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Reefer Madness Started in Mexico

Spanish paranoia and propaganda about indigenous toking gave birth to Mexico’s drug wars.

Photo Credit: University of North Carolina Press


The following excerpt from Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, by Isaac Campos. It is a summary the author's thesis at the University of Cincinnati, first printed as the introduction to Home Grown . (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012).

The Conventional Wisdom is that marijuana prohibition was first imposed early in the 20th century by sheriffs in southwestern states seeking to increase their power over Mexican immigrants who had brought the herb from south of the border, where smoking it was part of the culture, no big deal. Then, the Conventional Wisdom continues, Hearst newspapers and Harry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics concocted and publicized stories of marijuana use causing violence and insanity, which led to Congress imposing a federal ban in 1937.

Around the year 1530, a conquistador named Pedro Quadrado left his small village near Seville and traveled to the New World. After actively participating in the ongoing conquest of Mexico, Quadrado received a coveted encomienda, or royal tribute and labor grant, to undertake the cultivation of cannabis there. He thus became the first person to cultivate this species in the Americas. 

That, anyway, is what he himself claimed, and probably with justification, for it was not until June 1545 that the Spanish Crown first ordered its subjects to sow cannabis in the New World. 

For the Spanish, cannabis was first and foremost a fiber plant. They called it cáñamo. Tall, green, and gangly, of round seeds and “abominable smell,” this was an extraordinarily common cultivar whose strong fibers, or hemp, made clothing, rope, and the broad and sturdy sails that powered the greatest sea-borne empire the world had ever known. Thus began the long journey of cannabis through Mexican history, one that would eventually see its meaning and identity radically transformed.

The first signs of that transformation appeared in the 1770s. By then, cannabis had found its way into local medical-religious practice, and its seeds and leaves were sold by herb dealers under the name pipiltzintzintlis, or “the most noble princes.” 

Though still cherished by Spanish officials as an industrial fiber, there were growing rumors that, for Indians, it also facilitated visions, communion with the devil, and sometimes madness. Prohibitionist edicts briefly raised the profile of these noble princes, but the name pipiltzintzintlis would soon fade into obscurity, as would (temporarily) the drug use of cannabis in Mexico.

A new generation of nationalist botanists would rediscover cannabis drugs during the 1850s. These men become interested in cataloging Mexico’s “indigenous” natural wonders, and in the process they noted that “certain Mexicans” had begun smoking the stuff. The word pipiltzintzintlis was no longer in use, but two other local designations, both of which helped to reinforce the plant’s apparent indigeneity, had emerged: rosa maría and mariguana.

The former would also soon disappear, leaving the word mariguana, o r marihuana—or as it is now spelled in English, “marijuana”—to conquer the lexica of most of the Western Hemisphere.

Though these nationalist botanists saw potential value in this “local” drug plant, their writings would soon be overwhelmed by the view that this was a quintessentially indigenous “narcotic” causing madness, violence, and mayhem. In 1886, for example, a Mexican medical student delivered a thesis in the field of legal medicine on marijuana and the insanity defense, concluding that “the criminal responsibility of an individual in a state of acute marijuana intoxication should be exactly the same as that of the maniac,” namely none. 

By 1898, Mexico City’s leading daily could claim that “for years the press has described horrifying crimes, criminal eccentricities and suicides, which place before the court of public opinion individuals whose type oscillates between furious madmen and criminals worthy of being placed before the firing squad, and one after another case demonstrates that the murderer, the rapist, the insubordinate, the presumed suicide, and the scandalous acted under the influence of marihuana.”

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