Feature: Cannabis Culture in Buenos Aires -- Alive and Smokin', But With One Eye Peeled for the Police 9/16/05

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Marijuana was by no means the primary focus of last week's 1st Latin American Conference on Drug Policy Reform in Buenos Aires, but as everywhere in the world, its users and supporters make up a good chunk of the drug reform movement. And although when it comes to drug policy reform in Latin America, people are typically talking about coca and cocaine, in Buenos Aires as elsewhere, most drug users are marijuana consumers.

The Buenos Aires cannabis crowd is arguably the most organized in all Latin America, thanks to folks like the Argentine Harm Reduction Association, MariaLibre Coffee House producer Daniel Sam, and Ezequiel Delpra, who along with Leo Diaz and Juana Maria Faselli operates Pulpot, the city's first head shop. Two years ago, ARDA and the city's cannabis culture brought out thousands of people for the first Million Marijuana March in a city famed for the tango but also the birthplace of Argentina's rock nacional and center of the Southern Cone's thriving rave culture.

The city's rave culture also embraces pot, if last Saturday's mega-event featuring South American superstar DJs Martin Garcia and Hernan Cattaneo at the cavernous Costa Salguero was any indication. Some 15,000 or 20,000 bonarenses (residents of Buenos Aires) danced and tranced the night away, many of them obviously using Ecstasy, but many more of them smoking porros, as the stink of crappy Paraguayan pot (the South American equivalent of Mexican brick weed) filled the air. But there were also the occasional whiffs of the kind bud.

The ubiquity of Paraguayan pot at the Saturday night show reflects the situation in the rest of the country. Argentine police make bust after bust of the Paraguayan bricks -- they seized a tanker truck stuffed with 6,600 pounds this week -- but the high-dollar hybrid weed beloved of connoisseurs, while not unknown, is rare, perhaps because growing one's own is simply too scary given crowded conditions and the attitudes of local police, as local activists reported.

"We would like to open a grow store," said Delpra, whose Pulpot head shop limits itself to paraphernalia and pro-cannabis items such as bumper stickers, patches, and posters. "But the time is not yet right." Reflecting the official attitude toward such enterprises, Pulpot has no sign announcing its presence, and it is further hidden by a steel front window shutter drawn down to chest level, obscuring the merchandise within.

Delpra's enterprise is as much about legalizing marijuana as it is about making money, he said, adding that the business barely survives. "We are pushing the law, we are spreading the seed. It is a passion," he said inside his store Tuesday afternoon. "With each sale, we include material about legalization. The police consider this illegal promotion of marijuana. Thus, for example, it is dangerous for us to have a table at festivals."

Delpra and his crew have been creative. One of their projects was the stenciling of marijuana leaves on the green light on city traffic lights. "We do many things," said Faselli. "We also put cannabis leaf stamps on money. People see those and have to think about cannabis," she said.

In another creative action set for this Sunday to mark the spring equinox (Argentina is south of the equator), the Pulpot crew and associated activists will plant a living pot plant in a prominent location, then call the mass media and the police. "You can pull up a plant, but you can't stop spring," said Delpra. The plant will be accompanied by a sign proclaiming "I am giving my life for peace," he added. It's all part of activist campaigns to keep the marijuana issue in the limelight, Delpra said.

The Pulpot people aren't the only ones active in the scene in Buenos Aires. Daniel Sam, a bearded, long-haired, live wire, has operated the MariaLibre Coffeeshop Cultural at various locations in the city since 2000. "We conceived this as a space where we, the pot smokers of Buenos Aires, can develop our cannabis culture, which has almost the same demands all over the world, such as stopping the arrests for smoking marijuana and home-growing as a tool against the true mafia formed by drug traffickers and corrupt police and politicians," Sam explained.

While the coffee shop operated without serious problems in the city center until 2002 and in the Abasto neighborhood until 2004 and as a floating coffee house -- a sort of temporary autonomous zone -- this year, earlier this month police in the Flores neighborhood raided MariaLibre, charging Sam and others with "apology," or promoting marijuana use, and facilitating the sale of marijuana. "We never did that," Sam said. "People only smoked what they brought with them." Sam could also face federal marijuana cultivation charges because police seized and carried off a marijuana plant "which was our host," Sam explained.

But it's not just about marijuana for Sam, who along with his wife provided all sorts of assistance for the Buenos Aires conference. "We will continue with our activities despite this, and we will continue with all of the projects for harm reduction, legalization, and human rights," he said. "Because of what has happened to us and much more, we need the support of the human rights and anti-prohibitionist movements and we need to unite with them."

And that's part of what the Buenos Aires conference was all about. Buenos Aires pot smokers rubbed shoulders with Andean coca growers, Brazilian harm reductionists, and European activists, not to mention Latin American judges and legislators. "It's like the world wide weed," laughed Pulpot's Delpra.

MariaLibre will be back, said Sam, but it will probably continue to have a divided existence. "Yeah, we smoke in the coffee house, as well as in the street and everywhere else, but not always. At the 'daylight' coffee house, people drink beer and coffee and we invite them to sign the petition to modify existing law, and people read and exchange ideas. It's not like a coffee house as much as a center for movement activism," he explained. "But the 'nighttime' coffee house is less public and the activities take on a more spiritual tone where the music and the ambience are ideal for the customary use of cannabis; that is, to smoke it, and to exchange knowledge about home growing and to plan our next interventions."

Last year, the Buenos Aires Million Marijuana March was shut down by police (one that came off without a hassle in the provincial city of Rosario drew 12,000 people), but according to Sam and others, it will be back with a vengeance next year. "The Buenos Aires marches are a grand event," Sam said. "Everybody comes, and we are calling everyone out for the next one in May 2006."

Despite -- or because of -- the repression it faces on a daily basis, the cannabis movement is alive and vibrant in Buenos Aires. And it is learning a lesson Cannabis Nation everywhere needs to learn: It's not just about marijuana. Of course, the movement showed up at the conference, said Sam. "Strength through unity."

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Issue #403 -- 9/16/05

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Feature: Judges and Legislators from Across Latin America Call for Radical Drug Law Reform | Feature: REFORMA Issues the Buenos Aires Declaration, Eyes 2008 Vienna UN Session | Feature: Cannabis Culture in Buenos Aires -- Alive and Smokin', But With One Eye Peeled for the Police | Europe: Former Scottish High Court Judge Says Legalize It | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Canada: Liberals Give Up on Marijuana Decriminalization Bill for Now | Health Canada Revisits Proposal to Distribute Medical Cannabis in Licensed Pharmacies | Latin America: In Continuing Spat, US Decertifies Venezuela for Lack of Anti-Drug Cooperation | Web Scan: Cato Pain Forum, Slate on Rehnquist and Placidyl, Alternet on the Marijuana War, NORML Video Blog | Weekly: This Week in History | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar |

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