You don’t have to be a ‘pothead’ to enjoy and learn from Isaac Campos’s pioneering and carefully researched inquiry into the special plant-commodity identified botanically as cannabis. Like Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (Penguin, 1985), a history of sugar cane, Campos’s study comprehensively examines the ecological, sociocultural, and political dimensions of the history of human interaction [End Page 103] with a plant. Both sugar cane and cannabis, Old World plants, were introduced to the New World during the age of European conquest and colonial expansion beginning in the sixteenth century. Cannabis directly competed with Mexican native agaves (henequen and maguey) as a source of tough fiber. Like its fibrous competitors, whose root systems were depositories of aguamiel, a liquid that could be fermented and distilled to create pulque, mezcal, and tequila, cannabis was identified and named in sixteenth-century Mexico as a plant whose dried flowers had a narcotic effect when consumed. Since the plant was given a Nahuatl name, pipiltzintzintlis, it was long assumed by Mexicans themselves to be indigenous but, in fact, as Campos discovered and meticulously documents, it was introduced to Mexico around 1530 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Quadardo to be cultivated and commercialized as a source of fiber for clothing, rope, and sails.
Campos narrates the saga of how the psychoactive property of cannabis made it a source of controversy under the assumed name of marijuana that culminated in its 1920 prohibition as a cause of “violence and madness” in the Mexican population (97). Ironically, this illegalization was belied by the fact that marijuana ranked relatively low on a list of substances considered dangerous to public health and well-being in comparison with the variety of alcoholic beverages, including pulque. Moreover, marijuana’s bad reputation was enhanced in public opinion and the media through a muddling of its presumed behavioral effects with those of alcohol abuse.
Campos devotes a substantial part of his book to documenting the fascinating and capricious trajectory of cannabis in Mexican popular and scientific culture, the media, and politics leading to its 1920 relegation and outlaw status. He also focuses on the Mexico-U.S. connection regarding both public policy and marijuana culture. In chapter 6, he exposes a class and ethnic discriminatory element in historical Mexican anti-marijuana discourse related to elitist concerns about the alleged degenerative behavior of the popular classes, especially among prisoners, criminal elements, soldiers, and the indigenous population. The prevailing view, prior to 1920, was that “marijuana was mostly used by Mexico’s most marginal social sectors, but nearly all of the extant sources were produced by a small class of literate elites whose disdain for lower-class illiterate Mexicans was often palpable” (155).
The final three chapters of Campos’s book describe the details of Mexico’s 1920 prohibition of marijuana as the birth of that country’s ‘war on drugs,’ and how it set a precedent for subsequent anti-drug legislation and policy in the United States. The transborder flow of information and misinformation regarding marijuana, including its mistaken categorization as ‘locoweed,’ rather than serving to moderate policy, implausibly favored the forging of a “powerful international prohibitionist alliance between Mexico and the United States” (223) that includes marijuana, despite a current in official Mexican discourse which characterized it as a “relatively innocuous substance” and sought to repeal its prohibition (225).
The crowning irony in this saga is that, despite the prohibition, by the end of the 1930s, Mexican-grown marijuana accounted for most of the supply available to U.S. consumers. In the 1970s, marijuana consumption boomed as did the profits of Mexican drug traffickers. Campos’ analysis enables us to better understand the contradictory ramifications of this process and its ongoing policy implications. [End Page 104]