Nidia A. Olvera Hernández is a Mexican ethnohistorian who specializes in the history of psychoactive substances and drug policies. Olvera Hernández will be presenting about Mexican pharmacopeias created in the mid-nineteenth century that included various psychoactive plants, such as peyote, cannabis, and ololiuhqui at Chacruna’s upcoming conference, Sacred Plants in the Americas II, taking place April 23–25, 2021.

Sacred Plants in the Americas II: Global Psychedelic Summit; April 23-25, 2021

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In this interview, Nida Olvera shares about some of her earlier research into the history of marijuana in Mexico, detailing cannabis’ arrival with Spanish colonizers who intended to use the plant for industrial purposes, and how the conception of the plant shifted over time, with it eventually coming to be referred to as “marijuana” as opposed to “hemp.” Olvera also explores the Nahuatl term “pipiltzintzintli” that was believed to refer to cannabis, among other psychoactive plants, and what it can tell us about the indigenous use of marijuana in Mexico.

Jasmine Virdi: I’m curious as to what first made you interested in this area of anthropology. How did you end up researching the history of psychoactive substances?

Nidia Olvera Hernández: Initially, I was interested in psychoactive substances through the lens of ethnobotany, and that’s what led me to anthropology. I studied ethnohistory for my bachelors, feeling that history enabled me study these plants more seriously. I didn’t only want to understand these plants through my own experimentations with them, but also was interested in studying their uses in different cultures. Over time, I became very engaged with history, doing research, pouring myself into archives, discovering a hidden wealth of information about these plants in Mexico. As a drug historian, I’m interested in how history can help us understand how the common conception of these substances has changed over time, including their uses, and prohibition.

JV: A plant that you’ve studied particularly has been the cannabis plant, right? 

NOH: I first started studying peyote and the colonial prohibitions of peyote, and then I studied the history of drugs broadly in Mexico, but I also wrote a paper on cannabis in 2017.

In Mexico, there is a popular myth that Indigenous groups like the Aztecs had used marijuana for time immemorial, but we know that the plant hadn’t arrived in the Americas at that particular moment in time.

JV: How did the cannabis plant first make its way to Mexico?

NOH: In Mexico, there is a popular myth that Indigenous groups like the Aztecs had used marijuana for time immemorial, but we know that the plant hadn’t arrived in the Americas at that particular moment in time. In fact, cannabis came with the colonizers in the sixteenth century who decided to cultivate it in Mexico for industrial purposes. Some sources claim that they only brought seeds; however, others believe that people brought whole plants by boat. There is a lot of misinformation about the history of marijuana, but we know that at some point in the sixteenth century, colonizers brought cannabis, along with other plants and animals, from Europe. At the time, there was nothing special about cannabis, and they wanted to grow it for industrial purposes as hemp, or cañamo in Spanish.

JV: When did it stop being referred to as hemp, or cañamo, and start being referred to as marijuana? 

NOH: The first sources indicate that it happened in the middle of the nineteenth century. There are different hypotheses about the semantic origins of the term “marijuana.” Some believe that it comes from Nahuatl, the most widely spoken indigenous language of Mexico, belonging to the Aztecs and Mexicas. Others believe that term is rooted in the Mexican Revolution that happened in 1910. However, the name “marijuana” had appeared before that, and is potentially related to the term “María,” a common way to refer to Indigenous women who come to cities and sell things from their communities; often, including plants. I personally don’t agree with calling them Marías because I think it is disrespectful and serves a derogatory function. “Juanes”was a term used to refer to soldiers, and it is said that the soldiers used marijuana frequently, buying from the Marías, but it still remains speculative.

Some people in the US advocate that the term “marijuana” should stop being used because it is considered to be racially charged. I personally disagree, and feel it is a contribution from Mexico to global cannabis culture.

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By the twentieth century, it was increasingly common to use the term marijuana; however, we began to distinguish between hemp, the industrial plant, and marijuana, the drug. We don’t know exactly how the two became differentiated. Some people in the US advocate that the term “marijuana” should stop being used because it is considered to be racially charged. I personally disagree, and feel it is a contribution from Mexico to global cannabis culture.

JV: When did the plant start to become demonized? The view of hemp was neutral, but there is an association of criminality with marijuana. How was that transition made? 

NOH: Before the idea of criminality, the priest, historian, and scientist, José Antonio Alzate, published a work in 1772 that showed the well-known psychoactive effects of cannabis were of natural origin and not, in and of themselves, the devil’s work. However, he did not like how the plant was being used ritually by Indigenous peoples who became “drunk” or “inebriated” by the plant. Rather, he actively fought for it to be acceptable for doctors to be able to use the plant in a medical context. His writings were the first recorded instance in which it was asserted that the ritual use of cannabis was bad or evil.

Much later, when the word “marijuana” first started being used, there were headlines in the newspapers that began to associate the plant with criminality, suggesting that smoking the plant would induce madness. It happened in Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century, slightly before what happened in the US with Harry Anslinger, who launched an anti-drug and anti-immigration campaign against marijuana in which he branded it as the “assassin of youth.” In nineteenth century Mexico, there was an idea that marijuana was backwards and uncivilized; a detriment to a country that aimed to make progress. At the beginnings of the twentieth century, marijuana began to be closely associated with madness, criminality, and with soldiers as headlines linked the plant to crime and acts of dubious character.

JV: In your paper, you use the term “pipiltzintzintli”; what does that refer to, and how does it relate to cannabis? 

