'Mucha Chala' in Argentina
Last year, Cannabis Culture reported that Argentina's Supreme Court was on the verge of handing down a decision that would decriminalize small amounts of all drugs for personal use.
It seemed too good to be true, but President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — the first woman president in the history of the country — had expressed on numerous occasions her intention to experiment with decriminalization. And after five young men arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana argued that their imprisonment was anti-constitutional, the high court decided in their favor, citing article 19 of the Argentine Constitution, which, similar to our constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, states: "The private actions of men which in no way offend public order or morality, nor injure a third party, are only reserved to God and are exempted from the authority of judges."
It was a victory that, although it wouldn't actually change the law, laid the groundwork for higher courts to make the same decision. Then on August 25, the Supreme Court followed suit and handed down a ruling that declared: "Each adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state," leading the way for Congress to amend current drug laws. Although other Latin American countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Colombia have already decriminalized marijuana, only Argentina has decriminalized all drugs for personal use.
In the Spring of this year, I went on assignment in Argentina to report on the progress of decriminalization. I spent six weeks with major players in the movement to overgrow the government, championing the cause of Marc Emery, promoting the Global Marijuana March, and feeling the buzz of a new day dawning.
I found that Argentina is teeming with growers and is home to a fledgling but thriving ganja culture. There are thousands of growers in every major city in the country. Argentina has its own cannabis culture magazine, called THC. Doctors are allowed to prescribe marijuana (though this occurrence is exceedingly rare), and people with terminal illnesses are allowed to smoke marijuana at home. Argentina even has its own cannabis cup--make that two cannabis cups. Growers here are well informed and stand in solidarity with the pro-marijuana movement in California and British Columbia. Furthermore, nearly 8,000 people showed up for the 2009 Global Marijuana March in Buenos Aires, a figure that far exceeds Vancouver's estimated 5,000-person turn-out. With the decriminalization of all drugs for personal consumption, a climate conducive to a three-season outdoor grow year in some places, and polls showing a record-high 60% acceptance rate of recreational marijuana use, Argentina is poised to become the Amsterdam of South America. Welcome to arHEMPtina!
As soon as I landed in Buenos Aires, I could feel that the city was abuzz. I was greeted by Pulpa, my host, who is the owner of Pulpot, the capital's first head shop/grow shop. We hadn´t even made it to his car before someone recognized him and called out, ¨Ché! (Argentina's word for "dude") I´m ready to harvest, ché!¨ Harvest? Of course I knew that our spring was South America's autumn... but it never occurred to me that I would arrive just in time for harvest season!
Pulpa is a ganja guerrero. Sporting a ska aesthetic and tattoos of Alex Grey's artwork, he wears his hair long and plays guitar. Pulpa is an extremely talented grower whose world-class weed, Jack Flash, snagged him third place in 2008 in Argentina’s most popular cannabis cup. Not only was he my date to Radiohead, but he also took me to underground clubs very reminiscent of some of the scenes I frequent in San Francisco, complete with partiers who looked ready for Burning Man and hippies anyone could confuse for Haight-Ashbury’s own! A creative pot activist, Pulpa is known for having spray-painted pot-leaf stencils on hundreds of traffic lights in Buenos Aires, so that when the lights turned green, they literally gave a green light to weed. He donned a mask and brought a TV news crew along for the ride as though he were some sort of ganja superhero, and his antics made the news all over the city and beyond for days after. At the grand opening of his grow shop he gave away countless ganja brownies and cookies, and invited all to indulge with the store's bongs and vaporizers.
Argentina has “mucha chala”—translation: “a lot of weed.” Most of the ganja available here is pure sativa, but compressed — including stems, seeds, and all—brought in from neighboring Paraguay, the biggest pot producer in South America. Although its origins are beautiful plantations of towering plants, by the time it reaches Argentina, it is hard, dry, and brown in color, and looks more like dirt than ganja. The effect is similar to that of Mexican brick weed that permeates much of the U.S.: it might get you high, but it also may leave you drained, hungry, tired, and with a headache. Nevertheless, the seeds that are commonly found in compressed herb from Paraguay can still become beautiful, bountiful plants that yield sweet and juicy buds. Many Argentinian growers take Paraguayan seeds and grow gardens of dank, pure sativa plants that rival some of the top-quality bud commonly found on North America's West Coast. And thousands of growers use high-quality imported seeds to produce super kind buds, replacing the pot smuggled in from Paraguay and further limiting the negative effects of the illegal drug trade.
