When Jose Rizal Experimented With Drugs

Revealed in a letter addressed to German anthropologist Dr. A.B. Meyer.

It's hard to separate Jose Rizal, the man, from Rizal, the myth, legend, and national hero. To this day, historians still have debates about whether or not he was a revolutionary or a reformist. Nevertheless, we can all conclude that he was a complicated and brilliant man who wore many hats. He was a ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, cartoonist, humorist, journalist, and many more. We've all heard of these titles.

What about Rizal, the drug user? It doesn't get talked about a lot, really.

It's one of those obscure footnotes in Rizal's life. He had a lot of those, we've come to find out. Considering that he was alive during a time where people in Europe could go ahead and buy cocaine, morphine, and heroin in drugstores, it's not that all surprising that Rizal himself dabbled in drugs.

Rizal confessed to using hashish when he was just 18 years old. Hashish is a hallucinogen far more potent than marijuana. Marijuana (chongke or juts, as the kids like to say), in general, has a potency of about 10 to 20 percent THC. Hashish, meanwhile, can go anywhere between 20 and 60 percent. Yes, suffice to say, it's a trip, and it was one of those drugs that was legally sold and dispensed at the time.

In a letter dated March 5, 1890, Rizal wrote to German anthropologist Dr. Adolf Bernhard Meyer that he once bought some hashish from a local drugstore and tried it for "experimental" purposes. It was written as a response to Dr. Meyer's query on hashish in the Philippines.


A copy of the letter Rizal had written addressed to Dr. Meyer and a photo of the young German doctor. The two conversed in Spanish, German, and French during their exchanges.

Photo by Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection/Wikimedia Commons.


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Here's an English translation of the original letter. It reads:

“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.”

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Rizal would've been a student at the University of Santo Tomas at the time. It was commonplace for medical students back then to experiment with substances like cannabis. This was a trend in both America and Europe. It was considered medicine, after all.

He has never really referenced drug use in his literature apart from the epilogue to Noli Me Tangere. There, we can read that opium had ruined Kapitan Tiago. Opium, of course, was a popular drug in the 18th and 19th centuries in both the east and west.

Rizal's drug experimentation, nevertheless, changes nothing. He was no abuser or regular user by any stretch of the imagination. We're not revoking his hero card over this. All this shows is that even our most venerated of figures tried drugs, too. 

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About The Author
Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is a Filipino cultural critic, editor, and essayist. He writes about art, books, travel, people, current events, and all the magic in between. His past work in film and media can be found on PeopleAsia Magazine, The Philippine Star, MANILA BULLETIN, and IMDB.
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