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How are the witch-hunt and the war on drugs connected?

Atualizado: 13 de jul. de 2020

How are the witch-hunt and the war on drugs connected?


As I have started to learn more about drug policy, new worlds have opened up to me. While studying prohibition of substances, many links that were once apart began to come together. I started to reconsider some of our western systems and ways of life. Especially, I started to review ideas about health and wellness; the way we deal with our bodies and what we call medicine. In fact, what do we call medicine? What are our concepts of medicine’s efficiency? At what point should institutions interfere with the autonomy over our bodies? How is it that the entire system seems to be against the exercise of autonomous care? Be it by feeding millions with pills made of oil — which we usually don't know what are really made of — or be it by not letting us know exactly what is in our food (Brazilian’s laws of non-obligatory warnings about transgenic food on packages).

I became excessively defied about controls which many specific institutions have over our physical bodies, or worse: over our daily choices about them. At some point, 'limits' started to show up. How is it that we ended up with our public health systems as they are now? How come to be so challenging to consider alternative ways of health care? Who decides what are the "good" and the "bad" substances? How? In which ways are those concepts being used by different States around the world? How does it affect the lives of millions? And as I tried to dive deeper into these questionings, other insightful links started to weave themselves into the conversation. They concerned again health and body autonomy. But they concerned especially women.

If the entire “drugs discussion” already leaves one restless, when it comes to body autonomy, if you are a woman, it is likely that your restlessness screams in an even louder voice. The exercise of control that societies impose on female bodies shows itself daily, in almost visible strings of manipulation. Sometimes these strings come in a tiny daily birth control pill shape — that are a big source of problematization when most women who take them do not even understand how the pills actually function, even less their impacts on their own physiology (most women start taking birth control pills before they are 18, which makes it difficult to bring the now common behavior under attention). Sometimes these strings are more subtle, leaving women uncomfortable with simple and natural ideas, like periods and blood; or self-acceptance. It is important to bring up this conversation, in order to open our eyes to the way the reproductive and sexual rights are being dealt with nowadays. The way institutions interfere in women's wombs must be exposed, analysed, talked about. The body must be freed to the individual once more.

What this essay aims to do is a basic (far from complete) chronological approach of some events, relating some special dates and connecting the rise of specific 'power relations' that became stronger in the last centuries around the world. All in hope that we can start to open ourselves to resignify body autonomy.

1. The Witch-Hunt

Contrary to what I believed, going back in time to the witches' times and the periods of their worst hunt is imperative to understand how our western system treats 'health' today. The witch hunt is inherently connected to modern western medicine and its exercise. Why is it that we accept it as more natural taking an aspirin rather than drinking tea to end a headache? How come we are not taught to read most of our body's signs to deal with possible diseases? These and other questionings are more easily analysed when we learn about the 'extermination' of popular care and the rise of the medical profession.

Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. They were abortionists, nurses and counsellors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives[...] For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, [...] They were called "wise women" by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities.”(Ehrenreich, English, 1972, pp.1)

Initially, to comprehend the witch hunt we'll go back to the historical context. Witch hunting spanned for more than four centuries (the worst periods being from the 14th century until the 17th century) across most of Western Europe, and it accompanied the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It is important to situate us chronologically and socially so we can better perceive how the attempt to destroy the control of women reproductive functions has a clear 'capitalist' character.

During the transition from slavery to serfdom between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., the landlords had to grant their slaves with a plot of land and a family of their own, in order to stem their revolts and prevent their flight to maroon communities, and so 'a new class relation developed that homogenized the conditions of former slaves and free agricultural workers'. (Federici, 1998, pp. 23) .

The most important aspect of serfdom was that it gave the serfs direct access to the means of their reproduction (ibidem, 1998, pp.23), which meant dedicating more time to their reproduction and to the negotiation of the extent of their obligations. If the serfs received a plot of land in which they could produce the means to their subsistence and they could pass on this land to their children, this increased the serfs autonomy and life quality significantly. Meanwhile, this arrangement would also provide new community cohesions and cooperation (especially in the use of 'commons' — meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures, etc.).

