Historian Isaac Campos combines wide-ranging archival research with the latest scholarship on the social and cultural dimensions of drug-related behavior in this telling of marijuana’s remarkable history in Mexico. Introduced in the sixteenth century by the Spanish, cannabis came to Mexico as an industrial fiber and symbol of European empire. But, Campos demonstrates, as it gradually spread to indigenous pharmacopoeias, then prisons and soldiers’ barracks, it took on both a Mexican name—marijuana—and identity as a quintessentially “Mexican” drug. A century ago, Mexicans believed that marijuana could instantly trigger madness and violence in its users, and the drug was outlawed nationwide in 1920. Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs is an indispensable guide for anyone who hopes to understand the deep and complex origins of marijuana’s controversial place in North American history.

In case you missed it: be sure to read Campos’s recent guest post, “Today’s Synthetic Drugs Provoking New Reefer Madness”. Listen to the podcast of his recent radio appearance on WVXU’s “Cincinnati Edition.” (Campos appears around the 32:15 mark.)

The following excerpt is the Introduction from Home Grown (pp. 1-5):


This story begins with a little-known Spaniard who, in the sixteenth century, introduced a plant called cannabis to the Americas. It ends with Mexico’s prohibition of that plant, by then called “marihuana,” in 1920. There is a lot of ground to cover in between. Thus, I would like to begin, by way of introduction, with a brief outline of the plot.

Around the year 1530, a conquistador named Pedro Quadrado left his small village near Seville and traveled to the New World. After actively participating in the ongoing conquest of Mexico, Quadrado received a coveted encomienda, or royal tribute and labor grant, to undertake the cultivation of cannabis there. He thus became the first person to cultivate this species in the Americas.[1] That, anyway, is what he himself claimed, and probably with justification, for it was not until June 1545 that the Spanish Crown first ordered its subjects to sow cannabis in the New World.[2] For the Spanish, cannabis was first and foremost a fiber plant. They called it cáñamo. Tall, green, and gangly, of round seeds and “abominable smell,” this was an extraordinarily common cultivar whose strong fibers, or hemp, made clothing, rope, and the broad and sturdy sails that powered the greatest sea-borne empire the world had ever known.[3] Thus began the long journey of cannabis through Mexican history, one that would eventually see its meaning and identity radically transformed.

The first signs of that transformation appeared in the 1770s. By then, cannabis had found its way into local medical-religious practice, and its seeds and leaves were sold by herb dealers under the name pipiltzintzintlis, or “the most noble princes.” Though still cherished by Spanish officials as an industrial fiber, there were growing rumors that, for Indians, it also facilitated visions, communion with the devil, and sometimes madness. Prohibitionist edicts briefly raised the profile of these noble princes, but the name pipiltzintzintlis would soon fade into obscurity, as would (temporarily) the drug use of cannabis in Mexico.

Illustration of cannabis from the <em>Vienna Dioscurides</em>. (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustration of cannabis from the Vienna Dioscurides. (Wikimedia Commons)

A new generation of nationalist botanists would rediscover cannabis drugs during the 1850s. These men became interested in cataloging Mexico’s “indigenous” natural wonders, and in the process they noted that “certain Mexicans” had begun smoking the stuff. The word pipiltzintzintlis was no longer in use, but two other local designations, both of which helped to reinforce the plant’s apparent indigeneity, had emerged: rosa maría and mariguana. The former would also soon disappear, leaving the world mariguana, or marihuana—or as it is now spelled in English, “marijuana”—to conquer the lexica of most of the Western Hemisphere.

