Part One of this series examines how marijuana arrived in the Western Hemisphere, who cultivated it locally, and why. Part Two looks at prohibitionist 20th century marijuana policies in Latin America and the Caribbean and their devastating social effects. Part Three looks at recent pro-marijuana activist efforts around the continent, as well as examples of progressive legislation that have begun to decriminalize the plant.
Update: Since Part One of this article was published, effective in 2014, cannabis is fully legal in Uruguay.
Why was cannabis illegal in 20th century Latin America? In this article, I will argue that certain individuals and institutions reaped great benefits by persecuting both the plant and those who cultivated, sold, and used it. Scholars who campaigned for prohibition often had their own personal interests at heart, and the medical studies they used to condemn the plant were either flawed in their research model or entirely based on hearsay. At several crucial junctures, governments and police departments wanted more power and leeway in dealing with populations, so they further criminalized marijuana users. Then, when the heavy-handed policies spurred a vibrant illegal market, the police departments along with corrupt public officials and traffickers across the Americas reaped the benefits, leaving millions of victims of violence in their wake.
As we saw in Part I of this series, many Latin American towns prohibited the cannabis plant well before the 20th century, in advance of North America or Europe. The colonial Catholic Church, afraid of alternative spiritualities, had condemned users of the herb to punishment during their periodic inquisitions. In Brazilian municipalities, white elites afraid of a rising free black population passed laws prohibiting usage of the herb along with curtailing public gatherings of black people and public expressions of black music and dance. In Mexico, the sale of marijuana was prohibited in Mexico City (1869), Oaxaca (1882), Estado de México (1891), and Querétaro (1896); in Sinaloa state, the cities of Cosalá and Culiacán went even further, banning personal use. Still, it is unclear to what extent anti-cannabis laws prior to the 20th century were actually enforced.
The region’s scientific turn in the late 1800s changed the fate of marijuana in Latin America. Marijuana was linked to racist theories of eugenics, to madness, and to other pathologies that supposedly deviated from a Europhilic norm desirable to elites—“science” that was subsequently discredited. In the 1890s, Mexican medical researchers, notably José Olvera, Carlos Viesca y Lobatón, and Máximo Silva, suggested that marijuana had the ability to manufacture “maniacal delirium,” “multiple personalities,” and “a terrible and blind impulse that leads to murder” in their working-class and mestizo subjects. [Campos 2012: 117-120] Brazilian psychiatrist Rodrigues Dória, at the second Pan-American Scientific Congress in 1915, lamented that Brazil had inherited the “pernicious and degenerative vice of smoking the flowering buds known locally as fumo de Angola” from the “savage and ignorant black race”; perhaps, he speculated, as a punishment for participating in the slave trade. [Henman and Pessoa Jr. 1986: 21-37] His colleague Francisco de Assis Iglésias observed minimal or no effects after administering cannabis to pigeons, rabbits, guinea pigs and one dog, but inexplicably jumped to the conclusion that it could cause suicide in humans.
In reality, there wasn’t much that was “scientific” about turn-of-the-century anti-marijuana views in Latin America. Medical researchers often conflated the effects of marijuana with that of alcohol or other drugs, or based them completely on speculation. The lack of direct evidence that the plant caused crime or other social problems was countered by the alarmist illusions of “reefer madness” stoked by the sensationalist press. Anti-drug campaigners also disregarded numerous academic studies, many from Europe, that continued to laud the medical benefits of the herb. A global anti-narcotics movement was in full swing in the early 1900s, featuring zealous health department officials, police chiefs, and temperance groups. Diplomats met at international conventions and agreed upon a series of regulations. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, and Mexico all sent delegates to the International Opium Conference in 1913, and were joined by Uruguay, Venezuela and Guatemala at the follow-up Conference the following year. At first it was opium that was public enemy number one. By the next big meeting in 1925, delegates pushed for the inclusion of cannabis into the same category of drug as opium. Among them, Latin Americans. Notably, Brazilian doctor Jarbas Pernambuco asserted vociferously (and erroneously) that marijuana was more dangerous than opium.