Not only is there superior weed available in Argentina, there are plenty of people smoking it. Conservative estimates suggest that 7% of Argentinians smoke marijuana, while other polls suggest that as much as 10% of the population indulges. In the three major cities of Argentina—Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Rosario — 19.6% of the population admits to lighting up. Even though when I visited the law had not yet changed, people overwhelmingly said they felt comfortable smoking pretty much anywhere with caution. At clubs, partiers go to the back of the establishment to smoke joints inside, without fear of retribution. We smoked on the street and on riverbanks, at concerts and in parks, at patio bars and outside theaters, taking the usual precautions. It was as common to light up and pass one here as it is on many parts of the west coast of the U.S. and Canada. And, surprisingly, in six weeks of smoking out super phat every day, I came across compressed Paraguayo only a handful of times. This is no third-world country where the weed you find is simply whatever managed to get smuggled in. There are cannabis connoisseurs here.
Argentina’s grower community is a unique and cohesive one. They stay connected via online forums like cannabiscafe.net, and host social gatherings to share their harvest and grow tips. Unlike most marijuana production in North America, growers here tend to grow strictly for personal use. I met no one who sold marijuana. Growers grow their own and share their harvest with family and friends. Occasionally, growers host dinners for all, turning the evening into a "potluck" in the truest sense of the word! Just a few of the strains I sampled in this South American ganja paradise included Jack Flash, Haze, Blueberry from DJ Short, Grape God from God Seed Collection, White Widow, Blue Widow, Cinderella 99, Blue Cheese, Powerplant, Cali Mist, and a Satori/Cali Mist hybrid.
Argentina is the second-largest country in South America and one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America. It lays claim to the widest avenue in the world and draws comparisons to European cities like Paris. Many modern-day Argentinians emigrated from Europe for the same reason that other Europeans immigrated to the U.S. — to flee the horrors of World War II. Brothers would split up, one choosing New York, the other choosing Buenos Aires. In some ways, Argentinians are our cousins. But in spite of its modern conveniences and cosmopolitan flair, Argentina is still considered a developing nation—with a twisted past.
The day I arrived, March 24, was more than just the day of the Radiohead show of my dreams. It was the 33rd anniversary of the military coup that led to the brutal dictatorship that scarred the nation's history. For roughly seven years, the military controlled the government, and anyone who spoke out against them, or even looked like they would (that's us, hippies), was tortured and killed. Radio stations were not allowed to play music in English. Under this oppressive regime, seeing Radiohead in Buenos Aires, or any band that sung in English for that matter, would have been but a fantasy. In what became known as the “Dirty War,” the dictatorship, led primarily by Jorge Rafael Videla, kidnapped people who dared to express an opposing opinion right off the street and murdered them—after brutally torturing them. The dictatorship admitted to tactics like heavily sedating the kidnapped (who were said to have "disappeared"), then dropping them from planes to the river and their death. Sometimes for being part of dissenting political parties. Sometimes for expressing their opinions in university classrooms. Sometimes for having long hair and beards. And some reports suggest that simply smoking weed was enough for the military dictatorship to suddenly "disappear" you. 30,000 people were murdered this way, from 1976 - 1983. The fact that in only two decades the government has its first woman president, there is a 60% social acceptance rate of recreational pot use, and now all drugs for personal consumption have been decriminalized is a transformation absolutely unprecedented.
In the months before my trip, I had been in touch with one of Argentina's most outspoken pot activists, Mike Bifari, an Argentinian raised in California. Bifari has been on the front lines of the decriminalization movement since 2003, when he returned to Argentina from three years of living in Amsterdam. We met in the small town he lives in called Capilla del Monte. Famous for its free-thinking hippies, strange lights in the sky, and even actual ET sightings, Capilla is Argentina's version of California's Mt. Shasta, or British Columbia's Sunshine Coast. There is a mystic mountain at its center that is rumored to be home to a subterranean tribe of intergalactic elves. The mountain has crystals in it, and the dirt roads are dotted with sparkling crystals like stars that fell to Earth.
Bifari lives in El Faldeo, the most progressive neighborhood of Capilla, which is famous for two things: resisting government interference and growing some of the best weed in Argentina. It operates somewhat like a free autonomous zone. Residents have weekly meetings and refuse to appoint a leader, even though the broader local government demands that they do so. When local officials came to them with a proposal to install sidewalks in the neighborhood, the residents refused, saying they would not allow the grass to be destroyed for a sidewalk they don't want anyway. They put up similar resistance to a government plan to install streetlights. "We don't need lights here; we have the moon," said Bifari. "We don't want to disturb the wildlife, and we don't want to lose the stars. We are defending the dark skies." When I was there, I used my cell phone to light my way, and I saw lots of shooting stars...
The residents of El Faldeo are mostly artisans who make art in the form of jewelry, musical instruments, and clothing to sell at local fairs. In a country world-renowned for its beef, El faldeo is surprisingly resplendent with vegetarians and healthy living. Seemingly everyone here lights up. And, by appearances, everyone here grows. From the converted school bus that now functions as a split-level home headed by a beautiful hippie chick chocolatier, to the lovely mud house built by hand by a former New Orleans resident who now grows here in peace, every place we visited boasted its own plants.
