My Panamanian girlfriend once told me a story about two young men who raped a girl after smoking marijuana at a party. Everybody was enjoying a friendly rendezvous with drinks, snacks, quiet music and intelligent conversations when weed apparently crashed the night.

The two guys, allegedly, smoked a joint and turned into filthy animals, forcing themselves on the innocent girl. Can you believe weed made them do that? Me neither. Yet you’d be surprised how many people from certain parts of the globe do, and not without reasonable grounds.

Sounds like a classic case of the chicken and the egg paradox — either weed turns honorable men into rapists, or rapists just like weed. Yet one plane trip to another location is all it takes for marijuana to not only get a clean record, but turn it into a panacea to all of mankind’s problems.

My girlfriend has spent most of her life in Panama. She told me when she was a young girl in the early 2000s, she had a neighbor next door who was as classic case of a junky. She and her children always appeared malnourished and wore dirty, old clothes with patches. The lady always seemed like she barely had the energy to walk, my girlfriend explained; yet at a certain point of each day, she would ride her bicycle fiercely to her dealer’s place. When she came back, people could see her “smoking drugs” and spacing out of her brutal reality as the children were forced to remain in it.

Ever since that young age, my girlfriend has been associating any kind of illegal, mind-altering substances with “drugs, smoked by people whose life is very dire, people with no other options.” All drugs, with no exception, have a common denominator in her mind — a final resort, the only solution to one’s desperate need to escape the harsh reality.

Drugs are bad, m’kay?

People who “smoke drugs” have no prospects, no future, no happiness in their life according to her. Naturally, weed and its users fall into the same category. My girlfriend’s outlook wasn’t solely the result of bad luck with neighbors either, on the contrary, she says it was more of an excerpt of her high school’s attitude towards pot, and even the one of Central America as a whole.

Weed’s image has come a long way since the 2000s, yet the herb still evokes relatively the same social stigma in some parts of the world like Panama. In others, it’s completely different.

I spent my university years between 2010 and 2015 in Glasgow, where people tend to smoke weed with an almost ridiculous sense of pride and achievement, and have been doing so for a while. The herb brought no sense of fear in my experience there. It won’t “turn” anyone into a lazy couch-bound stoner whose comfort and worship for chilling prevails over his/her potential — or even rapists. Fear of that happening is replaced by complaints and protests regarding its legal status. Not just in Glasgow, but throughout the entire UK. And it’s not just the way of the locals, but the way of tourists and immigrants from all over Europe.

My Scottish university friends generally define the hype around marijuana as sustainable, but with a rapidly increasing momentum: “Especially in the last 10 years.” 

One of them, a graduate with a degree in politics and son of a politician, describes his adolescence as a series of random and not so random encounters with weed. The other recalls, “a wave of American films where weed was smoked for innocent fun, to relax, or as creativity juice, even by affluent people and serious, mature parents.” These are movies he watched often in his high school years.

It can’t be so bad if all kinds of Hollywood stars smoke it on the big screen, right?

They all seem to remember studies: “Everybody started sharing on the Internet about various positive effects weed has, especially in comparison with alcohol.” They also say a lot of their high school get-togethers revolved around “smoking weed, chilling and zoning out while listening carefully to music.” Their escape from reality was vastly different than the one my girlfriend associates weed with— along with all other drugs.

An insightful survey regarding the attitude towards legal pot in Latin America finds, “a correlation between the countries that most disagree with the legalization and their level of human development. The most conservative, such as Bolivia, Peru and El Salvador, have a lower level of human development. They are also countries where illegal drug trafficking is a big problem.”

The UK and U.S. are one of the world leaders in both human developments and smoking weed, the UK being ranked the 6th in Europe. In his article Where Did the Huge Social Stigma On Cannabis Users Come From?, Steve Elliot — who “has worked the cannabis beat since 2007” — rants about the tangible link between the lack of education on marijuana and its unfavorable social image.

“Once one acquaints oneself with the medical literature showing cannabis as a particularly benign substance, especially compared to ‘drugs of abuse,’ it becomes obvious that the harms and potential dangers of marijuana are still grossly overstated on a regular basis,” writes Elliot. “It’s impossible to make fully informed, rational decisions on subjects like marijuana when the air is clouded by ‘alternative facts.’”

Unless a groundbreaking study proves otherwise, it’s pretty safe to say weed isn’t capable of turning honorable men into rapists; in fact, it’ likely to do the opposite.

Yet, even though its negative social image in some societies and countries is likely the result of being out of touch with new science on the matter, it doesn’t mean people’s outlook on weed in those places has no ground. They might not enjoy the luxury of being as open-minded as more prosperous countries where weed is a source of recreation, exploration, innocent fun, and perhaps extreme vegetable-like comfort.

In countries like Panama, weed can sometimes be a red flag, an ominous sign of people who are seeking any form of high, whether it will come from getting stoned or getting laid by force.