Though these nationalist botanists saw potential value in this “local” drug plant, their writings would soon be overwhelmed by the view that this was a quintessentially indigenous “narcotic” causing madness, violence, and mayhem. In 1886, for example, a Mexican medical student delivered a thesis in the field of legal medicine on marijuana and the insanity defense, concluding that “the criminal responsibility of an individual in a state of acute marijuana intoxication should be exactly the same as that of the maniac,” namely none. By 1989, Mexico City’s leading daily could claim that “for years the press has described horrifying crimes, criminal eccentricities and suicides, which place before the court of public opinion individuals whose type oscillates between furious madmen and criminals worthy of being placed before the firing squad, and one after another cases demonstrates that the murderer, the rapist, the insubordinate, the presumed suicide, and the scandalous acted under the influence of marihuana.”[4]

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundreds of newspaper stories described marijuana’s effects in a similar fashion. The following report was typical:


Yesterday on Chapultepec Avenue, around six in the afternoon, there occurred a major scandal.

The cause of the disorder was a cocky tough-guy [valentón] who was stoned [grifo] thanks to the influence of marihuana and who insulted all the passersby.

Two gendarmes attempted to reduce him to order and he attacked them with his knife, causing them significant injuries. The injured gendarmes were backed up by a pair of mounted police and another on foot.

The scandal then took on colossal proportions, for it became very difficult to disarm the marihuano.

When they finally reduced him to order, they took him to the Eighth Demarcation and confined him to a cell, it being necessary to hold him down with a straitjacket.[5]

Descriptions like this one of marijuana’s effects not only were standard during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but also went virtually unchallenged. As I demonstrate in chapter 4, a close analysis of more than four hundred Mexican newspaper articles—drawn from over a dozen publications, both liberal and conservative, an all describing the effects of marijuana—reveals that not a single article questioned this basic stereotype. Given that these papers were published in an environment of significant media competition and that they routinely lambasted each other for untruths and sensationalism, this unblemished record is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, there is evidence that lower-class Mexicans, most of whom were illiterate, were equally convinced of marijuana’s frightening effects. As one commentator revealed in 1908: “The horror that this plant inspires has reached such an extreme that when the common people . . . see even just a single plant, they feel as if in the presence of a demonic spirit. Women and children run frightened and they make the sign of the cross simply upon hearing its name.”[6]

Originally an industrial fiber symbolizing European imperial expansion, cannabis had been transformed by the dawn of the twentieth century into a quintessentially indigenous, and putatively dangerous, Mexican drug plant. Thus, in 1920, after labeling marijuana a threat to “degenerate the race,” Mexican sanitary authorities banned the drug nationwide, seventeen years prior to similar legislation in the United States.[7]

For those readers familiar with the existing historical and social scientific scholarship on drugs in North America, much of this may come as a surprise. The War on Drugs is routinely described as “America’s War on Drugs” and the drug problem as an “American disease,” where “America” means the United States and the rest of the Americas have been cajoled or forced into cooperating.[8] Global drug prohibition has recently been portrayed as a kind of informal American cultural colonization,” while Latin America has been identified as a place where, prior to U.S. involvement, substances like marijuana and peyote were an accepted part of “Indian and Latin American culture.”[9]

The problem is not that historians have looked deeply at the origins of drug prohibition in Latin American and gotten it all wrong. The problem is that historians simply have not looked deeply at the origins of drug prohibition in Latin America. Not a single monograph exists, for example, on the birth of these policies in Mexico.[10] This is a remarkable fact given the tremendous political, social, and economic costs that the War on Drugs has produced in that country over the last century. Drug prohibition is the sine qua non of the War on Drugs. Without prohibition, there is no black market, and without a black market, there are no “narcotraffickers” to demonize, no illicit drug users to incarcerate, and no national security threat to declare.[11] That is why scholars who date the War on Drugs to Richard Nixon’s formal declaration of that “war” in 1971, or to the Reagan-era militarization of the conflict, are missing the forest for the trees.[12] Nixon merely intensified an anti-drug crusade that formally began at the federal level in the United States (and Mexico) in the early twentieth century. Certainly that “war” became more militarized in the late 1980s, but neither was this completely new. Mexico’s military, for example, has been eradicating drugs intended for the U.S. market since the late 1930s.[13] In sum, the origins of the War on Drugs lie in the legal and ideological roots of prohibition. With respect to marijuana in North America, those origins have their deepest roots in Mexico.

