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‘Reefer Madness’ In Mexico

What Harry Ansliger wrought.

The conventional wisdom is that marijuana prohibition was first imposed early in the 20th century in the southwestern United States by sheriffs seeking to increase their power over Mexican immigrants. Stories of marijuana use leading to insanity and moral breakdown, concocted and promoted by the Hearst newspapers and Harry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, culminated in a federal ban in 1937.

Isaac Campos, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, challenges this gringocentric version of history. He traces marijuana prohibition back to Mexico (where it was imposed in 1920), and from there, in a well-documented line, to the Spanish Inquisition.

For those who haven't seen the Monty Python movie…

Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain, an Inquisition was launched in 1480 to expose those who had converted to Catholicism but were secretly practicing Judaism at home. The Inquisitors used torture as an investigative tool. It expanded into a permanent search for “heretics” and would last some 350 years.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortes in 1521 was accompanied by a network of missions imposing Catholicism on the native peoples. Infectious diseases to which the Europeans had immunity — smallpox, typhus, and measles — rapidly reduced the population from an estimated 10-to-20 million to around two million. Those who survived were forced into slave labor in the silver mines that fed the Spanish treasury and the fields surrounding the missions that provided food and fiber for the colonial masters.

As Oscar Campos writes in Home Grown, “For the Spanish, cannabis was valued above all as a source of strong fiber used in the production of various products, none more important than the sails and ropes that powered the imperial navy. Thus in 1545, the Spanish Crown officially madated its cultivation in the Americas: ‘We order the Viceroys and Governors that they mandate the cultivation of hemp and flax in the Indies, and that they get the Indians to to apply themselves to this farming and to weaving and spinning flax.’”

After referring to farmers named Hernandez who grew hemp in Atlixco, Campos writes “In a process that was likely replicated around Mexico... some members of the Hernandez workforce had discovered the plants to be medicinally useful... Before long, the Indian employees of the old farm had taken some samples home and begun cultivating their own medicinal cannabis in the sunny corners of their gardens.

“By the middle of the 18th century, Indians around the region had begun referring to cannabis with the name pipiltzintzintlis and were employing it for purposes of divination. As a result, pipilzintzintlis had been banned by the Inquisition.” Violators were prosecuted. “But neither the Inquisition nor other Spanish authorities appear to have had any idea that this substance was derived from cannabis.”

The versatility of the plant caused the same kind of confusion that would be expressed by the U.S. manufacturers who were stunned when Congress banned marijuana in 1937! Campos continues:

“There appears to have developed a disconnect between official views of cannabis and those of ordinary folks in New Spain. The latter apparently understood this plant to be persecuted by the Inquisition under the name pipilzintzintlis and therefore banned, while the former, ignorant of the link of the link between cannabis and that notorious divinatory substance, expresed surprise that anyone could think that hemp production was illegal.”

Given Spain’s rivalry with Britain and Holland for naval supremacy, the crown urgently needed hemp to outfit its armada. In January 1777 the king ordered “that the Indians and mixed populations of the towns of those dominions apply themselves to the sowing, cultivation, and exploitation of hemp and flax... in order to foment the manufacture of cloth, canvas and rigging.”

Enough hemp was planted here and there — and disseminated by itself — so that a century later “the presence of cannabis in the Mexican countryside would be sufficiently ubiquitous to help convince various observers that this substance must be indigenous to the region,” according to Campos.

Mexico had achieved independence from Spain in 1821 after a peasants’ rebellion ignited a war that lasted 11 years. The emerging ruling class was led by light-skinned progeny of the conquistadors. “With independence,” Campos writes, “local medicinal knowledge and material became a potential source of the national wealth.” In the 1820s and ‘30s a National Museum was founded to promote botanical research; an Academy of Surgical Medicine began compiling an “indigenous pharmaceopoeia;” another new institute “featured a field of study in medicinal plants... conceived as a cruicial tool for the mapping of the Mexican nation;” and a national Academy of Pharmacy was founded.

Though cannabis was actually an import, “its gradual adoption into local medical practice had imbued it with a certain indigeneity by association.

In 1842 a list of “The Most Common Elemental Medicines included The Farmacopea Mexicana” distinguished Cannabis indica (aka Rosa Maria, Canamo del pais, mariguana) and Cannabis sativa (aka canamo). Campos cites pharmacologist Leonardo Oliva, who in the mid-1850s urged Mexican scientists “to take seriously the knowledge of country folk and Indians, whose empirical approach to these remedies had long been scorned by scientific medicine. ‘It is not rare to see illnesses which have been combated assiduously, energetically, and philosophically by physicians, finally surrender, as if through magic, to a concoction at which the physician scoffs, composed of simple ingredients and prepared by some old woman.’ It should be the object of science, Oliva believed, to take up such knowledge and perfect it through experimentation.”

Unfortunately, Campos recounts, the window of opportunity quickly closed. The respectful approach to folk medicine advocated by Oliva was scorned by ruling-class elitists who were descended from, identified with, and aspired to social acceptance by Europeans. To them, marijuana, was a drug used by Indians — especially soldiers and prisoners — and associated with the “backward” societies of Asia and the Middle East.

The Thousand and One Nights had “popularized the view that cannabis produced dreamlike hallucinations that led users down the path to embarrassment and ridicule,” writes Campos, who calls the Persian classic “surely the most famous of ‘Oriental’ sources.”

Medieval Muslim authorities linked cannabis to “every conceivable malady ...including destruction of the mind, hallucinations and insanity.”

A French “Orientalist” named Silvre de Sacy (not a botanist, Campos notes) established, presumably, that the word “assassin” derived from “hashish.” Sacy’s etymological evidence “did as much as anything to legitimize the view among Westerners that cannabis had the potential to produce at least fantstic visions if not violence in it users.”

Campos effectively challenges Sacy. (There are fascinating, insightful riffs throughout the book.) “Sacy’s theory was based in the history of a medieval Shiite Islamic sect called the Isma’ilis, popularly known as the ‘Order of the Assassins.’ The Isma’ilis were much maligned during the Middle Ages by both rival Muslims and Christians...

“There exists no evidence, however, that the Ismai’ilis or, in particular, the fidawi assassins [the original suicide bombers] had anyything to do with hashish. The original sources never explain why the word is utilized, and as historian Farhad Daftary has argued, it seems rather unlikely that warriors sent out on such difficult and sensitive missions would have taken a potentially disorienting drug in order to carry them out. Futhermore, hashisha was a term used as a general insult in the Arab world due to its association with heretics and the rabble of society.”

In every culture where it is scorned, marijuana is associated with heretics and the rabble of society. Priests see it as a threat to their authority, and poor people can readily obtain it (unless it's banned). And so it was in Mexico in the mid-19th century.

To be continued. Home Grown: Marijuana and the origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs By Isaac Campos. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012. Fred Gardner is putting O'Shaughnessy's online at

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