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Unrealistically high hopes

23 July 2013

Mexico’s prohibition of pot actually came in 1920, a full 17 years before the U.S. federal government pot crackdown started (with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937). And while there may have been a class dimension to the movement against marijuana in Mexico, Campos suggests, people were banning the drug because they were seriously freaked out about what it could do.


We have a fairly low-resolution understanding of what “marijuana use” looked like in Mexico and the U.S. at the turn of the century — how much people consumed, how they ingested it, what substances it might have been combined with. Someone smoking a joint packed half with tobacco and half with cannabis indica (the version of the drug that typically produces a sedentary, mellow high) would have had a very different experience than someone who’s drinking the Mexican liquor pulque and eating something laced with cannabis sativa (the version of the drug likelier to produce anxiety).

Matt Thompson, “The Mysterious History of Marijuana” NPR Code Switch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity 22 July 2013


From a political cartoon… even the “left” sees marijuana legalization — and/or Vicente Fox — as ridiculous.

Several people in the U.S. have recently been … er… buzzed … about a statement by ex-President Fox to the effect that he expected Mexico to legalize marijuana production within the next few years.  Leaving aside the low opinion in which Fox is held by the Mexican media (having come out against his own party in the last presidential election, and — despite having left office with historically low approval ratings — his claim that his presidency was the best in Mexican history, isolated him for Mexican opinion makers, long before his partnership with a U.S. would-be marijuana mogul made him a comedic figure), and Fox’s obvious wishful thinking (his family business is exporting agricultural crops to the United States), I doubt there is much interest in legalizing marijuana here.

What is said in the U.S. media (and by commentators on U.S. sites) is based on the mistaken premise that what benefits the consumer benefits the supplier.  Usually, one reads that the end of liquor prohibition in the United States having ended criminal violence in the liquor supply industry, it follows that an end to marijuana prohibition would end criminal violence in the Mexican supply industry.  First off, the end of liquor prohibition might have created some new direct markets for some agricultural products like wheat, corn and grapes … but they were already legal.   I don’t see that the clandestine liquor trade had much effect on agriculture in general:  Al Capone was never an investor in farmland, nor was he driving farmers off their land to protect his supplies of basic commodities.

I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York — wine country — so I suppose (or, rather senecal winery 6_0know for a fact) that some of our rural gentry were involved in providing grapes they knew were being used for illegal products, so I suppose there is some validity to the argument that if marijuana farming (and export) were legal, this might benefit some Mexican farmers… and agricultural exporters like Vicente Fox.

However, the marijuana farms here are run by our Al Capones.  In the 8 August 2012 “News Alert” from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, we read:

According to local authorities, up to 2,300 families have been displaced from the mountainous area in the Pacific-coast State of Sinaloa, known as the Sierra de Sinaloa.  Families have not only fled from confrontations between two cartels, the  Cartel de Sinaloa and the Beltrán Leyva Organization, but also from extortion, kidnappings and threats.  They have sought refuge in more populated municipalities, including Mazatlán, where many have settled on empty plots of land without water or sewer systems, with authorities becoming overwhelmed by the arrival of displaced people.

Does anyone really believe gangsters are just going to hand back land to displaced persons (and this is only one instance from one state) … or that these mostly subsistence farmers are going to just accept that they’ve been driven out of their homes to make way for somebody else’s investment in foreign exports?

While we read occasionally in the local media about farm workers having been murdered at

"Clandestine" marijuana field in Baja Calfornia.  Photo:  BBC

“Clandestine” marijuana field in Baja Calfornia. Photo: BBC

the end of the marijuana harvest, and legal growing would (presumably) end that particular labor violation, clandestine marijuana growers already operate on an agro-industrial scale and legalized commercial production would not be possible without displacing small landholders, or forcing (convincing, coercing, bribing or threatening) local farmers to grow marijuana for commercial exporters.

The “libertarians” north of the border have this fantasy that the grand-children of someone like Chapo Guzmán will be wealthy business people who sometimes whisper about the misdeeds of their ancestor. Not bloody likely. While I can see that legalization — of growing and exporting — might cut into some criminal profits, and maybe it would be possible to legitimize some of those gangsters (which perhaps would not be moral, but could presumably be justified as a means of bringing down the violence) … what evidence is there that criminals are just going to give up a life of crime, and not practice their trade in a different venue? And that the “intellectual authors” of the narcotics trade (i.e., U.S. and European bankers) are going to stop financing a profit center like international crime?