Marijuana also provides a simply fascinating case study for U.S.-based historians interested in the ideological foundations of drug prohibition. It is a substance whose inclusion among “Schedule 1” drugs in the United States is often cited as a fanatical excess of extremist drug warriors, an unscientific designation proving that politics, not rationality, drives the War on Drugs.[14] It is a compelling argument. After all, there is not a single death on record that can be attributed to overindulgence in marijuana, while serious research has long demonstrated that alcohol and tobacco are generally more habit-forming and unhealthy for their users than is cannabis.[15]

Yet despite today’s typical view of marijuana as a “soft” drug in comparison to, say, the opiates and cocaine, Mexicans of a century ago believed it to be perhaps the “hardest” drug of them all, one that triggered sudden paroxysms and delirious violence. Could marijuana really have produced these effects? And, whatever the answer, what was it about the historical circumstances of the day that made such descriptions so eminently believable? How is it possible that not a single newspaper or scientific source seriously challenged their veracity? Finally, how did the radical transformation of cannabis’s meaning occur in Mexico between the sixteenth and twentieth century? Where in the plant’s long journey through Mexican history did these changes occur?

These are the questions around which [Home Grown] is organized. By answering them, I hope to better explain marijuana’s prohibition in Mexico, itself a key to understanding the origins of the War on Drugs in that country and, to a certain extent, in North America as a whole. Ultimately, the evidence will demonstrate that marijuana prohibition can only be described as a kind of “informal American cultural colonization” if one takes the radical step of considering Mexico as worthy of the “America” label as its powerful neighbor, for in this case the influence mostly flowed northward. Marijuana’s prohibition in Mexico was, in short, home grown.


From Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, by Isaac Campos. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Isaac Campos is assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. Follow him on Twitter @isaac_campos.