On our stroll through the neighborhood, I was introduced to a wise old herbalist, the woman who started the first ayahuasca church in Argentina, and a house full of hippies from all over South America and places as far-flung as France and Puerto Rico. They make indigenous flutes and drums — I noticed someone playing the Beastie Boys' "Sureshot" on Andean flute — and tend to a garden that grows tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers, beans, lettuce, carrots, peaches, pumpkins, corn, spinach, garbanzos, and basil, in addition to copious amounts of marijuana. When we stopped in for an afternoon toke, they mentioned having been pulled over on their way home from a recent musical performance. They said that the police found a small amount of marijuana in their vehicle and reportedly wanted cash. But these kids were humble hippies; they didn't have any cash. They offered the cops what they had: some songs and some pastries in exchange for their freedom. And it worked!
I also met a U.S. ex-pat who now makes his home in El Faldeo. I spoke to him over maté and homegrown, in the comfortable mud house he built himself. (Maté is a hot, mildly-caffeinated drink traditional to Argentina that is served in a vessel with a silver metallic straw and passed around to everyone in turn. Each person sips the maté until she has had her fill, and then returns it to the person packing the maté, who refills it and offers it to someone else. Smoking ganja is the perfect accompaniment to this ritual.)
"How did you come to live in Argentina?" I asked.
"Peyote," he said plainly. "I ate peyote—excessively for 7 years." He also cited the oppressive atmosphere of the Bush regime and how it restricted him from having the type of relationship with marijuana that he longed to have. In Argentina, he said, he’s been growing in relative peace for more than a year. "In the States, I never got to have that relationship with the plant." He sees similarities among the U.S. and Argentina in the way that corporations seek to control the land and the people, but he sees stark differences in the way the people respond. "They wanted to build mines here, and I was like, 'I thought I escaped Bush and all this!' But the people here are organized. They stopped three attempts to build silver mines here, and now it's illegal in the entire province." This sense that the will of the people will be respected helps fortify growers' tenacity. The government may set its own rules, but the people exercise their obligation to usurp them when necessary.
In addition to El Faldeo, some more of Argentina's weed capitals include Villa Maria, Villa Nueva, San Marcos, and Bariloche, a snowboarder's paradise reminiscent of the Swiss Alps toward the country's famed Patagonia region. But ganja culture permeates mainstream cities, as well. I caught up with Mike Bifari again in the third-largest city, Rosario, where Ché Guevara was a medical student. We did a radio interview together, promoting his vaporizers and the upcoming Global Marijuana March, and publicizing the plight of Marc Emery. Later we spoke on stage during a concert for a famous reggae band, Resistencia Suburbana, where I encouraged the audience — in Spanish, stoned, and whilst shrooming balls! — to bring their kindest buds to the march the next dayso we could roll “un porro gigante” for 4:20. Afterwards, I ran away with the band and toured around with them on a couple dates before returning to Buenos Aires. But not before being introduced to still more Rosario activists in the decriminalization movement.
I spent time with the owner of Rosario's first head shop, and met with a university faculty member who developed and administered a research survey of health workers in Argentina. His findings indicated that health workers are woefully uninformed about the medicinal uses of marijuana, and now he works diligently to bring awareness to this demographic. He showed me his garden, thriving with immense plants, some born of seeds from compressed Paraguayan sativa plants. I toked with his psychologist mother one morning after breakfast. It is so common for tokers to light up with their parents in Argentina that THC magazine dedicated an entire issue on the subject (“Cannabis en Familia,” no. 14, year 3). Also in Rosario, I was introduced to "el Bestia" (the Beast), the first-place winner of Argentina's 2008's largest cannabis cup and a passionate Marc Emery supporter. He had all three of Ed Rosenthal's "Big Book of Buds" editions in Spanish, and he and his girlfriend both sported "No Extradition for the BC 3" T-shirts!
Everywhere I went, there was a palpable sense that Argentina was on the verge of a new day dawning. The activists I met were pioneers, laying the groundwork for the normalization of marijuana. "Cogollos Argentinos (translated as ‘Argentinian Buds’)," the country's first medical marijuana organization, is one such front-line group.
Started in 2001 by Edith "La Negra" Moreno, a spunky woman diagnosed with cancer and AIDS who has used marijuana medicinally for 15 years, Cogollos seeks to liberate marijuana for uses beyond medicinal, and educate the masses on the benefits of the plant and unjust anti-marijuana laws. The organization is comprised of a small group of activists who met on the cannabis cafe forum.
