In Search of Real Reform: Lessons From Mexico’s Long History of Drug Prohibition

June 30, 2011

I had thought that drug-policy-related violence had become so routine, and had gone on for so long, that it had lost its ability to shock. After all, the history of the War on Drugs is so littered with injustice and destruction that even the hyper-violence in Mexico can feel like just the latest episode of a long and repetitive soap opera. But when the CNBC special called Mexico’s Drug War aired in January showing the aftermath of a seven-year-old boy’s execution in Ciudad Juárez—a white SUV painted with thick streaks of the boy’s blood; a teenage girl, perhaps his older sister, shrieking hysterically on the sidewalk nearby—I was both shocked and outraged.


We know that the War on Drugs, and, more generally, prohibitionist policy, is fundamentally responsible for the violence that now engulfs Mexico. We also know that there are many inherent contradictions in the prohibitionist approach. Among the most glaring and fundamental is the aim to raise prices by reducing supply. Rising prices should, the theory goes, reduce demand. But rising prices also make the market more attractive to suppliers. As prices rise, more suppliers enter the market and drive prices back down. Hence prices for the major illicit drugs have either dropped or remained relatively steady over the last several decades, despite massive expenditures on supply reduction. As the analyst Steven Wisotsky explained in 1990, “If the cocaine industry commissioned a consultant to design a mechanism to ensure its profitability, it could not have done better than the War on Drugs: just enough pressure to inflate prices, but not enough to keep its product from the market.”1


In short, we know that the War on Drugs is doomed to failure by its very design, and we have known this for a very long time. Independent social scientific research has overwhelmingly condemned the War on Drugs, yet our most important political leaders here in the United States are still not listening. They neither see nor hear evil when it comes to the drug war. Although drug policy reform has had much more success at the state level, federal policy anchors U.S. international drug-war commitments and still shows little sign of evolution. Consider Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s response on Mexico’s Televisa news network in January when asked if she thought drug legalization should be weighed as a potential solution to the violence in Mexico:


“I don’t think that will work. I mean, I hear the same debate. I hear it in my country. It is not likely to work. There is just too much money in it, and I don’t think that . . . you can legalize small amounts for possession, but those who are making so much money selling, they have to be stopped. They can’t be given an even easier road to take, because they will then find it in their interest to addict even more young people. Mexico didn’t have much of a drug problem before the last 10 years, and you want to keep it that way. So you don’t want to give any excuse to the drug traffickers to be able legally to addict young people.”2


Clearly the question of drug legalization is a complicated one. But to feign total ignorance in order to avoid the question, as Clinton does here, is disgraceful. Despite decades of mass incarcerations, human rights violations, environmental damage, corrosion of criminal justice systems, and now an orgy of violence in Mexico that has taken almost 35,000 lives since 2007 alone, Clinton still doesn’t take the question of legalization seriously. Neither does her boss, President Obama, who in 2009 laughed away questions about marijuana legalization as if they were absurd.3


History suggests that we will eventually overcome this irrational policy, and future generations will likely look back on the drug war the way we now look back on Jim Crow segregation. (The legal scholar Michelle Alexander makes this analogy even more directly with her 2009 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.)4 Future generations will be shocked by the blatant immorality and irrationality of it all. How could you have let a system like that exist?, they will ask us. In this vein, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book The Honor Code (2010), on the history of moral revolutions, provides some hope.5 Appiah demonstrates that after surviving for centuries, patently immoral and irrational practices—like slavery, dueling, and foot binding—were eventually abandoned, often quite suddenly. Their downfall came through a combination of well-organized and funded opposition, and usually some combination of less predictable global and local forces.


Unfortunately, as Appiah also demonstrates, the long endurance of immoral and irrational practices, even after they have been definitively shown to be dysfunctional and cruel, is far from unusual. This has certainly been the case with the War on Drugs. Scholars have posited various explanations for its remarkable endurance despite overwhelming evidence of its failure—from the dynamics of U.S. electoral politics to the interests of security institutions and the exigencies of U.S. imperial ambition.6 Mexico’s influence on the United States, however, has been underemphasized. The roots of the War on Drugs go deep in Mexico. In fact, in some ways, they are deeper there than in the United States.




In 1772, José Antonio Alzate y Ramírez, one of colonial Mexico’s greatest intellectuals, asked: “Is it not well-known . . . that prohibitions incite more and more the desire to do that which is prohibited, for that malice to which we have such propensity?”7 This question was inspired by the leaves and seeds of cannabis, then known, at least some of the time, by their Nahuatl name, pipiltzintzintlis (“the most noble princes”). For Alzate, who was both an Enlightenment thinker and an ordained priest, this drug was a threat to spiritual and physical well-being. In the 18th century the pipiltzintzintlis were believed to produce visions, sometimes a “furious madness” in their users, and communion with the Devil. That was, in fact, the drug’s main draw—like so many other substances that grow wild in the Mexican countryside, cannabis and its mildly hallucinogenic effects were thought to facilitate a connection with the supernatural. Thus, as Alzate argued, the more the Catholic Church insisted that these substances led to communion with the Devil, the more attractive they would become to users. Already in 1772, Alzate emphasized, it was “well-known” that prohibitions inspired as much undesired behavior as they eliminated.


