officials who, amid global calls and concerns, seem to take pride or defend against the “impunity” label. Who enjoys being dictated upon? We will always treasure and fight for our sovereignty. But, unlike a rogue leadership – or a brainwashed people of a state that produces nuclear weapons – who do not give a damn about world opinion, we are a free and rational people, and our government cares to succeed.

So I refuse the hubris against the rest of countries in the world that employ and provide shelter for our fellowmen in foreign soil. I refuse the hubris against the countries we court to invest here to grow our economy and afford us better lives. I refuse the hubris against the countries that give us aid, against acts of evil men, or against the disaster from nature. Enough of it, as we still have shame. In our well-intended war against drugs, we can sacrifice speed of success, tone down the trumpets to achieve first things first – do everything humanly possible to preserve the lives that government power is beholden to protect. The irony is, that is the requirement of sovereignty.

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Alexander B. Cabrera is the chairman and senior partner of Isla Lipana & Co./PwC Philippines. He also chairs the Tax Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP). Email your comments and questions to This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.

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