Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the January 10, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

In the world of activists and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), meetings are a way of life.  For NGOs awash with money from big-time donors, they hold meetings in posh hotels and serve buffet luncheon or dinner.  The penniless activists on the other hand gather at public parks or at convents where the sympathetic religious provide free meals, or at unfamiliar eateries, which serve meals below PhP50. Being able to dine at Max’s restaurant is a joy for the poor, starving activists.

Despite that divide between the upper-crust advocates and the impoverished ones, they share at least two things in common—they have a cause, and they like to have meetings.

Supposedly the meetings serve the cause.  Which reminds me of Kim who, when he was a little boy, asked his parents:  “What will all those meetings achieve?  Will you win the revolution through meetings?” More than 20 years have passed since Kim stumped his parents with those questions. Now, Kim is married; his dad, focused on teaching, rarely goes to NGO meetings; while his mom remains busy attending those meetings.  And the revolution—the subject of those meetings—has all but dissipated.

A few days ago, I was invited to attend a meeting of tobacco-control advocates. Like Kim when he was little, I am skeptical about what meetings could achieve, especially when the same topic is being discussed for the nth time. The meeting I attended was about policies and actions to curb smoking.  Nice. But it was not the first time that these issues were being discussed.  So I was expecting to hear the same song or refrain, which no longer would be music to my ears.

At any rate, my attitude was to find something new or creative from a meeting that I suspected would go nowhere. Besides, attending the meeting was tempting—a free lunch at Sofitel’s Spiral, which competes with the Shang’s Heat for the honor of being the best hotel buffet restaurant in Manila.

The meeting began after a hearty lunch.  The discussion was quite lively.  Everyone had something to say, and the ideas were flying.  Yet, like Kim, I had to ask the question, what would this meeting accomplish?  The ideas that came out from the different specialists were no different from what they had articulated before.  But everyone agreed that what was needed was a mass movement.

There’s a saying that revolutions are hatched in cafes. In this case, a movement that must include the poor (not only do they have the numbers for a powerful lobby; smoking is prevalent among them) was being conceptualized at luxurious Sofitel.

The meeting ended, leaving the idea of the movement abstract.  That of course means more meetings.

Yet, I didn’t regret attending the meeting—not because I liked the buffet but because I picked up a new idea from Eddie Dorotan, a long-time friend, a doctor of medicine, and the director of Galing Pook, which promotes excellence and innovation in local governance.  Well, Eddie’s innovative idea is about allowing marijuana production, in place of tobacco production.  His promotion of marijuana surfaced when the question of what alternative livelihood programs do tobacco farmers have if circumstances (like higher taxes) compel them to move away from planting tobacco.

Eddie is no ageing hippie, and he has always been a straight guy.  His positive view on marijuana stems from his being a doctor—that marijuana has a medicinal value and therefore contributes to society’s welfare.  Studies show that marijuana is effective in addressing a wide range of diseases like Alzheimer’s, glaucoma, breast cancer (an alternative to chemotherapy), asthma, and bipolar disorder, to name some.

One can extend the argument beyond medical marijuana—that our society respects the individual’s choice of recreation or leisure.  Governments allow consumption of tobacco despite its harmful effects on the individual and society. The appropriate response is to regulate tobacco, including increasing its price towards reducing smoking prevalence. So why can’t governments legalize and regulate the use of marijuana for leisure? (Others even argue that marijuana can boost an individual’s productivity.) Unlike tobacco, research has shown that marijuana is relatively harmless; for example, it is not a determinant of lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  In other words, marijuana consumption’s costs to the individual and to society are negligible in comparison to the costs of tobacco.

Be that as it may, we know that allowing marijuana production and consumption is not politically feasible at this time.  It is nevertheless an idea, like tobacco control, that is worth fighting for.

Thanks to that tobacco-control meeting, Eddie’s idea on marijuana was articulated. Eddie’s unconventional advocacy of marijuana, which is politically difficult, primarily serves as a metaphor.  That is, NGO advocates need to flesh out creative ideas, we need to get out of our comfort zones and do things in new ways.  Then can meetings become more attractive, more engaging, more stimulating. The delicious food served in the meetings becomes secondary.