Meanwhile, California prohibited the herb in 1913, after Henry J. Finger and the California State Board of Pharmacy used the recent arrival of immigrants from India and Mexico as an excuse to prohibit the sale and possession of marijuana (although doctors continued to prescribe hemp for the next 24 years). The Mexican revolution was in full swing by then. As we saw in Part I, large numbers of prisoners and revolutionaries smoked the herb casually in Mexico in the 1910s and they spread the herb throughout the country. By 1920, when it was imperative that the Mexican government re-establish a monopoly of violence by dismissing bands of revolutionaries reluctant to give up the revolution, marijuana was outlawed nationwide. Following the 1925 meeting under the League of Nations framework, prohibition of marijuana moved steadily forward in the rest of Latin America, and by the 1930s stricter measures were incorporated into the growing police apparatuses of newly minted populist governments in the region.
In Cuba, the drug control bureau was built into the framework of the secret police. Between 1935 and 1940, headed by José Sobrado López, it secured the convictions of 867 people for selling marijuana. In Brazil, under Getúlio Vargas’s repressive Estado Novo, article 281 came into effect and remained the bane of urban working-class populations for the next three decades.
Amid the anti-drug hysteria of the 1930s emerged a bold alternative, a rational drug policy, from Mexico of all places. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, the head of Mexico’s Federal Narcotics Service in 1937-39, developed a “rational policy” based on his experience at the national mental health hospital and the medical research of his colleague at the Public Health Department José Segura Millán. Viniegra proposed a government monopoly to regulate sale and distribution of narcotics with the purpose of treating addicts rather than imprisoning them. He also argued that it was “impossible to break up the traffic in drugs because of the corruption of the police and special agents and also because of the wealth and political influence of some of the traffickers.” [Walker 1996: 67] Eerily, a similar statement would be repeated 70 years later by Mexico’s ex-president Vicente Fox. Salazar’s proposal became law in 1940—a strikingly similar law to the one just passed in 2013 by Uruguay—and would be subsequently supported by the LaGuardia committee’s finding in the United States that marijuana did not lead to crime. Unfortunately, Salazar came into direct conflict with the draconian anti-drug efforts of United States and its drug czar Harry Anslinger. Through diplomatic pressure, the U.S. was able to thwart the “rational policy” towards drugs and re-emphasize policing of the U.S-Mexico border instead. A missed opportunity, that would come back to haunt Mexican policymakers 60 years later.
While Anslinger and the United States played a major role in discouraging the “rational policy” in Mexico, other Latin Americans were continuing to push for heavier laws and policing within their countries and at international meetings of the League of Nations / United Nations. Perhaps the most influential Latin American architect of the war on drugs, a prime villain of our story, was Pablo Osvaldo Wolff, an Argentine medical doctor and bureaucrat who exhorted Argentina to sign international narcotics conventions and Argentine police to be more pro-active. His book Marihuana in Latin America: The Threat it Presents, published in the 1940s in Spanish and English, was quoted extensively by prohibitionists worldwide at United Nations meetings. In it, he once again blurred the lines between drug users, drug addicts, and criminals. Wolff also relied on his allies across the hemisphere: in Cuba, A. J. Suarez Castells and one J. Chelala Aguilera of the Cuban League against Narcotic Addiction; in Colombia, Julio Ortiz Velásquez; in the United States, Harry Anslinger; and in Brazil, Roberval Cordeiro de Farias.
Farias, another prime villain of our story, served as director of the National Medical Control Service in Brazil and subsequently as chairman of the National Commission for the Control of Narcotic Drugs where he established himself as an influential prohibitionist. Following a tour of several northeastern states in 1943, he recommended “an intensive educational campaign to show [marijuana’s] evil effects”; “the establishment of a register of addicts and vendors”; tougher laws and penalties in more laissez-faire states; and better coordination and information sharing between regional, national, and international law enforcement. [UNODC 1955] In 1947, Farias secured a federal decree to immediately burn any marijuana plantation found across the country. The National Commission for the Control of Narcotic Drugs also facilitated numerous academic studies under the supervision of one Decio Parreira, with the stated ambition of showing law enforcement that marijuana produced evil effects. These were published in 1951.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and the United Nations were attempting to widen their spheres of influence. WHO surveys commissioned in 1953 and discussed at an international meeting in 1957 presented data from Brazil: the herb goes from “the backlander who cultivates the cannabis plant through the middleman to the ultimate users,” many of whom were enjoying “country festivals where cannabis was inhaled to encourage dancing and poetry.” [Mills 2013: 106-110] The Indian delegate protested the proposed ban of cannabis, arguing that the herb was an integral part of traditional healing practices in his country and could not be replaced so quickly. Western European nations were also skeptical. In 1961, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs finally deemed cannabis a “schedule one” drug, on equal footing as heroin, morphine and cocaine. Latin Americans offered no resistance, and Brazil was one of few countries pushing for the strictest measures possible. Apparently, dancing and poetry were too dangerous. As a result of the 1961 treaty, UN member nations were universally required to ban cannabis and participate in international policing efforts.