“[...]Back at this time the sexual division of labor was less pronounced and women 'worked in the fields, in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning, and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men[..] and most of the tasks that female serfs performed were done in cooperation with other women, which was a source of power and protection for them, despite the fact that the Church preached women's submission to men. (Ibidem, 1998, p.25)

As the revolts from the peasantry against the landlords became endemic and intensified, so did the Inquisition. The witch-craze appeared as a solution to contain the mass class population uprisings which was becoming increasingly a problem to the State and Church. The witch hunts and trials were well organized campaigns and followed well-ordered, legalistic procedures.

[…] Undoubtedly, over the centuries of witch hunting, the charge of "witchcraft" came to cover a multitude of sins ranging from political subversion and religious heresy to lewdness and blasphemy. But three central accusations emerge repeatedly in the history of witchcraft throughout northern Europe: First, witches are accused of every conceivable sexual crime against men. Quite simply, they are "accused" of female sexuality. Second, they are accused of being organized. Third, they are accused of having magical powers affecting health—of harming, but also of healing. They were often charged specifically with possessing medical and obstetrical skills. (Ibidem, 1972, pp.10).

While 'exterminating' the witches, the State not only de-organized the popular healthcare of the communities as now decided which type of medicine was considered proper to be exercised. Nowadays we can see the reflections of such changes as modern medicine has “the power to determine who will live and will die, who is fertile and who is sterile and who is 'mad' and who is sane.” (ibidem, 1972, pp.4)

“The other side of the suppression of witches as healers was the creation of a new male medical profession, under the protection and patronage of the ruling classes. (Ibidem, 1972, pp.6)

Even though the Church preached against medical care for the masses, it did not seem to have any problems supporting the medical care for the upper class.

[…] Kings and nobles had their court physicians who were men, sometimes even priests. The real issue was control: Male upper class healing under the auspices of the Church was acceptable, female healing as part of a peasant subculture was not. (ibidem, 1972, p.13)

2. The Rise of the Medical Profession

In the 13th century, the century that preceded the beginning of the 'witch-craze', the new European medicine firmly established itself as secular science and a profession. It is important to remember that at this moment in history, the physicians still did not have 'the scientific evidence' that supposably give them superiority today. As is mostly agreed, the university-trained physicians did not have an efficient methodology or better results than the witches, and their new profession was strictly controlled by the Church and the Catholic doctrine. „University-trained physicians were not permitted to practice without calling in a priest to aid and advise them, or to treat a patient who refused confession. (Ibidem, 1972, p.16)”

The University studies themselves, back then, expose difficulties which are still reflected in how we deal with health nowadays. For example, the attempt to make clear separations from what were “diseases of the body” (which the physicians should deal with) and the “diseases of the soul” (which should be left out for the priests). Or the fact that women were legally barred from university training, which was now required in order to exercise medicine as a profession. New laws enforcements were created to standardize the new universitarian-medical conditions and even though these laws could not prevent the great mass of lay healers to perform their activities, they could be selectively perverse when excluding literate women from middle class that competed for the same clientele as men physicians.

“[...]By the 14th century, the medical profession's campaign against urban, educated women healers was virtually complete throughout Europe. Male doctors had won a clear monopoly over the practice of medicine among the upper classes (except for obstetrics, which remained the province of female midwives even among the upper classes for another three centuries.) They were ready to take on a key role in the elimination of the great mass of female healers—the "witches." (Ibidem, 1972, p.19)”

During witch trials, the State, the Church and medical profession became one. “the Church explicitly legitimized the doctors' professionalism, denouncing non-professional healing as equivalent to heresy”(Ibidem, 1972, p.19). And so the witch hunt was disseminated throughout centuries. A very well structured and organized genocide. And if the witch hunt failed to eliminate the women healers, it branded them forever with the healer-witch stereotype of superstitious or possibly evil, carried until this day.