Cogollos petitions the government to sponsor studies on medical marijuana, a much more attainable goal with the news of decriminalization. They also host an annual parade, which consists of a weekend retreat in one of the province of Cordoba's countless beautiful locales. They respond to many inquiries throughout the day, usually from people seeking advice on when to cut down plants, where to buy seeds, and clarification on the law. The outspoken group reports they have never been harassed by police.
La Negra, who is one of the few Argentinians prescribed marijuana by a doctor, is on a daily regimen of bugs in effort to cure her cancer. She says that marijuana relaxes her stomach muscles, otherwise sore from vomiting induced by prescription medication. She lives with her elderly mother in Cordoba, Argentina's second-largest city, where she is a well-known figure fighting to raise awareness about the benefits of medicinal marijuana. When I asked what her mom thought of her pot use, La Negra said, "She has no problem with it, because it's not a crime!" This reflects the opinion of much of the Argentinian population. The people overwhelmingly saw no problem with marijuana consumption; they were only waiting for the government to follow suit. In fact, La Negra’s mother herself enjoys the occasional hit off the vaporizer.
La Negra showed me her massive plants, and recounted stories of theft scares and some surprising police intervention. She said that when she thought her house was being broken into around harvest season a few years back, she called the police immediately. When they arrived, she didn't expect them to take a look at her deck, where her plants were. When they did, she panicked and fled from the house. (Unlike medicinal marijuana in California, a person using prescribed marijuana in Argentina can still be arrested. A prescription simply means she can use that as grounds to have her case dismissed; it does not prevent the filing of charges and a possible court case.) After running several blocks, the police caught up with her. Their words left her speechless. "We looked around, but we didn't find anything unusual," they said. "Give us a call should you have any other problems." They made no mention of the plants they had found on her property.
Over the course of my visit, I heard of a surprising number of similar run-ins with police. Growers here are not careless, but there is a shared sense that even the authorities don't really think marijuana use is "wrong." Statistically speaking, growers even in pre-decriminalization days could expect an arrest to culminate only in a loss of time and money—not freedom—with cultivation cases being resolved fairly quickly and leniently.
DON'T SMOKE THE LEAVES!
Burgeoning population of cannasseurs notwithstanding, the ganja community is barely out of its infant stage. While Argentina as a country has certainly come a long way, the reality is that many people have had such little exposure to cannabis culture that they don't even know how to smoke it. Unbelievably, some people grow their own plants... and only smoke the leaves! How’s that for culture shock? This strange phenomenon inspired the slogan for a recent cannabis cup in Argentina: "Don't smoke the leaves!"
It is worth noting that in spite of the illegality of marijuana, Argentina has hosted cannabis cups every year for the past 8 years. “La Copa Caba” is in its 2nd year, and the more popular competition of the two, "La Copa Cannabica del Plata," featured more than 80 strains this year (Amsterdam's last cup featured 30), and allowed the judges a full month to evaluate each strain, indicating that it is not merely a toke-fest, but a thoughtful competition. This year's winner was NYCD, with First Mention going to Destroyer and Second mention going to Super Skunk.
The notion of 420 was also foreign to even the most passionate pot-smokers I encountered. I spent April 20, one of my favorite holydaze, in Buenos Aires, taking it upon myself to initiate my new friends in the 420 tradition. At Pulpot, we boldly took a massive bong right out onto the sidewalk in defiance of the law and celebration of the day and smoked joints on the street. Even though no one knew that 4/20 is the other day I celebrate my birthday, I was gifted with freshly-harvested buds that day, a bud grinder, chocolate-flavored rolling papers with my name on them, and ganja chocolate. I turned the chocolate into “haute chocolate” for myself and the cute Argentinian boy I'd met on a pyramid in Guatemala during my search for the best marijuana in Central America (“Stoned in Central America, CC Issue #72), and reunited with just days before amid never-ending smiles...
Argentina just made good drugs even better with the added benefit of decriminalization. Time will tell what impact decriminalization will have on neighboring countries, but one thing is certain: The second-largest country on the continent has spoken, and the world is listening.
"I never thought I would be running a head shop," Pulpa confided with a chuckle. I asked what his parents thought of his chosen profession, and he laughed off his father's reaction — “I spent $1,000 a month on your education, and you become a ganja man?”
But the decision to decriminalize gives legitimacy to businesses like Pulpot and revivifies the movement toward the normalization of marijuana. Boasting the most liberal drug laws on the continent, Argentina is on the verge of becoming the Amsterdam of South America. Although activists are reluctant to rest on this victory, emphasizing that the struggle continues, the tide has undeniably turned, and growing is ever on the rise. As Bifari concluded even before Argentina decriminalized, "There are thousands of us. No one can stop us now."
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Click here for full photo gallery on Flickr