Nestled at about 1,000 feet above sea level in the foothills of the towering, glacial-covered Andes Mountains, Santiago is a city caught between the desire to be First World and retaining its roots as a Spanish masterpiece of the early Colonial era. The capital of Chile, the rabo or “tail of the world”, Santiago is home to more than five million people. Modern skyscraper office buildings, gleaming subways, one of the world’s most efficient airports and a slew of McDonald’s and other fast-food imports suggest it’s on the way to being a sort of imitation US city. Yet its heart, the Plaza D’Armas in the center of town, is still a cobblestone square surrounded by 400-year-old Spanish buildings that house government offices, museums and Catholic churches. Its neighborhoods are a mix of apartment buildings and singlestory tiny homes with interlocking clay roof tiles and stone fences.
Santiago is the major city of Chile, a narrow strip of country that runs down the western coast of South America along the Pacific from Southern Peru to Cape Horn, near Antarctica. Chile’s terrain ranges from the brutal Atacama Desert ? one of the world’s driest regions ? on the northern coast, to the Andes, to perpetually storm-ravaged island archipelagos at its southern tip.
Politically, Chile vacillates between the left and the right, often going to extremes. On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup ? backed by the US, among others ? that wrested control of the country from the democratically-elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende. For 17 years, the brutal right-wing government of Pinochet ran Chile as a dictatorship, complete with thousands of ‘disappearances’ of political enemies and the outright slaughter of thousands more. In 1989, when Pinochet was politically compelled to permit elections, the country voted for a more centrist government, which took office in 1990. The current government is considered quite liberal on social matters, at least on the surface, while being very conservative on matters related to the economy.
Socially, Chile’s 16 million inhabitants are predominantly of Spanish decent, overwhelmingly Catholic and well educated. They prize poetry and literature, and are voracious readers of the country’s several dozen newspapers and hundreds of magazines, the newest one of which is Ca?amo Chile, The Magazine of Psychoactive Substances and the Culture of Cannabis.
Ca?amo is not only Chile’s newest magazine; it is Chile’s ? and all of South America’s ? first magazine dealing exclusively with drugs. It was started by three men from Santiago, and the first issue, which covered medical marijuana, drug laws, Albert Hofmann, the origins of prohibition, GW Pharmaceuticals and a host of others things, hit the stands in May of 2005. Its cover showed a closet with its door ajar and cannabis growing on the other side. Its key cover line was When Do We Come Out of the Closet?
“We’re a guinea pig to check out how liberal the government really is,” laughed Sebastian Binfa, Ca?amo’s editor-in-chief, at a recent meeting in the magazine’s small office in the central business district of Santiago.
“If they shut us down, we’ll know they’re not too liberal.” adds Claudio Venegas, the magazine’s general manager. “But they can’t do that legally. We have the right to print as we want,” chimes in Pedro (Pepo) Mendoza, Ca?amo’s legal advisor and the third head of its three-man brain trust.
Travel Trouble and Introductions
The trip into Santiago caught a hiccup when immigration, which takes a $100 US bill from each person entering Chile for the first time, refused to accept mine based on the serial number. “We’ve had some counterfeits with these numbers in the past,” explained the international policewoman.
It was already 1 AM, and the thought of sitting in the airport for several days being unable to enter Chile was not acceptable, so a little fast-talking later she allowed this reporter to pass through Customs with her. At the gate Sebastian called my name and in short order changed one of my bills for enough pesos to pay the fee. The crisis over, Sebastian ? dreadlocked, good-looking, slight, and full of energy ? introduced Claudio and Pepo, who ran a video camera endlessly. “This is historic,” he explained excitedly. “This is Canada, the head of the world, meeting the tail.”
Sebastian, Claudio and Pepo speak rapid-fire Spanish that comes so fast it’s difficult to keep up. Fortunately, they each seem to continue on each other’s thoughts so that speaking with them is like speaking with three heads that have one mind.
The idea for Ca?amo Chile came from Sebastian, they explained as we got into a car and left the airport. He’d taken a year off from his job as a veterinarian to visit Spain in 2001, and while there had come in contact with the editors of the original Ca?amo. When he returned to Santiago in 2002 he tried to import the Spanish version but found the people of Santiago ? while they loved the idea of a pot magazine ? didn’t really connect with all of the stories related to Spain, and the idea soon fizzled.
But through trying to get the magazine distributed in Santiago, Sebastian ran into Pepo, a divorce attorney who ran a cannabis website, www.cannabis.cl. The two, Sebastian and Pepo ? who looks delightfully like a mischievous Hobbit ? became friends, and not long after their meeting, ran into Claudio at an activist rally. Claudio, a social psychologist who was working on harm reduction, is the fastest talker of the group.