Yet, though this belief was already a commonplace in the 1700s, Mexican authorities would largely ignore it when dealing with cannabis and other psychoactive drugs in subsequent centuries. Why? One reason is public opinion. Analysts in the United States have long recognized that grassroots ideology serves as a critical anchor for the War on Drugs. Legislators climb over each other to be the “toughest” on drugs for a reason. The same is true in Mexico, perhaps to an even greater degree. Recent polls indicate that fewer than 15% of Mexicans favor legalizing cannabis, while comparable polls in the United States show about 46% in favor.8


Such sentiment is not new among Mexicans. By the end of the 19th century, cannabis, by then called marijuana, was overwhelmingly associated with two effects in Mexico—madness and violence. There was almost no counter-discourse to this stereotype. Although these ideas were clearly nurtured by the yellow press of the period, they also seem to have been anchored by the beliefs of ordinary (mostly illiterate) Mexicans. This was reflected in a court appeal submitted in 1908 by one of the more curious figures in Mexico’s drug history, a marijuana dealer named José del Moral, who appealed the jail sentence he had been given for dealing in large quantities of the weed. Unlike most people who were involved with marijuana during this period, del Moral was highly educated and therefore able to pen a long appeal. While declaring marijuana laws unjust, del Moral also noted that ordinary Mexicans harbored an intense and visceral fear of this substance:


The horror that this plant inspires has reached such an extreme that when the common people, having little inclination to research the facts, see even just a single plant, they feel as if in the presence of a demonic spirit. Women and children run frightened and they make the sign of the cross simply upon hearing its name. . . . It is a shame that in the midst of the 20th century some of us Mexicans are in such a lamentable state of obscurantism that any foreigner who might witness such absurdities with respect to this plant surely would laugh at us, and our ignorance would inspire compassion.9


Unfortunately, a century later, magical thinking about drugs—or what the author Richard DeGrandpre calls “the cult of pharmacology”—continues to impede drug policy reform both in Mexico and the United States.10 According to the cult of pharmacology, drugs have certain qualities that, by themselves, produce highly predictable behavioral outcomes. Thus in the popular imagination, heroin need only be taken a certain number of times before the user becomes an “addict,” or methamphetamine is so extraordinarily seductive that it hooks users instantly. Or, as the political scientist James Q. Wilson claimed in a 1990 defense of the War on Drugs: “Nicotine alters one’s habits, cocaine alters one’s soul.”11


In truth, as scientific research has demonstrated for almost a century, and as informal observation has indicated for much longer, the effects of drugs are determined by a much more complex process. Three factors and their interaction play a key role in how drugs affect a person—the drug, the “set,” or psychological makeup of the user, and the “setting,” or the social and cultural context of the drug use. We now know that some people can use heroin or cocaine recreationally for years without becoming addicts, while others can become terribly addicted to certain kinds of activities—gambling, for example—that have nothing to do with drugs. In other words, negative outcomes associated with drug use, even “addiction,” are highly conditioned by set and setting. In fact, many studies suggest that the drugs are not necessarily the most important factor.12


Yet by demonizing certain substances as especially dangerous and pernicious, we not only make those drugs especially attractive to certain users, but also convince them that they should experience some of the terrible effects we are warning them about. In other words, we foster the production of such effects. As DeGrandpre puts it, our widespread belief in certain outcomes creates a kind of “placebo text,” a cultural script that comes to function like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you convince people that certain drugs are especially attractive or addictive, those drugs become that much more attractive and addictive.13 Though focused on the United States, DeGrandpre’s ideas are equally applicable to Mexico.


Imagine del Moral’s amazement were he able to see that a century later, an updated ignorance about drugs and their effects still dominated public policy not only in Mexico but in the United States and much of the world. And in this we find another lesson from history: that placebo texts are, like acid rain, transnational phenomena. Grassroots fears of marijuana in Mexico a century ago began to be transmitted to ordinary folk in the United States during the 1890s through burgeoning circuits of transnational information interchange. Newspaper stories appearing in Mexico City dailies found their way into wire services and soon spiced up the morning reading across North America, where many readers were learning about “marijuana” for the first time.14 The discourse was eventually transformed by the U.S. context, coming to be known as “reefer madness.” But its fundamental characteristics remained the same, helping to justify the erection of international legal regimes and the reinforcement of certain placebo texts.




