This article first appeared in Milenio on 6 April 2014 bearing the title, “Prohibir las drogas, herencia Carrancista.” It has been translated without permission by the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).
– President Venustiano Carranza’s personal physician proposed prohibition.
Mexico City.— Carranza’s presidency (1917 – 1920) provides evidence of the roots of drug prohibition in Mexico, arising from discussions during the 1917 Constitutional Congress in Querétaro. On the night of 18 January 1917, doctor José María C. Rodríguez, Venustiano Carranza’s physician, spoke in front of the Congress’s exhausted deputies, demanding “despotic” powers to initiate a social health program to eradicate dirtiness, alcohol and drugs from Mexico. And in that order. General Rodríguez read a long speech to convince deputies that Mexico’s national health depended on a General Health Department for the Republic. This agency should answer only to the President and nobody else, giving it far-reaching, even despotic power over Mexico’s states.
The basis of Rodríguez’s argument was that the nation’s hygiene demanded improvement consonant with U.S. and European standards. Mexico’s lack of hygiene, alcoholism, its intoxicating drugs and poverty had caused illness weakening the country: “For these reasons, from today onward the nation needs the current government to intervene, even despotically, into individual and collective hygiene.”
His high-handed ideas – some might prefer the adjective enlightened – revealed racism toward Indians, and were provoked by high rates of mortality and criminality. “Our primitive race is already degenerate and the mestizos are within their reach,” Congressman Rodríguez harangued.
Using questionable statistics he said Mexico City was one of the world’s deadliest places, deadlier than Paris, Vienna, and Berlin combined because of crimes committed by “our usual drunks and our commoners” under the influence of pulque [the slightly fermented juice of the maguey cactus]:
“There you have it, gentlemen. Children weened on pulque grow up poor and become habitual drunks, they then become alcoholic parents, producing degenerate children of inferior intellect, indifferent to social and political concerns, conditioned to criminality and fertile territory for the growth of whatever microorganism provided by Nature.”
For the rest of the day, Congressman Rodríguez did not return to the subject of drugs.
The following day he read his concrete proposal about addiction amending sub-section XVI of Article 73. He included the idea that the regulations and actions against “the sale of substances that poison the race” suggested by the Health Committee must be obligatory and that Congress could sanction them, but only once they were consumed. In his list of these substances he included opium, morphine, ether, cocaine and marijuana. He proposed that health authorities limit “commercial freedom for all these products.”
Congressman David Pastrana Jaimes of Puebla was the only person who spoke against the initiative: “Because of the broad powers it endows, the initiative can always violate state sovereignty.” Pastrana’s argument was reasonable; however, it was enough for Rodríguez to taunt him so that the criticism had no effect in the Constitutional Congress.
— Where does this congressman come from?
— From Guerrero, where there are no doctors! The Congress answered in unison.
— To me that explains why a Congressman from Guerrero, where medicine is barely known, should protest against health initiatives.
The subject, according to Rodríguez, was not to affect state sovereignty but to avoid racial destruction and degeneration. Rodríguez’s combativeness made Pastrana feel timid, and he answered as best he could in spite of the embarrassment he felt at being a pinto [someone with a skin discolouration that made him immediately identifiable as somebody from Guerrero.]
— Obviously I am a pinto from Guerrero. We don’t have any doctors there and the people shouldn’t die. Why can’t we object to being sent veterinarians? We aren’t horses.
The Congress erupted into sidesplitting laughter. Congressman Eliseo L. Céspedes, representative from Veracruz, tried to pursue Pastrana’s unexpected outburst. The Congress vociferously interrupted him.
— Let’s vote!
Congressman Rubén Martí, from the State of Mexico, spoke in the proposal’s favor. He said that the fight against against alcoholism was more necessary than land redistribution. Why should they give land to vice-ridden degenerate farmers?
With two speakers in favor and two against, the speaker called for a vote, but Congressman José Álvares angrily interrupted him.
— I want to take the floor so that I can correct a fact – Álvarez said.
— Whose? – asked the Congress’s president.
— I want only to say that I willingly cast my vote in favor of this proposal. We are convinced that if Moses’s laws were written in stone, then the Mexican Constitution should be written on two pieces of soap. (Laughter.)
Rodriguez’s proposal was accepted with 143 votes in favor and only three against. However since its administrative departments did not win approval, Congress established a General Health Council charged with going after drug trafficking in Mexico, until 1947 when it went from being a health issue to a police matter.
Without fear of being wrong, I think that during the Revolution the doctors who sought the prohibition of the drug trade never imagined that it would provoke civil wars. They tried to treat it as it should be considered: a health issue. They never wanted the Federal Prosecutor to have power over drugs, a change that has been in effect since 1947. And much less the Army. Neither did they imagine that they were creating the juridical and intellectual bases so that a health issue would become a concern of the police or a matter of national security.
Vital problems need to be rooted in historical analysis. Now that Mexico City’s legislative assembly is discussing new marijuana laws, the least we can do is to distance ourselves from the drama of drug prohibition – Carranza’s sad legacy – and to urge ourselves to:
Author Froylán Enciso is a doctoral candidate in History at the State Univeristy of New York, Stony Brook, a visiting researcher at the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of California in San Diego and a fellow of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @elfroyenciso.