“It’s funny that we were all moving in the same direction,” he says, “but we didn’t meet until 2003. Now we are the monster out to eat Chile’s drug laws.”
The idea for the magazine didn’t come up until late in 2003, when Ca?amo in Spain suggested to Sebastian that if he wanted to start a Ca?amo Chile they would help both financially and with allowing the reprint of articles for the first few issues. “That was the first thing” Sebastian says while drinking bottled water. “The second was getting us three to come to terms with having to give up our real jobs and commit to making a magazine, which none of us knew anything about.”
“Not only that, but we had to put our own money into it since we only had a little backing from Ca?amo,” adds Pepo.
“But we did it because someone had to,” says Claudio. “This is Chile, and we pride ourselves on being free. We know about smoking marijuana and we know the lies that are told about it.”
“And don’t forget that we are the first place the Spanish planted hemp in South America, back in the 1500s,” Pepo says, “so we have a long history with this great plant.”
They decided to put me up in the garret of Claudio’s house, which he shares with his wife Catalina and baby daughter Julia. On the way over, Claudio explained that his neighborhood was a bastion of socialist activism even during the worst of the Pinochet era. “There were many disappearances there,” he says, “but now it’s just sort of a middle-class neighborhood with socialist thinkers.”
On the way, Claudio lights and passes a joint. It’s not at all good by British Columbian standards, but still delightful. “Almost all of the cannabis in Chile comes from Uruguay,” explains Sebastian, who quit smoking recently.
“Nearly 90% if you believe the police,” says Pepo.
“What we want to do is to get people to begin growing it here,” adds Claudio, “because the smoke from Uruguay sucks.”
“But it’s still expensive,” says Sebastian. “And it’s going to the black market instead of Chilean activists.”
“Nearly two dollars US for a joint,” says Pepo. “Ten dollars for a five-joint bag of cannabis, that’s not so good.”
“Yes,” says Claudio. “But for $20 US you can get a good joint of sensimilla.”
“This is okay,” I tell them, taking a toke. “Much better than nothing.”
“Oh yes” they all chime in. “Much better than nothing.”
In the morning, after meeting the lovely Catalina and the brand new Julia over a breakfast of toasted bread and cheese with some of Chile’s fantastic peach jam, the boys are off and running. Sebastian comes by to tell Claudio he’s going to see to the move of equipment from their old office to their new one. Claudio is off to interview a retired Supreme Court judge to see if he can get him to go on the record for changing the drug laws. Pepo has a divorce to attend to ? something the others laugh at considering he just got engaged days ago.
Left to my own devices the boys tell me how to reach the Plaza d’Armas and tell me they’ll meet me there and we’ll head out for lunch together in a few hours. Newspaper and magazine kiosks dot the perimeter of the Plaza and at nearly every one, the smiling face of the monkey used as the cover image for Ca?amo’s second issue peered out from among the celebrities on the fan magazines, the steroid monsters on the muscle mags, and the glam girls on the women’s magazines. When Ca?amo wasn’t seen, I asked for it and every kiosk for a several block area around the Plaza said it had already sold out.
The magazine, in fact, did very well with issue number one. Of the 10,000 or so copies printed, the 6,000 that were in Santiago nearly sold out. There was a problem with the other copies however. Over lunch, near a street that had more than a dozen stores devoted to selling “Used Hippy Clothes”, Sebastian explained there are only two distributors in Chile: one handles magazines in Santiago, and the other takes care of the rest of the country.
“The one in Santiago gets us out to the kiosks,” he explained. “But the other one, the one who distributes outside of Santiago, he was afraid to distribute it, so he left several thousand copies in his warehouse. He’s afraid of political backlash for distributing it. We are hoping that word of mouth and demand for the magazine will change that. Of course it’s difficult to change that if the people in those areas don’t know we exist.”
Pepo breaks in. “Under Pinochet ? whom we all grew up with because we were all born the year he took power ? things were very clear, what you could and couldn’t do. He has been gone a long time but the repression remains, from a sort of fear of the right’s return to power. That’s what you see with that distributor. When he saw the cover and realized it was a magazine about drugs, he got frightened. On the surface the repression is considerably less, but one never knows.”
Are they concerned with their political position?
“We were concerned,” says Claudio, “and we remain concerned that what we are doing could be viewed as promoting drug use, which would be a big blow. It could actually result in our being charged with that, which would land us in jail. But we’re hoping that the publicity we get will dissuade the police from interfering with the publication of the magazine.”