The war on drugs, then, has deep roots and is anchored on both sides of the border. If we seek a moral revolution with respect to drug policy, it must be achieved both north and south of the Rio Grande. We have numerous historical examples that bear this out. For example, in the 1930s, the head of Mexico’s Alcohol and Narcotics Service, Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, had the audacity to point out certain facts that are now virtual givens in the literature on drug policy—that prohibition merely spawned a black market whose results were much worse than drug use itself and that, in particular, marijuana prohibition led to the harassment and imprisonment of thousands of users who posed very little threat to society. The response to Salazar was violent and from both sides of the border—the Mexican press painted him as a dangerous madman, while U.S. diplomatic authorities worked to destroy him professionally.15 Though historians have correctly viewed Salazar as a victim of an increasingly imperialist U.S. drug policy, it has not been sufficiently emphasized that he was also a victim of Mexico’s home-grown anti-drug ideology that still dominates public opinion today.


Similarly, during the 1970s, when activists in many U.S. states sought to decriminalize marijuana, Mexican diplomatic authorities made clear to Washington that Mexico was not on board with these developments. As Mexican attorney general Pedro Ojeda Paullada warned in 1974, if the United States wanted Mexico to exert itself against heroin, it very well better keep up the fight on marijuana. “We don’t accept that marijuana is less important than heroin,” he said.16 There was an echo of this in 2010, when the administration of Mexican president Felipe Calderón loudly voiced its opposition to California’s moves toward legalizing marijuana.17 In short, opposition to serious reform has run in both directions for quite a long time.


A century ago, when Mexico first prohibited marijuana, Mexicans were worried about “drug-related violence” in a literal way—it was believed that the drug itself made people violently insane. Those policies have ultimately led to something quite different: drug-policy-related violence. If there is a positive side to recent Mexican events, it is that they serve as another powerful argument against prohibition. Unfortunately, it seems that with each passing day, the horrors of the War on Drugs become increasingly mundane. As the refrain commonly attributed to Stalin goes: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”



Isaac Campos teaches history at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2012).



1. Quoted in Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas, Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial (University of California Press, 1996), 13. See the rest of the book, particularly Part One, “Confronting Denial,” for a devastating critique of the prohibitionist model.


2. “Secretary Clinton’s Interview With Televisa in Guanajuato, Mexico,” transcript,, January 25, 2011.


3. Quoted in Sam Stein, “Obama Takes Pot Legalization Question During Townhall (VIDEO),” blog post, The Huffington Post, March 26, 2009.


4. The New Press, 2010.


5. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (W.W. Norton & Company).


6. See, for example, Bertram et al., Drug War Politics, 56–58; Jurg Gerber and Eric L. Jensen, “The Internationalization of U.S. Policy on Illicit Drug Control,” in Drug War American Style: The Internationalization of Failed Policy and Its Alternatives, eds. Jurg Gerber and Eric L. Jensen (New York: Garland Publishing, 2001), 1–13; Guadalupe González, “The Drug Connection in U.S.-Mexican Relations: Introduction,” in The Drug Connection in U.S.-Mexican Relations, eds. Guadalupe González and Marta Tienda (San Diego: Center for U.S. Mexican Studies, 1989), 4.


7. José Antonio Alzate y Ramírez, “Memoria sobre el uso que hacen los indios de la pipiltzintzintlis,” in Obras, ed. Roberto Moreno (Mexico City: National Autonomous


University of Mexico, 1980), 80–81.


8. Figures cited in Francisco Abundis, “Las drogas en la opinión pública,” El Universal (Mexico City), August 19, 2010.


9. “Arrest File: José del Moral,” Caja 0729, Folio 128284 (Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal, Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City, October 27, 1908).


10. Richard DeGrandpre, The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture (Duke University Press, 2006).


11. James Q. Wilson, “Against the Legalization of Drugs,” Commentary 89, no. 2 (1990): 21–28.


12. Degrandpre, The Cult of Pharmacology, 120–1, 185–6.


13. Ibid.


14. For some early examples, see Thomas Crittenden, “The Mexican National Drink,” Current Literature 20, no. 6 (1896); “A Bad Mexican Habit,” The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City), October 29, 1898; “Along the Border, Curious and Interesting Things on the Mexican Frontier,” The Ohio Democrat (New Philadelphia, Ohio), November 18, 1897; A Seductive Weed,” Spirit Lake Beacon (Spirit Lake, Iowa), January 21, 1898; “A New Opiate,” Marysville Tribune (Marysville, Ohio), March 23, 1898.


15. William O. Walker III, Drug Control in the Americas, rev. ed. (University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 119–26; Luis A. Astorga, El Siglo de las drogas (México City: Espasa-Calpe, 1996), 52–53.


16. Bob Wiedrich, “Mexico Still Hard on the Soft Drugs,” Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1974.


17. Ken Ellingwood and Richard Marosi, “Mexico’s President Opposes Marijuana Legalization,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2010.



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