3. The North-American Health Popular Movement When we jump into the 1830's, in North American soils, a worker-and-women based popular movement was at the beginning of its rise; The Popular Health Movement in the United States was a very important — yet not really talked about — event, concerning the universalization of our Healthcare systems models. The late 1800's in the USA was not pleasant to the majority of its society: the periods of hunger had begun and the poverty in the big cities increased. The working-class put different things under examination; the elitism of medicine, for example. The emerging north american business establishment had strong associations with the set of healers that had become the medical professionals. That explained how a specific set of male, white, middle class 'regular' doctors would dominate the exercise of medicine. “[...]The "regulars," with their close ties to the upper class, had legislative clout. By 1830, 13 states had passed medical licensing laws outlawing "irregular" practice and establishing the "regulars" as the only legal healers. [..]There was no popular support for the idea of medical professionalism, much less for the particular set of healers who claimed it (Ibidem, 1972, p. )” These kind of actions from the medical and the upper class union were strongly rejected by the lower-class population. Setting the environment which would unite female and male workers to reconsider their own Health System. The movement united the popular class to create new sanitary strategies and to collectively rebuild their own autonomy of the caring exercise. Groups and sects would start to gather and medicine would be practiced by anyone demonstrating healing skills —regardless of formal training, race or sex. (Ibidem, 1972, p.). They would teach to audiences basic anatomy and personal hygiene, old habits like frequent bathing and other preventive advices, in opposition to the 'cures' practiced by the 'regulars' doctors. The idea was that once used as a slogan from a wing of the movement “Everyman his own doctor”, and this time they meant woman too. “[...]The health movement was concerned with women's rights in general, and the women's movement was particularly concerned with health and with women's access to medical training. The new medical sects' schools did, in fact, open their doors to women at a time when "regular" medical training was all but closed to them.(Ibidem,. 1972, p.27)” The Popular Health Movement aimed to seriously reconsider medical dogma and practices. “The new sects set up their own medical schools, (emphasizing preventive care and mild herbal cures), and started graduating their own doctors. (Ibidem, 1972, p)” They even brought to discussion, at one point, if the medical profession should be a paid occupation, much less an overpaid “profession”. Soon enough the 'regular' doctors were outnumbered and started to create their own protection strategies. “In 1848, they pulled together their first national organization, pretentiously named the American Medical Association (AMA.) (Ibidem, 1972, p.)” They would also start their offensive against the sects. Sexist arguments would be used to jeopardize the movement: “[..]Women practitioners could be attacked because of their sectarian leanings; sects could be attacked because of their openness to women. The arguments against women doctors ranged from the paternalistic (how could a respectable woman travel at night to a medical emergency?) to the hardcore sexist.(Ibidem, 1972, p)” From then on, with the support of the new american business class (like Rockefellers and Carnegies) and the new scientific theories imported from Europe, the new medical profession established itself firmly. Germ theory had been created by French and German scientists, providing, for the first time in human history “a rational basis for disease prevention and therapy (Ibidem, 1972, p.)” „[...]In 1893 German-trained doctors (funded by local philanthropists*) set up the first American German-style medical school, Johns Hopkins (Ibidem, 1972, p)”, Hospital Schools like John Hopkins would be introduced as the standard of medical education and because of the educational systems elitism (just as it is until today) the medical exercise would be once more left out from popular access.