“We are walking a thin line and we know it,” says Sebastian. “We’re writing and printing stories about drugs, about society and drugs, about historical figures like Albert Hofmann and Richard Schultes. But we have been careful not to tell anyone to use drugs.”
“Yes,” adds Claudio, “we want to cover all drugs and their political, spiritual and cultural value and the issues surrounding them. If we were to limit Ca?amo to just cannabis we might be singled out as promoting that. At the same time people are interested in ecstasy and salvia and cocaine. They’re interested in stories about the opium culture in Afghanistan and in drugs being used as an excuse to wage war in the name of anti-terrorism. And we are interested in bringing that to them.”
Issue #2 was all of that and more, with a story on Laos and its rising opium production, features on Salvia Divinorum, the brutal treatment of narco-traffickers in several South American countries, an interview with Ben Dronkers, a pictorial on stamps around the world that depict psychoactive plants, a piece on bio-building with hemp, medical-marijuana coverage, and three stories from the guys themselves. Sebastian, the vet, wrote a piece about animals and drugs, which included a hilarious story about a 1985 event in which 150 elephants raided a moonshine operation in Africa and got sloppy drunk. Pepo wrote about Chile’s new anti-drug law, titled Law 20,000, which sets the penalties for drug consumption higher than they’d been and establishes passing a joint as trafficking. Claudio wrote about harm reduction. There was even a story on sexing cannabis.
“We haven’t yet done a story on growing cannabis,” explains Claudio. “We are going to work up to that. But in issue one, we did a story on the types of cannabis native to countries around the world. In number two we discuss sexing. Maybe number three will have a story about a closet grow.”
“You have to realize,” says Pepo, “that Law 20,000 makes passing a joint narcotrafficking. Writing a magazine about growing marijuana would probably be seen in the same light.”
By this time we’d moved from the restaurant to the magazine’s new office. It’s one of several on the second floor of a plain row house that has been converted to office space. The new headquarters of Ca?amo is a small room, maybe 15′ by 15′, with a single large window looking out on a broad, quiet avenue. The room is equipped with two desks piled high with magazines, books and notes and a couple of laptops. The boys asked that the mess be excused. “We haven’t got everything in here yet,” Pepo explains. “But we have our heart and we have the rights of the just!”
Everyone laughs. But their rights are certainly in question. Among the few things up on the wall is a copy of the Sunday edition of La Nation, one of Chile’s most influential newspapers. The copy on the wall is dated June 8, 2005. The cover image is a single pot leaf, below which the question “Why isn’t Ca?amo being circulated this week?” is posed. It’s the only thing on the cover.
The question relates to the distributor outside of Santiago. It’s not the only press that Ca?amo has garnered in its first few months of existence. Other newspapers have done short pieces on it, and Pepo was recently included in a major magazine story on lawyers who smoke cannabis.
“That one was done a long time ago and I’d forgotten about it,” he laughs. “Then the first issue of Ca?amo came out and the magazine decided to run the story. My girlfriend saw the photo of me and almost fainted.”
That evening, Sebastian and Pepo were busy but Claudio had a birthday party to attend and asked me to join. It was held in a home on a fast-paced avenue in a sort of artsy section of town: lovely homes, slightly rundown. The scene on the street was a drug-warrior’s dream: drunks and prostitutes; small-time aggressive crack dealers; a half-dozen people lying in doorways, sleeping off whatever they were on. We had to ask several people to move, so we could get to a locked gate that stood directly in front of a heavy door.
Inside, the little house was filled with artists and writers and others from the ranks of the intellectuals. Their banter was a full 180˚ from the street-talk just outside the door. Though only a guest, Claudio received a huge welcome from the crowd, with lots of congratulations over issue #2. The spirit turned playfully negative when he told people he’d brought nothing to smoke.
“Then get him out!” someone yelled.
“What good is he?” laughed someone else in the room.
A quick trip around the room revealed that most of the guests would love a joint to appear. “A lot of us smoke cannabis when it’s around,” explained one woman. “But when you’re not in school anymore you don’t know where to get it. For all the people who smoke in Chile it remains a very clandestine thing.
“With the new law, remember, sharing, selling, even buying are all narco-trafficking, and while you might only get a fine the first time you’ll probably get three years the second time.”
On cue and out of nowhere, Pepo suddenly appeared. “Most people get their time cut in half for good behavior. Still, for someone from Chile, prison is almost impossible to endure.”
The woman having the birthday came over and whispered into Pepo’s ear. He nodded and pulled out a little sheaf of loose-leaf paper and began to roll a joint. The woman gave him a hug and those nearby cheered him on. A joint had arrived.
