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Pacheuco Party (June 11, 2003)

Great green gales of combusting marijuana may soon be wafting over both the US southern and northern borders as Washington’s two NAFTA trading partners move towards decriminalization of this much-maligned herb.

To the horror of White House drug czar John Walters, Canada has just introduced legislation reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug to the price of a traffic ticket. South of the border down Mexico way, civil society is increasing pressure for reform of stiff anti-pot laws and a decrim measure could come before the congress as earlier as the first session of the new legislature to be elected July 6th.

“Mota is like love — you can’t get enough of it,” reads the slogan spray-painted on the sidewalk behind the Bellas Artes Fine Arts Institute here, a fading souvenir of an early May “Legalize It!” march that drew over a thousand marijuana enthusiasts, ten times the number of previous pro-pot protests. Marchers danced around Alameda Park, pounding drums and offering rousing choruses of “La Cucaracha,” the old Pancho Villa war song that has become the national anthem of their movement, as mounted Mexico City police in picturesque, wide-brimmed “charro” sombreros looked on curiously, awaiting orders to ride down the mellow mob.

The orders never came, despite the fragrant clouds of “mota” (“yerba,” “la verde,” “la buena,” “grifa,” “chubi,” “chachalaca”) that spread into every corner of the central city park in flagrant violation of Mexico’s draconian drug laws (“crimes against health” as they are euphemistically called). This is a Left-run city, tolerant and committed to diversity, but elsewhere in Mexico the scenario could have been tragically different.

“Take responsibility for what’s in your pocket,” cautioned Ricardo Silva of “Live With Drugs,” one of the Smoke-In’s sponsors (the title is a spoof of TV Azteca’s much ballyhooed “Live Without Drugs” foundation.) “Never have so many people smoked dope so openly here — but still we need to be careful,” the spidery Silva counsels a US reporter.

Other march sponsors included the Mexican Association for Cannabis Studies (AMECA) which promotes the herb’s medicinal properties — Sara Cantera, the young spokesperson for the student group, concedes that legalization is an uphill battle and will face stiff opposition from the pharmaceutical and liquor industries “who will lose customers if we win.”

Also on board: Hemp Mexico, which advocates industrial uses of the plant’s fibers. Several boutiques featuring hemp clothing have recently opened in the city’s old quarter. Julio Zenil, a small, dread-locked man who speaks for the merchant group, points out that the Gothenburg Bible was printed on hemp paper. According to David Brading, the British expert on the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Brown Madonna’s cloak was made of hemp fibers. Encouraging and subsidizing hemp production in Mexico could help to alleviate the “terrible poverty our farmers suffer,” Zenil proposes.

For interested agronomists, Mexico’s first growers’ guide to marijuana and hemp production has just been published.

Decriminalization and the medicinal usage of marijuana is gaining increasing support in Mexican civil society. “The Church is for the defense of life and if marijuana has properties that can sustain life, we are all for it,” Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the nation’s most powerful prelate, told reporters after Mass one recent Sunday in the Metropolitan Cathedral here. Carlos Fuentes, the country’s premier novelist, and Nobelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, both advocate the legalization of all drugs as the only way to combat international drug trafficking and the wholesale corruption of government officials it produces. “Drugs should be a problem for the doctors, not the police,” opines Jorge Hernandez, lead singer with the mega-popular “Los Tigres del Norte,” whose “narco-corridos” (drug ballads) are now banned from radio air play in northern border states.

Now a new political party, “Mexico Possible,” has incorporated legalization into its platform. “Legalization would take the profit out of drugs and that means less crime and less violence,” proselytizes Party president Patricia Mercado, pledging to introduce a measure to that effect if Mexico Possible wins seats in the new congress.

Cultural historians point out that one of the first public personages to push for legalization of marijuana was the iconic master artist Diego Rivera who back in the 1920s, as president of the Painters and Sculptors Union, revamped the by-laws to require the smoking of marijuana for visual enhancement. Recent legislative attempts by the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to decriminalize possession however, have been shouted down on the floor of congress by Fox’s right-wing PAN as being the pipedream of “a bunch of pacheucos” (potsmokers.)

Although cannabis is popularly conceived of as being a native plant, it was actually brought to the Americas by the Conquistadores — the first shipload of “canano” (hemp seed) sailed into Veracruz harbor in 1532. The plant’s smokeable properties were not widely known. French-style “hashish” clubs, modeled on such gathering places for intellectuals popular in Paris, gained some adherents in Mexico City in the 19th century, according to marijuana historian Juan Garcia Vallejo, author of “The Pacheuco Manifesto.”

