When Drugs Were Legal in Mexico

We’re pleased to bring Points readers this short historical piece from Froylan Enciso, journalist and doctoral candidate in the Department of History, SUNY-Stony Brook, where he is working on a dissertation that explores the history of drugs in Sinaloa.    A native of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Froy Enciso previously studied international relations at El Colegio de México (1998-2002).  He’s also a dedicated blogger, publishing Fantastic Postcards through the grassroots webpage Nuestra Aparente Rendicion (Our Apparent Surrender).  This short piece, built around an episode of drug legalization by the Mexican government in 1940, was originally published (in Spanish) in Fantastic Postcards; it was translated for Points by Michael Parker-Stainback.  Born in the American South, Michael Parker-Stainback resides in Mexico City, following previous lives in Los Angeles and New York.  Specializing in urban culture and its protagonists, he is the author of Style Map Mexico City and a contributor to the TimeOut Guide to Mexico City.  His monthly column on gay life in Mexico, “Plumas Parker,” appears in the recently launched magazine Central.    

Dolores Estévez Zulueta, aka "Lola la Chata" (1908-1959)

When drugs were legalized in Mexico, Lola la Chata (“Snub-Nose Lola”) was furious. She’d been pushing in Mexico City since, well, forever, but “narcotics” sales on the part of the government, at market rates, messed up the whole racket. Two days after they opened the heroin dispensaries, the junkies stopping buying from her. There was little she could do, except offer loyal customers a pilón—a little extra for free. But it wasn’t enough.  Then the prices fell. So maybe you had to let go of the margins. But business was in the toilet.

That’s when she began to threaten them. In desperation, she followed the junkies around, telling them she’d ordered hits—that she’d kill them if they didn’t buy from her. Nothing seemed to work.

After years of effort, scientific experiments, meetings with lawyers, cops and public-morals committees, a handful of doctors at the Ministry of Health had managed to convince the president that the best way to check the current toxicomanía—a so-called “drug craze”—was legalization.  A state monopoly was to be set up for distributing drugs as well as treating addicts as patients, offering previously illegal substances—seen as a “necessary evil in our civilization”—to users at market prices. Thus on 17 February 1940, the Lázaro Cárdenas administration’s Ministry of Public Health enacted new federal regulations regarding drug addiction, which were duly published in the government’s official gazette. Their rationale was in fact quite eloquent.

Whereas experience has demonstrated that prosecution [of “drug addiction” (toxicomanía) and narcotics trafficking] only apprehends a small number of addicts or, in the short term, drug dealers, who, lacking financial resources, cannot buy impunity; and whereas,

The prosecution of drug addicts as called for in 1931 legislation contravenes conceptions of the justice that is denied those convicted, addiction should be understood more as an illness to be treated and cured, and less as a criminal act to be punished; and whereas

Due to a lack of state financial resources, it has to date been impossible to follow appropriate recovery protocols in the case of all addicts inasmuch as it has not been possible to establish an adequate number of hospitals for the treatment of such addicts; and whereas

The sole outcome from the enforcement of the 1931 statute has been an excessive rise in drug prices, which in turn affords enormous earnings to traffickers…

In real terms, the new laws placed a rather onerous burden on Health Ministry physicians. The Hospital for Addicts that was next door to the Castañeda Psychiatric Facility was closed due to its inefficiency as a rehabilitation center, and in any case, doctors knew addicts could carry on with their normal lives outside, acquiring their usual doses of heroin, morphine or cocaine at the dispensaries. All the facility’s addicts were sent home. They even let the ones facing criminal or police-related charges go free. When criminal charges were dropped, the rage went with them.  At the same time, clinical dispensaries were opened to distribute daily doses. A registry of imprisoned users was established so that they, too, could get their fixes.

One of the most popular dispensaries was 33 Sevilla Street. The space was by no means luxurious: a small installation, attended by Dr. Martínez, an experienced, conscientious and diligent physician. He toiled up to twelve hours daily, with two assistants, Dr. Clotilde Oroci Bacien and young Dr. José Quevedo. Every kind of person would show up—an average of five hundred per day. Other dispensaries, such as one on Versalles Street, that was a little bit nicer, was favored (at least according to rumor) by attorneys and doctors. Thirty-three Sevilla, on the other hand, served mechanics, carpenters, construction workers, potters, bums and the odd petty thief.

Toxicomanos in a public park
Toxicomanos in a Public Park (Source: Excesior, May 1, 1937)

Dr. Oroci was quick to grow impatient. It was a lot of hard work for so few people—there were never enough resources—but Dr. Martínez didn’t seem to want to hear about it. He wanted everything in order, every visit carried out by the book, everything in its place. He oscillated between patient visits and general reprimands. Suddenly a patient showed up, limping and completely disheveled. “Doctorcito, good morning.”

“Good morning, my boy. How are you feeling?”

“Not good…not good at all.”

The patient placed his crutches aside once the doctor had prepared a number-20 vial with ten millimeters of alkaloid. He asked the patient for his arm and jabbed the syringe into his grubby skin.

“Next!” And as the next patient appeared he barked another order. “Throw out everyone who’s already gotten his dose! And make sure to collect their tokens or they’ll try to come back for a second fix!” This was no place to be wasteful.

Read more