“Law 20,000 was written specifically to criminalize drugs,” he continued once the joint had been passed. “It is the law against drugs. And by making it that, the government was able to get a lot of publicity for the signing, which was on television. The hypocritical part is that the most anti-drug, pro-Law-20,000 Senator smokes about 40 joints a day. It’s okay for him, but not for everyone else.”
The law describes the exact penalties for cannabis growing, for sharing (narcotrafficking), possession, and everything else. In Chile you may possess small amounts of drugs in your home for personal use. But, Pepo explained, “If the police want, they can charge you with narco-trafficking, because how did it get into your house? If you bought it you trafficked. If you grew it you were manufacturing. So they can ask you to prove how it got there.”
Claudio noted that as of 2002, the most recent year for which they could get figures, there were about 18,000 people in prison in Chile for drug-related offences. More than 6,000 of those were in prison for non-violent cannabis offences. “It doesn’t seem like a lot when you consider the numbers in the United States,” he said, “but to us that is a lot. And the new law is looking to put even more of us in prison.”
The joint, I noticed, never returned; probably 25 people had a toke on it before it disappeared into ash.
At some point during the party I asked Claudio how his interview with the retired Supreme Court Judge had gone. “He refused to go on record for legalization. He spoke about it but he’s from the old school, and thinks the war on drugs should continue,” he answered. “You can’t get through to some people.”
The next day, after a hike through a gloriously old section of Santiago dotted with ornate mansions, ancient trees and small theatres, Pepo took me by tram to the Cerro de San Cristobal, a park built on a high series of hills in the center of the city. Despite the smog and morning mist, the view from the top of the park (dominated by a 30-feet-tall white statue of the Virgin de San Cristobal, the patron saint of Chile) was breathtaking. Behind us, not 40 miles away, were the Andes and the heart of South America’s ski zone. In front of us was a vista of the corrugated metal and clay tiles of Santiago’s rooftops.
On the way back we passed a kiosk where the morning headlines told of the wife and son of Pinochet being indicted for embezzling millions while they were in power. Pinochet himself has spent several years battling both Chilean and international courts where he’s been accused of having his secret police eliminate his enemies.
“What was it like growing up under him?” I asked.
“Restricted,” he answered. “We saw on television that not every country had a dictator and we didn’t want one either. For the wealthy, though, he was very good ? they got richer. For regular people, life was hard because they had less. For free thinkers, life was dangerous.”
I asked what he thought the magazine’s chances were of working.
“Depends on the money and the politics,” he says with a hobbit-like grin. “We need advertising to pay the bills.” I pointed out to him that the first couple of issues had several full-page seed ads and that he should be able to grow on that.
“But they are not legal in Chile. The ads say they are not legal for importation. That’s a problem because we can’t charge what we want for those ads because the vendors don’t know if they’ll sell. So that’s something we’ll have to see about.
“But hemp products are legal, and glass products are legal. T-shirts are legal, books are legal…” He was grinning broadly. “And of course, seeds are coming in somehow, illegal or not, and people need grow equipment and fertilizers…” “What are you getting at?”
“Tell everyone we have a whole country, a whole continent starving for their products, and that they should advertise with us.”
“Will do. What about the politics?”
“That depends on whether we are permitted to stay in business.”
The afternoon brought a meeting at the office for a lengthy interview for the Sunday edition of La Nation. Two reporters appeared, as well as the paper’s top photographer. Neither Sebastian nor Claudio were back from separate radio interviews yet, so I asked the primary reporter, Daniel Salgado, what he thought of Ca?amo.
“It is something Chile needs,” he answered. “It’s about time that someone questions the government on these laws. The United States has dictated the Chilean ? actually, all of South America’s ? drug war policies for a long time. We’re afraid to have them angry with us. But we view the world differently than the United States. We’re not trying to be the Big Brother of the World. We are a tranquil people more or less, who shouldn’t be falling into the War on Drugs mentality trap, or else we, like the United States, will be making war on ourselves. And that will be Pinochet with a different name all over again.”
“And can these guys pull it off?”
“I’m hoping they can. They are a good story for me.” He laughed. “When I write about Ca?amo I get to let my own politics come out without looking prejudiced.”
Despite his being a fan of Ca?amo, Salgado was an informed tiger when the guys arrived and the interview began. He questioned them on the need to reform such relatively lax drug laws and they responded by discussing the direction Law 20,000 was pulling them in. He talked about hard drug use and they discussed social ills, harm reduction and the classbasis of drug laws. He challenged them on cannabis addiction and they brought out medical studies disarming the charge. The potency myth was dissected with rapier speed. Everything Salgado threw at them for nearly 2 hours was dealt with effortlessly.