  1. [1]Icaza, Conquistadores y pobladores, 1:114.
  2. [2]Recopilación de leyes de los reynos de las Indias (1973), 117.
  3. [3]Diccionario de la lengua española (1729), http://buscon.rae.es/ntlle/SrvltGUIMenuNtlle?cmd=Lema&sec= (June 7, 2011).
  4. [4]Pérez, “La marihuana,” 57, 58. “La marihuana y la criminalidad,” El Imparcial, July 23, 1898, 1.
  5. [5]El País, Mar. 30, 1909, 5.
  6. [6]José del Moral, Oct. 27, 1908, c. 0729, exp. 128284, Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal, Archivo General de la Nación, México, D.F.
  7. [7]Departamento de Salubridad Pública, “Disposiciones sobre el cultivo y comercio de productos.”
  8. [8]Benavie, Drugs; Duke and Gross, America’s Longest War; Weir, In the Shadow of the Dope Fiend; Musto, American Disease; Gerber and Jensen, “Internationalization of U.S. Policy,” 1-2; Friman, Narcodiplomacy, 4. Britain too has received a significant amount of credit/blame for early international drug control efforts. See McAllister, Drug Diplomacy; A. Taylor, American Diplomacy and the Narcotics Traffic; and Lowes, Genesis of International Narcotics Control. There is no doubt that at particular moments, the United States has come to exert enormous pressure on Mexico to fight drugs in a particular fashion. However, a lack of research into Mexico’s early history with drugs and prohibition has led scholars to assume that such pressure must have been the key from the beginning. See, for example, Toro, Mexico’s “War” on Drugs, 6-8; Astorga, Drogas sin fronteras, 353; and G. González, “The Drug Connection,” 2. For the view that, along with U.S. pressure, increasing drug abuse inspired prohibition in Mexico, see Martínez Cortés and Martínez Barbosa, Del Consejo Superior, 231-32. See also Valero Palacios, “Formación,” 24; and Gutiérrez Ramos, “La prohibicion,” 38. Ricardo Pérez Montfort argues that “international pressures and tendencies” combined with the self-interest of Mexican politicians to produce drug prohibition there. See his “Fragmentos de historia de las ‘drogas’ en México,” 163. Richard Craig argues that U.S. pressure was “belated” since “unofficial Mexican efforts against illicit opium cultivation began early in [the twentieth century].” See his “U.S. Narcotics Policy,” 72. William Walker argues that at the turn of the twentieth century, “the attitude toward antidrug activity in the United States was far different from that in Latin America,” but that by the 1920s, Mexico’s leaders were as opposed to drug use as those in the United States, thanks largely to increased drug use there. See his Drug Control in the Americas, 1-2, 48-49, 59.
  9. [9]Davenport-Hines, Pursuit of Oblivion, xi-xii; Walker, Drug Control in the Americas, 1-2. Marijuana has also been portrayed as a “casual adjunct to life” within Mexican immigrant communities in the United States during the early twentieth century. See Bonnie and Whitebread, Marihuana Conviction, 33-34. See also Musto, American Disease, 218. Miguel Ruiz-Cabañas has argued that in the first decades of the twentieth century, marijuana was understood in Mexico “more as as useful substance with medical and other applications than as a drug.” See his “Mexico’s Changing Illicit Drug Supply Role,” 47.
  10. [10]A number of shorter or broader works that deal in some way with the topic do exist. See Pérez Montfort, “Fragmentos de historia de las ‘drogas’ en México”; Astorga, El siglo de las drogas; González and Tienda, Drug Connection; Toro, Mexico’s “War” on Drugs; Astorga, Drogas sin fronteras; Walker, Drug Control in the Americas; Valero Palacios, “Formación”; Gutiérrez Ramos, “La prohibición”; and Martínez Cortés and Martínez Barbosa, Del Consejo Superior.
  11. [11]The best book on the prohibitionist foundations of the War on Drugs is Bertram et al., Drug War Politics. For an economist’s case against drug prohibition, see Benavie, Drugs.
  12. [12]The two moments most commonly cited for the declaration of the War on Drugs are a June 1971 speech by Richard Nixon and an October 1982 speech by Ronald Reagan. See Wisotsky, Beyond the War on Drugs, 3. Other dates have been cited, including 1969 and 1986. For 1969, see Tony Payan, Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars, 23. For 1986, see Denq and Wang, “The War on Drugs in Taiwan,” 149. Preston Peet points out that Nixon did not actually utter the phrase “war on drugs” but merely declared narcotics to be “public enemy #1.” Under the Influence, 244. In fact, if one cares to pursue that decidedly pedantic approach to the question, the phrase “war on drugs” or “drug war” can be found in sources dating back to the early twentieth century. See, for example, “Labor Secretarty Backs New War on Drug Traffic,” New York Times, Jan. 10, 1923, 1; “Our War on Drugs Told,” New York Times, June 14, 1926, 5; and “President Launches Drive on Narcotics,” New York Times, Nov. 28, 1954, 1. This final article notes that “President Eisenhower called today for a new war on narcotic addiction.” In 1926, the Times reported that Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles had made a similar declaration. “Calles Declares Drug War,” New York Times, Feb. 7, 1925, 3.
  13. [13]Astorga, Drogas sin fronteras, 355.
  14. [14]A “Schedule 1” drug is defined in the following terms: “(A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse. (B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. (C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” See http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode21/usc_sec_21_00000812—000.html (June 7, 2011).
  15. [15]For an excellent and dispassionate survey of the scientific research on cannabis, see Earleywine, Understanding Marijuana. The designation also fails in the face of twenty-first-century common sense, when many, if not most, Americans have either used or known users of the drug. These facts have inspired a significant popular literature on the subject complete with conspiracy theories to explain marijuana’s prohibition in the United States. The most famous of such works in Herer, Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy. For a more academic investigation into some of Herer’s claims, see Lupien, Unraveling an American Dilemma.