On a New Year’s tour of Cuba, my wife and I visited Ché Guevara’s mausoleum and monument in Santa Clara, where his pipe is prominently displayed. I was reminded that years ago Dr. Richard Miller told me he had smoked marijuana with Che. Dr. Miller, a Ft. Bragg resident, is a clinical psychologist, founder and director of the Cokenders Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program, owner of the Wilbur Hot Springs Health Sanctuary, and host of the KZYX radio show, “Mind, Body, Health & Politics.”
Upon returning to California I phoned Dr. Miller to get the details of his toking with Che. He said, for the record:
"I was working in psychological research as an undergrad assistant with Dr. Raymond B Cattell, at the University of Illinois. It was the spring of 1959.
"As an idealistic student I decided, with some friends, to join Fidel, his brother Raoul, Che and the revolution against the dictator Batista.
“We flew to Havana, where the revolutionary leaders were surprisingly easy to get a hold of. We were brought to them in the Hotel Nacional. Fidel, Raoul, Che and many others were there.
"I started talking with Che mostly in English.
"At one point he said to me: 'You know what I did before this don't you? I was a medical doctor. Well, I am telling you, go back to school and get your doctorate and then become a revolutionary.’
"There were people everywhere in the room. It was chaos. Che took a checkbook from his pocket and told me it was for the Cuban treasury.*
"As we were talking, a young guy came along and passed a joint to Che. Che took a puff and passed it to me. We passed the joint around a few times. There were three of us. I got buzzed.
"I shook hands with Che and Fidel, looked at some bullet holes on the wall of the room and was escorted out. We were taken to a cock fight by some young revolutionary soldiers and then left alone. I still have a photo taken at the cock fight.
"I followed Che’s advice, went back to school and got my doctorate. My revolutionary activity has been within my field of clinical psychology and in the war against minority people mistakenly referred to as the war on drugs”.
(*Che was the Castro government’s first Secretary of the Treasury.)
Miller’s recollection raises some intriguing questions. How much marijuana did Che use, and when? He had asthma, and marijuana can relieve asthma attacks by dilating the passageways of the lungs. Whether or not Che got medical benefits from pot is unknown.
Che was famous for smoking cigars and tobacco (which couldn’t have helped his asthma). His image is ubiquitous on cigar cases, T-shirts and other souvenirs in Cuba. Here in the States, his image even appears on bongs, grinders, graffiti, and T-shirts as a revolutionary symbol of marijuana. One typical T-shirt features him smoking a joint with the slogan, “Viva la Cannabis.”
But Che’s revolution never tried to liberate marijuana. On the contrary, Castro moved quickly to clamp down on the drug trade that had flourished under Batista’s regime. Tough new anti-narcotics laws were enacted. Drug users were sent to re-education camps. Cuba’s marijuana laws remain among the toughest in the hemisphere today, with prison sentences for simple possession. Official Cuban propaganda still portrays marijuana as a deadly narcotic. Travelers to Cuba are strictly warned not to bring illegal drugs, though we spoke to two Canadian tourists who said they were offered marijuana for $60 a gram (!). Tobacco remains one of Cuba’s leading exports today, but most Cubans have no awareness of marijuana.
As for Che, to the end he was devoted to his tobacco pipe, carrying it with him on his guerrilla campaigns to the Congo and Bolivia.
“One has a right to smoke, even just a quiet and pleasant-tasting pipe, don’t you think?” he wrote to his wife, Aleida March.
Cuba is one of the few countries where smoking is allowed in restaurants and other establishments at the owner’s discretion. But don’t try lighting up a joint there. Call it a contradiction of the revolution.