By the end of the session, the guys were worn out, and wanted to know how they had done.
“You guys were great. Sounds like you’ve answered all those questions before, to have your answers so ready.”
“You guys didn’t tell him about Radio Ca?amo?” Claudio asked incredulously.
“It’s our Thursday night radio show,” said Pepo. “We have 40,000 listeners on public radio for it.”
“It’s the only one of its kind in Chile,” added Sebastian.
“We bring on doctors to discuss drugs and the human body,” filled in Claudio; “lawyers talk about the drug laws, anthropologists about the historical connection between humans and psychoactive substances ? anyone we can get who is an expert in their field connected to drugs and drug law.”
I was still stuck on the 40,000 listeners. “You really get that many people?”
“We’re telling you,” said Sebastian, “people are starving for real information about drugs here. The only information they’ve ever gotten from the government has been deliberately wrong.”
“There is in Santiago, for instance,” broke in Claudio, “a large trance dance movement. If you know someone, you will hear about a rave, and there will be smart drugs there and ecstasy. But if you don’t know people you won’t hear of it. It’s all underground. With Ca?amo and Radio Ca?amo we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to give them all some central place, some safe way to come out of the closet.”
Pepo joined the rant. “We need normalization. Not everyone who uses cannabis is addicted, though that is what people think here. They are not interested in knowing about other aspects of drugs: creativity, spirituality, relaxation, dancing, medical uses. They only follow the line that “use is abuse”. That is why we gave up comfortable jobs, and are risking it all. Someone has to tell the truth here.”
They all laughed. “And he’s the divorce lawyer!” said Sebastian.
For issue three, the guys are planning an interview with a woman named Maria Louisa Velasco, the elderly ex-wife of an ex-Senator who was caught growing 40 plants. Despite the Chilean court’s decision that she couldn’t introduce a medical marijuana defense ? she smokes to relieve both arthritis and rheumatism ? she was recently found innocent of trafficking when the court decided she was only growing for her own personal needs.
“She has become the most famous medical marijuana patient in Chile,” Pepo explains. “Because of who she is and the stories about her in the newspapers and on television, the whole country has been introduced to medical marijuana almost overnight. She is a hero to us.”
They’ve also got a story on a Simpsons episode in which Homer got ripped; a piece dealing with the consequences of using drugs during pregnancy and while breastfeeding; and another on ayahuasca, the visionary vine from South America’s jungle. They’re still unsure whether they are ready to go ahead with a grow story, but are leaning toward pushing the envelope, at least with a piece on basic closet growing and a few more pictures of cannabis. They’re trying to get someone to give them a story on people from all over Chile and how and why they use drugs.
“When people think of Chile they think of Santiago,” says Sebastian. “They don’t realize that Chile is a big country and its regions are very different culturally. We celebrate those differences at Ca?amo but want to learn more.”
“Yes,” says Claudio, “We want those people to talk to us so that we can share those different cultural experiences with our readers. The laws are the same all over, but the cultural differences make it a much more interesting mosaic.”
It’s apparent that the team at Ca?amo is not just doing a magazine start-up. They’re creating a movement. That there are plenty of smokers in Chile was apparent last May when Santiago’s first Million Marijuana March drew 8,000 people on the strength of very little publicity other than Ca?amo Radio. The turnout amazed them: all three said they were expecting just a few dozen. Until now, they say, everyone kept to themselves. They’ve been quiet so long that even after the Pinochet years they need to be pulled into public view.
The fear is evident when trying to get photos of grow rooms: no one will permit it. It’s evident in a distributor who refuses to distribute magazines. It is evident in that Chile has no athletes who’ve come out and admitted cannabis use. “They’d be fired immediately,” says Sebastian. Ca?amo might just be the venue to bring some light to that dark place. “This city and this country are ready to come out of the closet,” says Sebastian, and he’s probably right. Pepo’s web page has had nearly 150,000 hits since 2003 . (Amigos DelCannabis: www.amigosdelcannabis.cl) The cannabis forum site, run by some of Ca?amo’s friends, has more than 2,000 registered members.
The question is not whether the movement could come together with Ca?amo’s assistance. It’s whether or not the Chilean government, caught up in trying to kiss US drug war ass, will permit them to keep publishing or try to shut the movement the guys are creating shut down the movement before it gets any stronger.
visit Ca?amo Chile online at: www.canamo.cl