In his article in the most recent issue of NACLA, historian Isaac Campos explains, “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.” This long history of drug prohibition in Mexico is little-known, and yet key to understanding the Mexican “War on Drugs” that has cost over 40,000 Mexicans their lives since 2006.
In order to better understand the forces behind drug prohibition in Mexico, NACLA spoke with Campos, history professor at the University of Cincinnati. The following is that July 7th interview, in which Campos discussed his recent article in the “Mexico Drug Crisis” issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas, “In Search of Real Reform: Lessons From Mexico’s Long History of Drug Prohibition;” his experience covering marijuana, prohibition, and drug culture in Mexico and the United States; and his forthcoming book, Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs.
Can you explain the "cult of pharmacology" and the way drugs are associated with madness and violence in the United States and Mexico?
Anyone interested in understanding more on this subject should consult Richard Degrandpre’s book, The Cult of Pharmacology [Duke University Press, 2006]. As Degrandpre explains, at its most elementary the cult of pharmacology leads us to fetishize certain substances as either angels or demons, when most substances can be both depending on the circumstances of their use. As [Spanish intellectual] Antonio Escohotado has pointed out, the Greeks understood this; hence the root of the prefix pharmaco simultaneously meant both “medicine” and “poison.”
But in the cult of pharmacology we simply call some substances “drugs,” and by that we mean the “bad ones,” even though almost all of them can be good and bad. We also use certain semantic tricks to keep the faith. We refer to “drugs and alcohol” as if alcohol deserved a category all its own for something other than legal reasons; we talk about “legalizing drugs” and the problem of las drogas, as if heroin, cocaine, and marijuana were a fundamentally different category of substance than Xanax, Vicodin, or whatever pill we might take to help us sleep at night. Ultimately this kind of thinking leads people to believe that marijuana “makes you lazy” or, a century ago, that marijuana made you violent or mad, or that heroin is almost magically addictive, and these beliefs wind up having a certain element of self-fulfilling prophecy when people actually use the drugs.
Is the United States the main obstacle standing in the way of legalized drug use in Mexico?
Certainly U.S. opposition would eventually be an important obstacle, but according to polling data, there is very little support for drug legalization in Mexico in general. Politically it is not a popular idea. So that seems to me the first obstacle. Then, later, you have U.S. opposition. But I don’t think legalizing drugs in Mexico is an especially important step. Legalization there will not eliminate the black market in the United States, which is what produces the majority of the trafficking profits that have enriched Mexico’s violent drug gangs, and it’s the violent drug gangs that are the real problem for Mexico. It would certainly be a step in the right direction, in my opinion, and it would be better than the generalized decriminalization that exists now, which is better than total prohibition, but we really won’t see any significant results from drug policy reform until we get radical change in the United States, and thus undermine the main source of the massive black market.
At the same time, I do think that public opinion and politics in Mexico continue to give support to prohibitionist policies in the United States. As I mention in my piece, Mexico routinely protests drug reform movements in the United States. I might add that there’s also a tendency in Mexico to scream hypocrisy when drug reform efforts make some headway in the United States—“why are we fighting the War on Drugs if the U.S. is just giving up?”—when in truth it’s in the interest of both Mexicans and the people of the United States to radically reform our approach to drugs.
How did you become interested in Mexico and the drug war?
The War on Drugs is simply a fascinating subject because of all the contradictions and irrationalities involved in it. Historians love contradictions. The Drug War is especially interesting because it’s a policy that putatively seeks to keep people from doing something that will make them behave irrationally, but the policy itself has become totally irrational. Yet it is defended at every turn by our most important public officials. That’s interesting stuff.
I think almost anyone who begins studying these policies quickly comes to the conclusion that they are irrational. That’s why there is so much consensus among people who study the subject that some kind of serious reform is necessary, though there is no consensus on exactly what the solution should be.
Please describe your book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs.
My book is a history of marijuana in Mexico from its arrival in the 16th century through its prohibition there in 1920. It demonstrates that Mexico’s War on Drugs was very much a phenomenon of Mexico’s own making. The findings also suggest that Mexico’s experience and approach to marijuana proved critical in the development of that drug’s early history and prohibition in the United States. Home Grown revolves around marijuana’s reputation for producing madness and violence in its users. Marijuana was overwhelmingly associated with those effects from the 1850s through 1920, and that reputation made its prohibition almost an afterthought for Mexican policy makers. Thus the book traces the development of that reputation, in the process demonstrating how Mexican drug law evolved and how Mexico’s War on Drugs was born.
The book argues that marijuana’s nature was key to this process. Marijuana’s effects are highly unpredictable. It’s a drug that can produce anxiety, panic attacks, and even hallucinations at high doses. Like all drugs, however, marijuana’s effects are highly conditioned by the social and cultural “setting” of its use, and the psychological “set” of the users. Simply put, what people think is going to occur when they take a drug is often as important as any other factor in producing a particular effect. In Mexico, a country with the richest collection of hallucinogens on earth and where, since the 16th century, disputes over the use of such substances have been intimately linked to political and spiritual battles for control, it is not so surprising that the use of marijuana would soon be associated with madness and even violence. Indeed, I suggest that within this setting it is plausible that marijuana actually inspired “mad” behavior and violent outbursts, though until now scholars have universally shrugged off reports that marijuana caused such effects, deeming them the product of exaggeration and myth.
What other books would you recommend on drugs and prohibitionism in the United States and Mexico?
Two books that everyone should read:
1. Richard Degrandpre’s The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture (Duke University Press, 2006).
2. Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas, Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial University of California Press, 1996).
For an introduction to Campos's work, see “Degeneration and the Origins of the War on Drugs,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 26 (2): 379–408, or check out his article, “In Search of Real Reform: Lessons From Mexico’s Long History of Drug Prohibition” in the May/June 2011 issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.