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I’m the Patriarchy and your War on Drugs keeps me healthy


There was once a Mazatec curandera, Maria Sabina, living in the mountains of Southern Mexico. She sang of other worlds and she made poetry with her songs. She sang like this:

Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch woman
Because I am the sacred opossum
Because I am the Lord opossum
I am the woman Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the woman of the populous town, says
I am the shepherdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the woman who shepherds the immense, says
I am a shepherdess and I come with my shepherd, says
Because everything has its origin
And I come going from place to place from the origin…

Maria Sabina spoke of “the holy children”, the spirits that visited her during her “veladas” (she didn’t use the word “ceremonies” for what she did, instead, calling them vigils). In these veladas, Maria Sabina shared her ancient knowledge of healing and other worlds. People from all over her village visited her for help and guidance. They would sit at night, and she would sing and the holy children would come and speak to her. These children she saw after she ate Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms. The magic mushrooms brought them to her.

And then there was a man from the US. This man was the vice president of J. P. Morgan & Co. This man, R. Gordon Wasson, an investment banker who fancied himself an “ethnomycologist” in his free time. He traveled around the world documenting substance use in religious settings. Then, one day, while in Mexico, someone mentioned that there was a Mazatec woman who used mushrooms, something that nobody had heard of before in the American continent. And of course, Wasson had to see this firsthand. In 1955, Wasson finally met her and sat in a velada. He, too, met the holy children.

What happened afterwards is a defining moment in what would later on become known as “The War on Drugs”. One could say that this is the event that set what would eventually follow, in motion. Wasson returned to the US and wrote a feature for Life Magazine, Seeking the Magic Mushroom, which brought Western attention to the use of these plants for the first time. Shortly after, crowds descended upon Maria Sabina’s village. Celebrities like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Keith Richards visited her, eager to meet “the holy children”. Together with them, thousands who ravaged the natural ecosystems in Maria Sabina’s communities. Eventually, she said:

“From the moment the foreigners arrived, the ‘holy children’ lost their purity. They lost their force, they ruined them. Henceforth they will no longer work. There is no remedy for it.

By 1971, Maria Sabina’s “holy children” were classified as a Schedule I substance by the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, with high potential for abuse and to be treated as “extremely dangerous”. Maria Sabina’s ancient rituals were now outlaws.

Unsurprisingly, 1971 is also the year when the expression “War on Drugs” was first used. It was President Nixon who coined the term, in an attempt to define the policies that his administration implemented as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. However, the ties between the raise of Patriarchal thought and ideologies and the suppression of certain substances, definetely predates the War on Drugs.


Terence McKenna was yet another American controversial figure. An ethno botanist and philosopher, McKenna wrote a great number of texts and left hundreds of hours of recorded talks and spoken word. Personally, I find half his work to be brilliant, while the other half leaves me scratching my head. This half/ half division is not chronological, though. I suppose that, just like any other very prolific writer and speaker, some of his work is likely to be unpolished, not necessarily well thought or elaborated. By far, my favorite of his books is “Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge – A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution”. In this thoroughly researched text, McKenna takes us on a journey through the history of humanity. He documents ancient traditions involving the use of psychedelic substances, the human search for the divine, the intertwined belief systems across civilizations and differing cultures. This text is not only rigorous in the inclusion of documentation and research, but it also dares to offer some theoretical explanations. These explanations, which, the first time I read shed light into the relationship between the politics of our present time and the development of human spiritualities.

In his book, McKenna postulates that the ban on altered states of consciousness and the substances that could bring these altered states was nothing more than the suppression of the sacred feminine and the raise of patriarchy. McKenna says:

We will come across this theme of the ego and the dominator culture often in this reexamination of history. In fact, the terror the ego feels in contemplating the dissolution of boundaries between self and world not only lies behind the suppression of altered states of consciousness but, more generally, explains the suppression of the feminine, the foreign and exotic, and transcendental experiences. In the prehistoric but post-Archaic times of about 5000 to 3000 B.C., suppression of partnership society by patriarchal invaders set the stage for suppression of the open-ended experimental investigation of nature carried on by shamans. In highly organized societies such Archaic tradition was replaced by one of dogma, priestcraft, patriarchy, warfare and, eventually, “rational and scientific” or dominator values. To this point I have used the terms “partnership” and “dominator” styles of culture without explanation. I owe these useful terms to Riane Eisler and her important re-visioning of history, The Chalice and the Blade.’ Eisler has advanced the notion that “partnership” models of society preceded and later competed with, and were oppressed by, “dominator” forms of social organization. Dominator cultures are hierarchical, paternalistic, materialistic, and male-dominated. Eisler believes that the tension between the partnership and dominator organizations and the overexpression of the dominator model are responsible for our alienation from nature, from ourselves, and from each other.

