The time when drugs were legal in Mexico

For a brief period, drugs were legalized in Mexico in hopes of helping addicts and stopping drug trafficking

The time when drugs were legal in Mexico
The legalization of drugs is still an open debate - Photo: Peter Dejong/AP
English 07/03/2020 13:30 Mexico City Elisa Villa Román Actualizada 13:59
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Some time in history, the drugs that are now illegal were legalized in Mexico. As a matter of fact, the government opened clinics where doctors gave controlled doses to people with addictions.

It was 1940, the last year of the Lázaro Cárdenas administration, and World War II was taking place in Europe. Chronicles and stories register how people back then understood drug consumption. Researcher Eugenio Gómez Maillefert described how a group of “elegant young men” rent a room on the third floor of an ancient convent to which they only went by night to some marijuana.

“Here comes the eldest devil with its 25 brothers. And it says it will take away all weed smokers.” A fragment of a popular song of the 1920s, published in an interesting article by anthropologist Eugenio Gómez Maillefert in The Journal of American Folklore, where he listed the vocabulary used by marijuana consumers. Many of those terms are still used nowadays

When there was a rookie, they lit up salt with alcohol in a pot to produce a greenish light and make him hallucinate. They read poetry and they all asserted that they enjoyed literature more with marijuana.

“It is said that someone ‘gives three’ when they smoke marijuana because almost all smokers smoke three times in a row from their cigar,” wrote Gómez Maillefert and added that regardless of the number of smokers, they all shared the same blunt, passing it hand by hand among the circle.

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A story of the 1930s called “Doña Juanita” tells how the protagonist organizes a reunion with a group of friends, each with their own personality, representing a different substance.

“Doña Juanita (marijuana), dark-skinned and robust but of a certain age, fixed in front of the mirror her decayed beauty. By the door come Heroin, an artificial blonde with curled eyelashes; her friend Morphine, a bit older but not less attractive, both of them covered in jewels. Cocaine, her skin unbelievably pale and with dark circles that seem a hell’s halo; Opium, a mature man, serious and elegant with worldly poise movements, and at last, Alcohol, clumsy, rude, and rubicund,” says the story.

The story of “Doña Juanita” (1938) makes reference to how people perceived marijuana, heroin, morphine, opium, and alcohol in the 2’th century. The image shows the cover of the story

But not everything was stories and songs. It was usual to read news about addicts who used to be called “degenerates.”

The biggest concern for society and the government of the time was the fast growth of trafficking groups. “El Venado” and “Lola la Chata” were two of them, whose names appear frequently in news from the 1930s and 1940s.

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Newspapers reported that despite being arrested “uncountable times,” they kept distributing and selling narcotics by bribing the authorities.

To stop this situation, in 1931, the government issued the Federal Ruling on Addictions that ordered the punishment of consumers and drug traffickers. The measure did not work as planned and the number of addicts kept rising.

“Yesterday, the police arrested 20 addicts in a cocaine store when they were buying the ominous drug,” reads this article whose head shows the word “degenerates,” published on October 12, 1922, by EL UNIVERSAL

It was by the late 1930s that a Mexican psychiatrist proposed a revolutionary idea. It was Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra and for him, addictions had to be treated as diseases.

Salazar Viniegra was born in Durango in 1897 and moved to the capital to study medicine in what is today the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

He specialized in psychiatry in Paris and when he came back to Mexico in 1925, he joined Mexico City’s General Asylum known as La Castañeda, where he worked for 20 years.

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Salazar became friends with the patients and it is said that he even ate and talked with them, which caused some of his conservative colleagues to label him as extravagant and frivolous.

Among the patients of La Castañeda, he performed the first studies on marijuana with scientific rigor, concluding that its consumption is not related to “madness” or criminality and that its effects are not worse than those of tobacco. Nowadays, it is known that tobacco is actually more addictive than marijuana for 32% of those who consume it develop an addiction in contrast to the 9% that become addict to cannabis.

Among other things, the Global Commission on Drug Police performs different studies on the number of people who become addicts to substances like heroin, cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. In this regard, former president Ernesto Zedillo is part of this commission. Photograph from 1981. Advertisement in Mexico City regarding marijuana

Salazar’s report called “The Myth of Marijuana” was published in the Criminalia magazine of December 1938. The doctor sustained that in his 20 years at La Castañeda, he never had a case of mental disorders caused by smoking this plant.