We are told that crime dropped after the end of liquor prohibition in the United States, but that was merely the incidental violence associated with the retail end of the supply chain, which had nothing to do with the acquisition of raw materials. There are huge environmental problems with monoculture (especially of crops that require a lot of water, like marijuana, especially in countries where there is a water shortage now,like Mexico), which OUGHT to be criminal, but that’s another issue.

Crime — and violence (perhaps not as splashy) — won’t disappear with a wave of some magic imageswand of legalization by the the “invisible hand” of the marketplace.  I can’t name one luxury (or quasi-luxury) agricultural product in history that hasn’t depended on human rights abuses (and as often as not basic criminality): the history of sugar, coffee, bananas and palm oil… just to name a few… is the history of slavery, peonage, murder, extortion and theft. As I pointed out once before, what makes the distribution end of the commodities trade “respectable” is that it is in the hands of “first worlders”… and I expect that marijuana growing and export would be in the hands, not of the Mexicans now in the business, but under foreign economic control… with perhaps the former industry leaders (aka gangsters) reduced to the role of “enforcers” of the rules under which such commodities are produced… i.e., peonage, murder, extortion, etc.

And all for… as I’ve been hinting… an export crop.   Matt Thompson’s little introduction to the history of marijuana prohibition is well worth reading (and even better are his links to some solid academic writing) not so much for the “whys” of prohibition, but that “wheres”.

There’s different types of marijuana and different cultural attitudes towards its use. I wasn’t aware that prohibition here goes back to the Porfiriate, but it makes sense. As Thompson hints, there are logical cultural reasons, which may have to do with 19th century class biases, on why marijuana has been illegal here longer than in the United States, but what he misses — or only hints at — is that today there is very little sympathy or support for legalization, or even use. Not having any interest in smoking marijuana (I’m weird that way for a gringo, I suppose), I suppose it was fairly easy for me to adopt the generic Mexican middle-class attitude that marijuana smoking is, at best, cursí… tacky.

Class biases, maybe.. but the fact is marijuana smoking isn’t tolerated. When I lived in Mexico City, I was somewhat taken aback when the smell of marijuana wafting out of a marijuana MEXICO poster-thumb-300x453workshop down the street so upset one neighbor that he whipped out his cell-phone to call the police. I thought he might just be a particularly puritanical sort, but have come to accept that’s the general attitude. I was somewhat amused by the college kids downstairs from me (someplace in Mexico… perhaps their relations read this site) who went to all kinds of trouble to avoid even tolerant, decadent gringos like myself, from even smelling the joint (singular) they smoked one (and only one) evening. Seriously, whatever the roots of it, marijuana USE in Mexico is considered the province of the decadent rich, the wannabe gringos and social deviants.

I saw that Uruguay is about to reluctantly implement a state project to grow their own. But that is because Uruguay is a consumer nation. While Uruguay’s marijuana-user population is quite small (about eight percent of the country) compared to that of the United States (about a third to a half of the population), it wants to deal with the criminal issues that come with usage. Mexico’s issues are completely different…the percentage of marijuana smokers is about two percent of the general population… and since there is no real political or social interest in legalization beyond what already is in the law (a small amount for personal use), and a cultural bias against marijuana use, those who think we’re going to legalize the crop and start supplying the U.S. are blowing smoke.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. roberb7 permalink
    23 July 2013 4:06 pm

    Lots of good points here, and I’ll offer this. I thought that the idea behind pot legalization was that it would be grown in Oregon, Colorado, etc.

    I can’t see how this would help Mexico. If the marijuana growers in Mexico see a reduction in demand for their exports, they will either export it somewhere else or (more likely) switch to a different product, such as opium or coca. Or crystal meth, which is not an agricultural product.

    • 23 July 2013 5:25 pm

      Coca would be a trans-shipment. Wrong kind of soil and climate for it here.

  2. 26 July 2013 11:12 am

    Reblogged this on 4:20 Smokers Blog.

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