And he adds: “Our culture,[…] is the unhappy inheritor of the dominator attitude that alteration of consciousness by the use of plants or substances is somehow wrong, onanistic, and perversely antisocial”.

This, according to McKenna, is the end result of the raise of patriarchy. Later on in the book, McKenna also brings up the history behind our contemporary love of alcohol, with the associated disdain and prohibition of other mind altering substances and how this has shaped our social interactions:

The suppression of the feminine has been associated with the use of alcohol since very early times. One manifestation was the restriction of alcohol use to men. According to Lewin, women in ancient Rome were not allowed to drink wine.’ When Egnatius Mecenius’s wife drank wine from a barrel, he beat her to death. He was later acquitted. Pompiliu Faunus had his wife whipped to death because she had drunk his wine. And yet another Roman woman of the gentry was condemned to die of hunger merely because she had opened the cupboard wherein were kept the keys to the wine cellar.
Dominator style hatred of women, general sexual ambivalence and anxiety, and alcohol culture conspired to create the peculiarly neurotic approach to sexuality that characterizes European civilization. Gone are the boundary-dissolving hallucinogenic orgies that diminished the ego of the individual and reasserted the values of the extended family and the tribe.

The dominator response to the need to release sexual tension in an ambience of alcohol is the dance hall, the bordello, and the institutionalized expansion of a new underclass-that of the “fallen woman.” The prostitute is a convenience for the dominator style, with its fear and disgust of women; alcohol and its social institutions create the social space in which this fascination and disgust can be acted out without responsibility.

Yet how can we explain the legal toleration for alcohol, the most destructive of all intoxicants, and the almost frenzied efforts to repress nearly all other drugs? Could it not be that we are willing to pay the terrible toll that alcohol extracts because it is allowing us to continue the repressive dominator style that keeps us all infantile and irresponsible participants in a dominator world characterized by the marketing of ungratified sexual fantasy?


Ciudad Juarez has been called the “Ground Zero” of the War on Drugs. From the mid 90’s to this date, there have been an estimated 5000 murdered women in this city. It was this outrageous number of victims that gave us the pervasive use of the word “femicide”. Defined in 1976 as a feminist term by Diana Russell, it wasn’t until the early ‘00s when activists started the widespread use of this term to refer to the killings in Ciudad Juarez. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a report about the killings, stated:

The victims of these crimes have preponderantly been young women, between 12 and 22 years of age. Many were students, and most were maquiladora [manufacturing] workers. A number were relative newcomers to Ciudad Juárez who had migrated from other areas of Mexico. The victims were generally reported missing by their families, with their bodies found days or months later abandoned in vacant lots, outlying areas or in the desert. In most of these cases there were signs of sexual violence, torment, torture or in some cases disfigurement.

Ciudad Juarez is a strategic point to control the flow of illegal drugs between the US (through Texas) and the Mexican Cartels that are in charge of this distribution.

At The Guardian, Ed Vulliamy writes (emphasis mine):

But this is not just a war between narco-cartels. Juarez has imploded into a state of criminal anarchy – the cartels, acting like any corporation, have outsourced violence to gangs affiliated or unaffiliated with them, who compete for tenders with corrupt police officers. The army plays its own mercurial role. “Cartel war” does not explain the story my friend, and Juarez journalist, Sandra Rodriguez told me over dinner last month: about two children who killed their parents “because”, they explained to her, “they could”. The culture of impunity, she said, “goes from boys like that right to the top – the whole city is a criminal enterprise”.

Not by coincidence, Juarez is also a model for the capitalist economy. Recruits for the drug war come from the vast, sprawling maquiladora – bonded assembly plants where, for rock-bottom wages, workers make the goods that fill America’s supermarket shelves or become America’s automobiles, imported duty-free. Now, the corporations can do it cheaper in Asia, casually shedding their Mexican workers, and Juarez has become a teeming recruitment pool for the cartels and killers. It is a city that follows religiously the philosophy of a free market.

“It’s a city based on markets and on trash,” says Julián Cardona, a photographer who has chronicled the implosion. “Killing and drug addiction are activities in the economy, and the economy is based on what happens when you treat people like trash.” Very much, then, a war for the 21st century.

Boys who kill women “because they can”? If that isn’t a glaring result of “Patriarchy gone wild”, then I don’t know what is.

Later on, Vulliami adds:

So Mexico’s war is how the future will look, because it belongs not in the 19th century with wars of empire, or the 20th with wars of ideology, race and religion – but utterly in a present to which the global economy is committed, and to a zeitgeist of frenzied materialism we adamantly refuse to temper

If the war of the future has already claimed the lives of 5000 women, how many more can we expect to die in the name of this War on Drugs? How many more victims will this patriarchal enforcement cost?


