Archival photos courtesy of Archivo Casasola
The Mexican upper classes blamed the Chinese immigrants for the early drug-trafficking networks while those same people got high in Chinese-run opium dens. Meanwhile, most of the profit from the drug trade went into the pockets of European traffickers and corrupt politicians.
More and more often when I go out partying in Mexico City, I notice that my friends somehow feel guilty for indulging in a joint or doing a line. When they do it, they can’t avoid thinking—at least for a second—that they are in some small way contributing to Mexico’s drug war, which has been responsible for 50,000 deaths and the disappearance of tens of thousands of people during the current government’s reign. Perhaps it’s even fair to say they no longer just smoke some weed or do a bump of coke: They smoke a finger, snort a tongue, take a bong rip of a torso. Then they laugh and get over it.
Since the 1940s, Mexicans have prosecuted, jailed, and killed one another because of the joys and profits that come from controlled psychoactive substances—profits that derive, at least in part, from the war on drugs having made supply scarcer while demand remains insatiable. But today, the violence has reached a new level of intensity.
The problems deepened in 2000, when the right-wing National Action Party won national elections against the Institutional Revolutionary Party for the first time in more than 70 years. Then, in 2006, Felipe Calderón was elected president after running on a platform of job creation. As soon as he took office, he instead decided to wage a brutal war on Mexico’s drug lords. Calderón’s crusade quickly affected—and infected—the entire country.
Surveying documentary photos from the early 20th century, it would seem as though it were OK to get high as a kite throughout Mexico, but the truth is using certain substances has been prohibited as far back as colonial times. When the Spanish realized that the indigenous people would use all sorts of trippy goodies to speak to their gods, or just space out, they began to ban them. That’s what happened to peyote in 1670, when the Inquisition posted edicts in churches throughout New Spain declaring its use a sin.
By the 19th century, drug use had become secular. Peyote, weed, and coca leaves weren’t sinful anymore, and they began to get used in the name of science and medicine. As was the case in most of the world back then, doctors and scientists became the gatekeepers to the beautiful kingdom of getting high.
By the beginning of the 20th century, drugs had become a class issue, and that’s where the problems started. Indigenous people, inmates, and soldiers were seen as the primary users of marijuana; therefore it was considered vulgar. The Spanish and whiter mestizos used more “scientific” and foreign drugs like heroin and opium. In the midst of the Mexican Revolution, the rich, especially well-to-do housewives, would frequent Chinese-run opium dens, where they could forget about their troubles with just a couple puffs.
Such was the life back in a Mexico divided by the boundaries of race, class, and education. But by 1920, when the revolution was complete, a new war had begun that would soon be fought throughout the world. Between 1909 and 1919, the American government and its allies lobbied to ban opium globally. Many countries supported the measure, including Mexico. The ban was signed in 1912 at the Hague and was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, beginning a brave new antidrug era that would see Mexico buried under mountains of dead bodies.
In the early 20th century, no one really understood the newly established prohibition on drugs. Cocaine and morphine produced by European pharmaceutical companies were easily available by prescription.
Drugs like weed were considered déclassé because poor people used them; the classy people used uptown drugs like opium and heroin that were often prescribed by doctors.
Mexico became the crossing point for all the substances illegal in the US, thanks to an odd loophole. In 1909, the US government banned the import of opium for internal consumption (except for “medicinal” use); however, it was legal for it to be imported into the States and immediately exported to Mexico and other countries. Business was too damn good to entirely ban narcotics shipments into the US. Soon American and European smugglers found Mexican partners who would bring opium from Macau to San Francisco, immediately send it to Mexico, and from there smuggle it back into the US. Mexico began to develop a reputation for facilitating drug use and other questionable habits.
The Mexican government and its citizens reacted by blaming Chinese immigrants, an easy target. Mexican businessmen were envious of how successful some Chinese entrepreneurs had been, and everybody, even the indigenous people, considered them inferior. Soon the government passed a slew of prohibitions. In 1923, President Álvaro Obregón banned the import of all narcotics. Two years later, President Plutarco Elías Calles negotiated with the US government to ramp up the prosecution of narcotics and alcohol traffickers. But none of that stopped the influx of drugs.
The armed struggle against drugs in Mexico catalyzed in 1947, when Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the DEA), put pressure on the Mexican government to launch antidrug operations in the northwest of Mexico (specifically, Sonora, Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua). This armed struggle intensified in the 1960s and 70s, when recreational drug use by young people became more popular on both sides of the border.
The war on drugs became an American obsession, and both Nixon and Reagan waged campaigns that verged on insanity. For example, in 1969, during Operation Interception, the US-Mexico border was temporarily shut down in an attempt to persuade Mexican officials to capture and kill more traffickers. In 1976, Mexico’s government launched Operation Condor, in which soldiers would destroy towns and kill entire populations to protect the world from the evil of marijuana and poppy producers.
The trafficking organizations that moved drugs across the border reacted to these aggressions by buying more guns and other high-powered weaponry, investing more money in corrupting politicians and cops, and becoming increasingly violent and unpredictable.
There was a time when drug users were considered a public-health problem. This was thanks to doctors, who saw to it that all the fun stuff remained under their jurisdiction. In fact, in 1940, Mexico’s Department of Health managed to successfully put forth a case to legalize drugs throughout the country. For a brief time, users could go to dispensaries where doctors would offer daily doses of heroin and other substances at cheaper prices than the black market. The government’s logic was that they could keep consumers at ease and out of trouble while putting an end to illegal trafficking. The legalization lasted only a few months before it was overturned, mainly because of pressure from the US government.
This war continues to this day but is now bloodier and more brutal than ever before, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Most people think the idea of legalization is crazy—an unrealistic waste of time. They could be right; there may be too much money at play for politicians to ever let us do drugs as we wish while simultaneously eliminating the black market that has caused so much death and heartache. I won’t judge them, but I’ll never agree. Legalization already happened once, and I can see peace in the watery eyes of the stoners from those days.
Froylan Enciso is a history PhD candidate at the State University of New York, Stonybrook. His dissertation focuses on the drug markets in Sinaloa, Mexico.
We Can’t Get High Like We Used To
Archival photos courtesy of Archivo Casasola