NOH: I previously mentioned the priest and historian, José Antonio Alzate. In his 1772 work relating to cannabis, he was trying to determine what pipiltzintzintli was, and he concluded it to be cannabis. The term pipiltzintzintli comes from Nahuatl and is taken to mean “venerable little prince,” referring to someone or something that is powerful and well-respected. “Pipil” refers to a person of high stature, like a governor or prince: the nobility. And “tzin” is a suffix, added to change the meaning of the word, pointing to something small in size. Additionally, tzin can be added to the end of people’s names as a term of respect as well as a sign of their status through senior age.

Maybe pipiltzintzintli was used to refer to certain plants that were considered sacred. For ancient cultures, plants themselves had a spirit within them, and the term could refer directly to the spirit within the plant; but, that is just my hypothesis. Others, like Gordon Wasson, claim that pipiltzintzintli refers to Salvia divinorum and other people believe it to be morning glory or Ololiuqui, but there are not a lot of sources. The theory that I agree with most is that they used pipiltzintzintli to refer to a mixture of different plants with psychoactive properties, including small seeds used in different rituals, and then, when cannabis arrived, they began to incorporate it into their rituals and the mixture. Additionally, we discovered that pipiltzintzintli was used to describe the seed of Erythrina coralloides that had psychoactive effects, and was common in indigenous use. Indigenous peoples have deep knowledge when it comes to the use of psychoactive plants and, when they became aware of the effects of cannabis, they decided to incorporate it into their botanical toolkit, and utilize it in mixtures such as pipiltzintzintli.

Even today, an Indigenous group from Puebla, Mexico, the Otomí, use cannabis, which they refer to as Santa Rosa in their rituals.

JV: How is it known that marijuana was used by Indigenous populations? Also, is there much known about how it was actually used ritually and ceremonially by these groups?

NOH: An example of such a source exists in Alzate’s writings in which he documented a visit with an Indigenous herbalist at a market from whom he was able to buy marijuana. Even today, an Indigenous group from Puebla, Mexico, the Otomí, use cannabis, which they refer to as Santa Rosa in their rituals. The Otomí actually eat the cannabis, and they use ritual dolls made of paper into which they insert cannabis. We usually associate cannabis with relaxation, but they spend their rituals dancing all night. We don’t know when exactly it started being used, but it is certain Indigenous and mainstream society have a close relationship with cannabis. For example, in Mexico, it is common knowledge for the older generation, like my grandmother and most other grandmothers, that if you have arthritis or a pain in your body, you should make a tincture of cannabis and rub it on to relieve the pain.

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JV: I’m curious to know more about the Mexican Drug War and its roots. When did it start and how was it influenced by Nixon’s War on Drugs? 

NOH: The Mexican Drug War began before Nixon’s. The first modern prohibition of cannabis in Mexico took place in 1920. Looking back, it wasn’t really a war, comparative to the violence we now face in Mexico from drugs and organized crime. However, at that moment the police and governmental bodies began to pursue users and traffickers. By the 1930s, traffickers at the northern border of Mexico and in Mexico City had gained substantial power. The government began to try and control it by spreading the belief that drugs were a dangerous enemy that we had to combat. At the end of the 1940s, World War II changed world politics, with Mexico and other countries joining one another in a concerted effort to control drug use. Nixon’s declarations in the 1970s made drug use more of a security problem. The Mexican government acted in relationship to the statements and policies issued by Nixon, going to rural areas where marijuana and opium were grown and destroying the plants. They weren’t only destroying the plants; they were aligned with guerrilla movements that were also targeting people with different political ideas. In truth, these campaigns led to much bigger problems, with traffickers and illicit substances gaining even more power.

During the Spanish Inquisition, they liked to burn peyote and ololiuqui, and it is ironic that, in today’s Mexico, the government and army still set fire to these substances. Although we are living through another type prohibition, some things have remained the same.

JV: During the Spanish Inquisition, there wasn’t exactly a war on drugs, but there was a cultural war that persecuted Indigenous peoples and their sacramental use of psychoactive plants. Do you see any relationship between the two? 

ON: It was another kind of prohibition, based on religious ideas. The Spanish decided to prohibit peyote and other plants because of their importance in indigenous spirituality. In the eyes of Catholicism, using such plants was considered evil and branded as a form of devil worship. It is supposed that modern prohibition is more based on science; however, there are other ideas which have pervaded through time. For example, there is a moral idea that being high is bad in some way, and the notion that these plants are demonic is still being incorporated into modern prohibition, even if unconsciously. During the Spanish Inquisition, they liked to burn peyote and ololiuqui, and it is ironic that, in today’s Mexico, the government and army still set fire to these substances. Although we are living through another type prohibition, some things have remained the same.

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It is critically important that we include Indigenous voices in the dialogue, and collectively navigate what is going to happen.

JV: Is there anything else that you’d like to add? 

NOH: I took part of the original Sacred Plants in the Americas. It is sad that this one has to be all virtual, but nonetheless, I think it is important that we are continuing the discussion. Today, there are movements centered around regulating psychoactive plants such as peyote and mushrooms; however, certain Indigenous groups do not agree with how the psychedelic movement is growing. It is so important to talk about the prescient topics, and even more important that events like this conference exist, because they help shift and shape the dialogue. I think we have to decriminalize these plants, and there has to be a space to do scientific research; however, plants like peyote can’t be legalized or decriminalized easily because peyote is a finite resource with deep cultural baggage. These plants are for everyone, but, at the same time, we need to take care of these natural resources and the cultures that steward them. It is critically important that we include Indigenous voices in the dialogue, and collectively navigate what is going to happen. Prohibition was imposed by the socio-political elites, and it is important that new reform movements are not enacted in the same way. The reform doesn’t have to be like prohibition was; we have to hear and elevate the points of view of Indigenous and minority groups. 

Art by Trey Brasher.


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