I realize how futile it is to try and write about the War on Drugs and its current effect. This War on Drugs that is not just a US phenomenon but something that has spread and multiplied in every nation. I can only offer snapshots. A few flashes here and there; a couple of examples; some portraits and situations. No matter how much I write, I won’t be able to completely capture the perversity of a system that has permeated the entire world.

I could tell you of the rural communities in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia devastated with mass fumigations against coca crops. These leaves which were sacred for the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Andean region, to be used as medicine and in ritual offerings.

I could tell you of the Indigenous Colombian healer, Juan Agreda Chindoy, recognized by the Ministry of Health in his home country as a practitioner of sacred medicine traditions, currently jailed in the US; imprisoned while visiting to hold ceremonies for his country people due to the fact that his ancient tradition, followed by his people  even before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores involves the use of substances classified as “dangerous drugs”.

I could also point out that 50% of foreign females in UK jails are drug mules from Jamaica and that, around 18% of the UK’s female jail population are foreigners, 60% of which are serving sentences for drug related offenses –most of them drug mules. Women, transporting the forbidden substances, driven by poverty and already vulnerable by virtue of their gender.

Or, in the US, I could point to the decimation of Black and Latin@ minorities, jailed for drug offenses and the inherent racial inequality in the American criminal justice system.

I could also highlight the lack of access to health care and people’s self medication with marijuana to deal with mental health issues and pain. These people knowingly breaking laws because their basic healthcare needs are not met.

I could also link the Patents held by multinational pharmaceutical companies on plant compounds only found in the Amazon while the sacred medicines of the Indigenous peoples that have used them for millennia are systematically banned and outlawed.

And yet, I wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface. No matter which new consequence or legal implication I unearth, it will never be enough to cover the entire dimension of the many troubles created by this War on Drugs. A war that enforces dominant cultures by suppressing the sacred feminine, a war that promotes fear of altered states of consciousness because they are “unproductive” and because they can lead individuals to withdraw from participation in our current means of production. This War on Drugs that makes no distinction between addictive and non addictive substances and that refuses to acknowledge studies that question many of the current paradigms. This War on Drugs that only benefits the creation of international structures of power and the oppression of communities and minorities while it offers little or no options for addicts to recover and reinsert themselves in society. A War on Drugs that seems more keen on punishing the vulnerable than in eradicating real dangers. No matter how many examples I draw, how many words I lay down here, I will still be unable to get to the real and dramatic extent of this problem. The best I can do is offer these threads, hoping that what is beneath them becomes clear. Because at the end of it, I will only be looking at the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself, call it patriarchy, call it kyriarchy (or more accurately, both) is what lies beneath. And that, I am afraid, would be too long for a simple post.


  1. I’d never heard of Terence McKenna’s theories before. Damn! Thanks for putting yet another book in my hold queue at the library.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  2. Juliet wrote:

    Unfortunately I don’t have much to add to the conversation, but I wanted to say thank you, Flavia, for this post. I’ve read plenty of garden variety drug war critiques, but none as eloquent and demonstrative of kyriarchy as yours. Posts like this are why I’ve been a regular reader since 2008. Tiger Beatdown has evolved into a diverse blog with a kickass team. You are all awesome. (OK, I’m done fawning over you all now.)

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Saito wrote:

    A lot of this is really fascinating but I don’t understand why these kind of narratives are so often tied up with hostility to science…particularly, in this case, from a scientist(ethnobotanist McKenna)?

    “such Archaic tradition was replaced by one of dogma, priestcraft, patriarchy, warfare and, eventually, “rational and scientific”

    Science has its flaws, I guess, but given how many lives it’s saved through invention of mass-produced penicillin, insulin, anti-malarials, refrigeration, improved crop yields…I dunno. If rational anti-spiritualism leads to diabetics not just dying from ketosis and people suffering from simple curable diseases, I’m pretty OK with that.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  4. Phledge wrote:

    I’m with Saito; rationality and science is a victim, not a perpetrator, of patriarchy. It is used as a tool against the oppressed, when it should be used to topple the oppressor.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  5. Jordan wrote:

    I third Saito/Phledge’s comments; although I’m sure McKenna meant well there’s a real danger in letting the patriarchy own science and rationality, so to speak.

    Also, the idea that the War on Drugs is an expression of extreme free market ideology isn’t right. Ending prohibition is an area where Liberals and (genuine) Libertarians should find themselves in pretty much total agreement.

    Oh, and I never got around to commenting on your last post Flavia, but I just wanted to note for the record that I thought it won the internet.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  6. Brennan wrote:

    Great post, Flavia.

    Saito, I think that what you interpreted as hostility toward science is more of a criticism of the discourse surrounding science–namely, that it is presented as a rational entity completely divorced from societal constructions and expectations. When we buy into the “rational and scientific” party line, we miss the ways in which particular scientific models and hypotheses harm people and reinforce the patriarchy.