The UN convention’s decision came at a time of major political polarization around the globe. Counterculture movements led young people to experiment with mind-altering substances from San Francisco (California) to Santiago de Chile to Santo Domingo or São Paulo. Marijuana’s profile changed in the 1960s: from a working-class drug of blacks or mestizos, to a drug regularly used by upper-class and middle-class white youth in the continent’s largest cities. Marijuana also became a convenient excuse for right-wing groups aiming to wrest control of Latin American politics, a low-hanging fruit that could link progressive youth to sin and vice and madness and various others fears present among the population. Brazil’s Tropicália musicians were one good example. In late 1968 the military government responded to the criticisms of the young musicians with a drastic repressive turn, including the erasure of any legal difference between users and traffickers of marijuana. Increased powers of the military police to arbitrarily search, detain, and arrest pro-democracy activists even led to a 1971 decree that allowed drug arrests even in the absence of physical proof of the herb. Military governments in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala in the 1970s built on Brazil’s repressive model and continued to use anti-marijuana laws to arrest political dissidents.
Over time, police raids in urban areas forced marijuana vendors to hide deep in squatter neighborhoods and shantytowns (favelas) in hard-to-access spots known as bocas-de-fumo, and to build alternate economic networks that manifested as crime organizations. Scholar Janice Perlman, who claimed in 1975 that Rio de Janeiro’s favelas were largely safe areas with well-knit communities, returned 40 years later to fear-ridden zones of violence originating from the social structures created by the illegal trade in drugs. As police presence increased, so did the strength and the weapons of the traffickers, leading to calls for further police presence—a perfect storm of rising urban violence. Cocaine, crack, and other more dangerous drugs followed the path established by illegal marijuana, this time with higher rates of addiction and worse health consequences. What occurred in Rio de Janeiro was paralleled by cities across Brazil and across Latin America: Caracas, Quito, Buenos Aires, etc.
Meanwhile, the increase in demand gave impetus for farmers in rural areas to plant cannabis. In northern Colombia, specifically on the Guajira peninsula and the adjacent Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a gradual increase in cannabis plantations in the late 1960s soon gave way to a meteoric boom in the mid-1970s making Colombia (temporarily) the global leader in exporting cannabis. As Lina Britto argues, the region was already linked to international trade routes via the Caribbean. Following the decline of coffee and other crops that had fueled the regional economy, marijuana was an excellent option for local farmers and traders looking to maximize capital accumulation and take advantage of political opportunities. Other agricultural regions of Latin America responded to increasing demand: farms at the border of Paraguay, Bolivia and Mato Grosso supplied southeastern Brazilian cities, Jamaicans supplied Miami, and Mexicans supplied their own market as well as that of the United States. Meanwhile, the United States government embarked on an overt war on drugs, beginning when the Nixon administration bizarrely ignored the advice of its own research committee that marijuana laws should be relaxed. The U.S. pumped a ton of money and weapons into sensitive areas, which ended up forcing the marijuana industry to go further underground, emboldening local police with questionable interrogation methods (read: torture), increasing violence, encouraging corruption among government and police officials, and increasing the market price of marijuana (and coca). When it suited U.S. foreign policy—as in the case of Noriega in Panama and the Contras in Nicaragua—they actually directly participated in the drug trade. Meanwhile, scores of Latin American farmers suffered from fumigation of their crops, incarceration, rising violence, forced relocation, and in many cases paid for the war on drugs with their lives.
All of this could have been avoided by adopting sensible policies a century ago that emphasized medical treatment rather than incarceration, and promoted formal structures of regulation rather than shootouts in the streets. Instead of creating jobs in the agricultural and medical sectors, marijuana wound up creating jobs in police departments, prisons, legal professions, and in the vast underworld of drug cartels and gun trafficking. All because of prohibition.
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