Salazar questioned those who had performed previous studies on marijuana consumers asserting that they caused them episodes of violent behavior. Salazar reproduced these studies in Mexico with the consent of some of his patients in the addiction area of La Castañeda.

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Hence, frequent consumers, subjects who smoke for the first time, people with psychopathic disorders, and other patients smoked marijuana in a controlled experiment and none, reported Salazar, present violent behaviors.

The psychiatrist proposed that addicts were rehabilitated with small drug doses and was convinced that that would stop traffickers like “Lola la Chata,” to whom he wrote an open letter published by EL UNIVERSAL.

It is known that Lola la Chata sold tacos seasoned with morphine in La Merced neighborhood where she also sold papers will cocaine. She bribed authorities and, according to Dr. Salazar, was a “young, beautiful, and seductive woman.”

“I consider her a product of our environment and our time. For you, an addict is no more than another client. For me, they are people who lost their way and are dragged by civilization. The fact that you as a trafficker have been more successful with them, than us who are in charge of incorporating them to the social and active life.”

His work laid the foundation for president Lázaro Cárdenas to issue, two years later, a Federal Ruling to Fight Drug Addiction and Trafficking that was published on the Federal Official Gazette on February 17, 1940.

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With this measure, consumers of addictive substances were no longer criminalized and, instead, they were offered medical and psychological care.

The new ruling contained 11 articles detailing with precision how to proceed in these cases: only surgeons with a registered degree at the Health Department were authorized to prescribe narcotics to addicts.

“In the widest sense, a drug is any substance that has an effect on the mind or the body. Nevertheless, for substances that act on the mind (psychoactive), the term has acquired a negative connotation. In the pharmacological sense, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol are drugs just as heroin and cocaine.”

The reactions were clear: “Addicts are not criminals. Attract them, instead of chasing them, registering, and giving them medical and psychological treatment will be the fundamental way to fight addiction. Likewise, the best way to stop traffickers, beyond chasing and punishing them, will be by giving them competition on their products, [so as] not to allow them to make any profit.”

The legalization was celebrated in the editorial section of this newspaper on March 23, 1940

The rehabilitation program considered a special budget to supply and maintain the hospitals that offered this service. In addition, it was defined that beneficiaries (that is, consumers) had to register their information in special questionnaires where the doctor specified the dose that could be supplied and for what number of days.

According to newspapers of the time, it was usual for approximately 200 people to attend each day to receive their prescribed dose of a substance as part of their rehab treatment. But it did not last long, because that same year, the decree was overturned:

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“Due to lack of resources from the State, it has not been possible [to implement] adequate healing procedures will all addicts for it has not been feasible to establish the sufficient number of hospitals they need for their treatment” reads the Federal Official Gazette on July 3, 1940.

They were the first years of WWII and the government rendered itself unable to purchase drugs for they were brought from Europe where the war continued.

“While the war continues, the Department is unable to purchase drugs.” So the brief period in which these substances were legal in Mexico ended.

“The end of a romance.” A piece of news published by EL UNIVERSAL on July 13, 1940, when the ruling was suspended. The debate on the legalization of drugs continues nowadays

Currently, over 250 million people around the world are in danger of consuming drugs with frequency. According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, there are two circles regarding the prohibition of narcotics.

In the virtuous circles (when they are legalized) impunity culture diminishes, institutions are strengthened, society and economy flourish, and violence and corruption decrease.

“The war in Europe has caused an intoxicant drug shortage in Mexico,” says a note published by EL UNIVERSAL in July 1940

Whereas the vicious circles of illegal drugs causes corruption and violence, affects society and the economy, increases organized crime, and infringes upon weak communities and institutions, as asserted by the organization.

In Mexico, the General Health Law published in the Federal Official Gazette in 1984 says that consumers are allowed to carry with them 2 grams of opium, 50 milligrams of heroin, 5 grams of marijuana, and 40 milligrams of meth for personal consumption. If they exceed those amounts, they are accused of drug dealing and drug trafficking.

This year, the debate was resumed for marijuana for, since 2015, five people have amparos to consume it for recreational purposes.

In 2017, the Social Studies and Public Opinion Center performed a survey to know the opinion on Mexicans on the legalization of marijuana. 47% of the surveyed approve the legalization but 70% believe that Mexico is not ready to regulate it. The debate is still open.

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