But marijuana use was largely identified with poor, and often Indian farmers or “campesinos.” Indians indeed still include marijuana in their native pharmaceutica — the Purepechas of Michoacan use a tincture of “acheta” to combat arthritis, and such tinctures are described in early Mexican pharmaceutical encyclopedias.

Because marijuana use was largely confined to the poor and the criminal classes, the drug was demonized in respectable society. When Villa’s ragtag revolutionary army sang about not having enough marijuana to march, “la gente bonita” shuddered. Reefer madness-style scare stories (“Marijuana Zombie Killers”) still permeate media coverage of drug use. Drug stories are often overlaid with spooky music and nightmare images of bad trips. No distinction is made between marijuana and hard drugs.

Similarly, the few drug education programs offered in the nation’s primary and secondary schools make no distinction between hard and soft drugs. Such programs are now utilizing a “Parents’ Guide to Drugs” pamphlet prepared by the Vamos Mexico Foundation headed by Marta de Fox, the nation’s hyper-active First Lady whose emotional crusade against drugs stirs memories of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

The last survey of addictions conducted by the Secretary of Public Health in 1998, indicated that 2% of the population, a little less than 2,000,000 citizens, have smoked marijuana at least once — but anecdotal evidence gathered at Mexico rock and blues concerts suggests that this census grossly undercounts pot users. Mexican youth culture, from the “chavas bandas” (working class youth gangs) to the “juniors” of upscale San Angel, is saturated with drug use.

While “forjando un chubi” (“busting a spliff”) is ubiquitous, marijuana use is not growing at the same rate as harder “export” drugs like cocaine, crack, heroin, crystal meth, and Ecstasy, all of which are destined for the US market. But as the northern border has slammed shut under the pretext of terrorist threat, these export drugs stay in Mexico longer and inevitably leak out into the street. Whether by conscious design or natural consequence, tough US enforcement translates to big headaches for Mexican authorities.

If cocaine and heroin production and distribution is controlled by Colombian-Mexican cartels, marijuana, bulky to transport with uninviting profit margins, is increasingly the province of freelancers. In fact, Mexican marijuana, often of inferior quality, no longer commands a price north of the border where US homegrown now accounts for 60% of the 15,000 tons gringos smoke each year.

Mexican pot growers are also challenged by Canada’s emerging marijuana industry, particularly in British Colombia. Confiscations on that border boomed twenty fold between 2001 and last year to 20,000 pounds. Lovingly nurtured buds grown in the Canadian Pacific now constitute a $4 to $8 billion a year business, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 

Canada, the US’s other NAFTA partner, is giving Washington drug fighters the heebie jeebies. Vancouver just opened the first safe and legal “shooting gallery” for intravenous drug users in North America, appropriately enough on that port city’s notoriously seedy east side. Vancouver also now features cafes that offer hashish and cannabis much like Amsterdam’s celebrated coffee shops. 

This May, a decrim measure backed by outgoing prime minister Jean Cretien and his three most likely Liberal Party successors, handily passed the Canadian Parliament. While the law does make smoking pot equivalent to a traffic citation, it also doubles penalties for growers to 14 years. Nonetheless, passage of the reform bill infuriated US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge who threatened to lock down the Canadian border (three times the length of the US southern border) a la Mexicana.

As North America moves towards legalization of marijuana, the Bush administration under the baton of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, has declared Jihad on the Demon Weed and its admirers. Doctors who prescribe the herb for patients in the dozen states that have passed voter-sponsored medicinal marijuana laws, are threatened with long prison sentences, federal agents kick down the doors of non-profit marijuana buying clubs, and wheelchair-bound patients who depend on pot to combat pain, are rolled off to the penitentiary.

Despite the strident patriotism of Bush’s Terror War, one White House drug strategy that has not had much scratch with the smoking public is linking pot to terrorism. Despite full page scare ads in the New York Times accusing pot users of subsidizing terrorists through “dime bag” marijuana buys, US smokers know full well that the herb upon which they puff was probably grown in an American backyard and not by Osama Bin Laden.

The recent show trial of marijuana guru Ed Rosenthal (“The Big Book of Buds”), busted by the Feds for growing medicinal pot on contract with an Oakland, California, city-run provider program, is one more measure of Bush-Ashcroft desperation. Rosenthal, who could have been sentenced to 60 years for fulfilling his legal contractual obligations, instead received one day jail time which was canceled by time served. One local newspaper reported that the pungent odor of marijuana could be detected in the courthouse hallways during the sentencing.

With perhaps 50 million citizens in the three NAFTA nations merrily smoking away night and day, the Bush-Ashcroft war against marijuana is clearly a lost cause.

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