    For a historical (and modern) example, see women and psychiatry. For an educational example, see the common misrepresentations of conception. For an economic example, let’s take your example of anti-malarials. With the exception of the recently published vaccine study, there hasn’t been a new malaria treatment developed in decades. The ones we have are mostly arsenic-based and very toxic. We have, however, developed a *lot* of newer and more expensive medications for high blood pressure, which incidentally don’t work any better than their cheaper predecessors. That’s a result of economics, not science, but it affects scientific advancement and the quality of medical care. If we concede that science is somehow detached and objective in the face of a subjective society, then we lose the opportunity to use intersectionality to make science better. Wow, run-on sentence attack. Sorry for the tangent.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  7. Jenny wrote:

    I think this is worth a look though:
    and yes, it sucks about Bolivia considering Morales is of indigenous heritage himself.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink
  8. Watson Ladd wrote:

    So Artimisinin doesn’t exist? And I don’t see any arsenic in mefloquine, quinine, etc. At a deeper level I think its a question of modernity. The patriarcal structure of medieval Europe was ended decisively by capital, and that creates the problem of freedom for the first time. Todays feminism is only possible because of the history of capitalism, and it can only advance if capitalism is ended.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  9. sujanna wrote:

    I found your website via ‘Mac Mclelland’s’ tweet.thank you for continuing to brave the shit that gets posted on forthright blogs. all the Best. sherry

    Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  10. MikeV wrote:

    I’ve only ever heard critiques of the War on Drugs in the context of race and class; thank you for this amazing piece Flavia.

    Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  11. Ahab wrote:

    Shannon — If you want to learn more about McKenna, several of his talks have been archived as podcasts at Psychadelic Salon (available through iTunes).

    Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink
  12. strato wrote:

    There is a narrative I find particularly irritating: that matriarchy existed way back when, and then some kind of patriarchal empire destroyed it, and that we have to reconnect with irrationality to reconnect with feminity. Now, I am not saying this is the point of this post (which I find rather instructive), but I see it lurking in the background.

    Take the works of Marvin Harris, for instance. He clearly shows that palaeolithic cultures were extremely embedded in what he calls the male supremacy complex, and that there are not such things as matriarchal societies in the antiquity.

    It is my personal belief that irrationality is the enemy of feminism. That the shamans, the tv preachers and the catholic church are all different tentacles of this oppressing force, telling people tales so that they don’t have to see how f*cked up their lives are.

    And see, you might not be able to separate science from the values and struggles of the society where it is developed. But (1) technological advances do make a difference and (2) if there is a place where meritocracy might just work, this place is amongst scientists.

    Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  13. Other Becky wrote:

    This is a fascinating piece, Flavia. It’s given me a lot to think about (and a lot of reading to do — thank goodness for interlibrary loan).

    I had previously thought about racial effects of the War on Drugs primarily in terms of the mass disenfranchisement (in the US, at least) of POC convicted of drug-related felonies. Once again, my US-centric worldview has kept me ignorant of larger effects everywhere else in the world. Thank you for reminding me.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  14. Emily wrote:

    Another important way that women are disproportionately victimized by the war on drugs involves their surface ties to the underground drug selling economy. A common scenario is a man and woman, cohabiting. The man sells drugs; he has all the contacts above and below him, he purchases the supply, and he makes the business decisions. The woman (his partner) is usually there in the house when he’s selling, she might take messages for him if he’s not home, but for the most part she’s just living with a drug dealer. When her partner gets busted, she’ll be busted alongside him and they’ll often face identical penalties. However, because her partner has information to sell to the police, he’ll usually see a greatly reduced lenient sentence. With no information to offer that her partner can’t, the woman receives the full sentence.

    The War on Drugs is also used to target and oppress sex workers.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  15. DifferentKathleen wrote:

    Strato — glad somebody already said it; it needed to be said.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  16. If instead of trying to “outsmart” people, commenters read what is actually in the piece, perhaps they’d see that neither I, nor anyone quoted in it claimed that before patriarchy there was a matriarchy in place.

    However, reading and commenting what is actually in posts seems to be out of fashion on the internet. Instead, where there were no claims, we invent them so that we can refute them. Interesting rhetoric exercise, just to pick arguments and appear that we know better. However, sadly, baseless as far as this particular piece is concerned.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  17. strato wrote:

    Okay… so maybe I saw something that wasn’t there. But this was what I honestly saw when reading the piece (we all have our personal fixations), and I never meant to outsmart anyone, let alone you. For crying out loud, I am a fan!

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  18. Arakiba wrote:

    Nowhere in Eisler’s books is a matriarchy claimed. Matriarchy is just patriarchy in a mirror — another dominator society based on ranking one gender over the other.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:42 am | Permalink