On January 5, 1940 Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas did something truly revolutionary for his time: he decriminalised the sale and purchase of small amounts of drugs, including cannabis. Here we tell you how it happened.
On March 5 the Mexican Senate made a historic decision: to decriminalise the recreational use of cannabis in the country, upon a proposal by the Secretary of Tourism. The definitive decriminalisation of the plant came three years after the approval of its medicinal use.
One moment. Did we say "historic?" In reality, the measure came 80 years late, as in 1940 Mexico became the first country in the world to legalise not only cannabis, but other drugs, and to dispense them at public establishments across the country. Unfortunately, the measure remained in effect for only a few months, as pressure from the United States spurred the Mexican government to re-impose prohibitionist legislation, thereby aborting a bold and innovative approach to the ever-thorny "drug problem."
The champion of the Federal Drug Addiction Regulation was President Lázaro Cárdenas, who took advantage of his last year in office, 1940, to decriminalise the consumption, possession and sale of drugs, as we can read on the website of the Government of Mexico itself.
What is truly innovative about the aforementioned regulation is that recreational drug users –including those of marijuana- were no longer considered criminals, but rather patients: "Attract the addict - instead of pursuing him - register and provide him with medical and psychological treatment (...) this will constitute a fundamental way to combat addiction".
In line with this revolutionary approach, the state monopolised the sale of drugs, and illicit trafficking continued to be prosecuted by law. This is a strategy similar to the one implemented by Uruguay in 2014, where the State became the sole grower and dispenser of cannabis.
Under the implementation of the Federal Drug Addiction Regulation, dispensaries were opened, run by the Department of Public Health, and whose charge was to provide doses, as treatments, for people who were dependent on different psychoactive substances. The first of these dispensaries was located in Mexico City.
The Cárdenas government's innovative measure was received with reluctance by the press and the public at the time, which feared a wave of crime by reducing the price of drugs and increasing their quality. The ensuing reality, however, was very different: prices fell, traffickers in Mexico City sank, and consumption did not increase, as historians of the time recorded.
The American "Friend"
The Federal Drug Addiction Regulation was only in force for six months, due to the strong pressure that the Mexican government received from the US government; specifically from "drug czar" Harry J. Anslinger , the first commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Office (the forerunner of the DEA), and one of the most reactionary and influential advocates for prohibition.
"Although Mexico presented its position before the League of Nations in 1939, and was supported by some countries, the Mexican initiative was harshly criticised by Anslinger, who fiercely opposed it," says the aforementioned Government of Mexico article.
It is no coincidence that the prohibition of cannabis in the United States came in the 1930s, at the height of a wave of immigration into the northern country by Mexican workers. The United States enacted the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, and placed Mexicans –heavy consumers of "weed"– in the crosshairs of prohibitionist legislation. In this regard, as Antonio Escohotado points out in his General History of Drugs, the prohibition of cannabis featured a clearly racist undertone.
The Rise and Fall of Cannabis in Mexico
Cannabis was actually brought by the Spanish conquerors to Mexico. Its medicinal use was relatively widespread during the era of the "viceroyalty". After independence, in 1821, the plant began to be smoked as a lucidity-inducing substance.
In the mid 19th century, however, it came to be perceived as something evil and dangerous. As the writer Jorge García Robles points out in the magazine Milenio, marijuana was "included in the catalogue of the nation's enemies as one of the worst threats to health. "Unexpectedly, and without any apparent trigger, Mexico was converted –long before the United States– into the first country to ban cannabis.
"Cannabis is evil, malefic, dark and sinister, it kills, it annihilates, it devours, it grabs and shakes people and hurls their bodies into the smoking cauldrons of hell!"
Mexico was a pioneer in prohibition and, a century later, also a pioneer in the legalisation of cannabis. Lázaro Cárdenas's reformist initiative slumbered for 80 years and, finally, Mexicans can once again smoke their beloved "weed" without feeling like criminals.