The investments that were applied in regulating and promoting the ‘regular doctors’ profession, when united with the financial interests from emerging pharmaceutical industries formed a great combo, that once again, was little preoccupied with the masses health. The heavy offensive the Popular Health Movement suffered from the medical professionalism shows once more how little the system is willing to consider alternatives forms of health for individuals. *“[...] The US was emerging as the industrial leader of the world. Fortunes built on oil, coal and the ruthless exploitation of American workers were maturing into financial empires. For the first time in American history, there were sufficient concentrations of corporate wealth to allow for massive, organized philanthropy, i.e., organized ruling class intervention in the social, cultural and political life of the nation. Foundations were created as the lasting instruments of this intervention—the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations appeared in the first decade of the 20th century. One of the earliest and highest items on their agenda was medical "reform," the creation of a respectable, scientific American medical profession.

4. Drugs' Prohibition History

Now let's talk about drugs prohibition and how it is connected to the rise of the pharmaceutical industry. It is of general knowledge that the exceptional money that narcotics monopolies generate has an evident financial interest. Opposed to what was defended, the desperate attempt to control drugs monopoly was not as much a sanitary necessity as a financial concern.

By the beginning of the 1900's, the ancestor traditional uses of alcohol, opium and other medicinal herbs would start to be heavily condemned by the temperance movements (the protestants and anglicans, would agitate the first moral order's movements), by the new „modern chemistry“ and by the new-arised technological medicine.

Once again we see the Church involved with issues concerning body autonomy and moral freedom. During the first national conference about opium in 1903 we see anglican figures, such as Monseigneur Glemp, signalling the firsts attempts against the use and selling of drugs. The new temperance leagues would claim for alcohol and opium's interdiction. Hygienism would win the Western and xenophobia would also be explored at temperance movements.

The chinese workers that were previously brought to the USA to help build iron roads had, by then, settled, along with their cultural traditions, such as opium use. They had their own local business and quarters and started to represent a threat to the majority of the poor national working-class. The opium usage would start to be presented as a source of social degeneration and would be used as an excuse to promote new racist moralisms. Similar stories concerning xenophobia and traditional substances usage can be found with the consumption of marijuana and afro-descendents and mexicans in the USA. We can also find such association in the first cannabis' prohibition laws in Brazil, which were born under clear attempts to control the slave-descendent population. Other perverse uses of substances to control specific populations, as in the case of alcohol and indigenous people (throughout North and South America) were also a violent racist tool.

As the new temperance movements and the fight against substances would grow, we would see once again the new business north-american class interested in financing 'new sorts of business'. This time, serious amounts of money would be seen in massive media investments, which would start to present „big issues“, such as drugs and foreign cultural values, as ideological menaces. Big-scale prohibitionist campaigns would be promoted in the entire country. Promoted by rich collaborators, such as William Randolph Hearst, also known as Harry Anslinger's* friend. These new collaborations between business north-american class, media and government would make the USA feel threatened by the new national catastrophe that drugs usage represented. Which, in reality, was not exactly the case.

In 1909, the USA called for the Shanghai International Conference, the first attempt to regulate drugs internationally (that the USA would choose to make such a first encounter in China, it seems to me, a fine type of irony). This first attempt would not be so well-received by other countries, as the USA believed. The opium that came from Indochine, for example, was a non-negotiable part of France's tax revenue. Or the kif market in the colonies, which was mostly based in the communities traditional use and was also financially crucial to the exploratory countries' economies. Similar financial stories would be shared by Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom, concerning different substances and their colonies (Coca leafs in south-american colonies or cannabis and the kif market in Morocco and North-Africa), not to mention Germany and it's new pharmaceutical industry, which obviously needed big amounts of feedstock, the so called 'drugs' the USA was trying to prohibit. Confronted by the obvious financial reasons preventing the advance of prohibition, the USA (which might be also interesting to mention, was the only one, at this moment, not making money with the opium market) had a brilliant counter-move. What if they limited the 'commerce' of the hard drugs to medical usages? This would be an efficient way to dictate the 'offer and demand' of substances (the ''perfect amount' to the pharmaceutical and chemical industry and just a tiny bit more, so that there is left to move the black market) while, at the same time, controlling other productors States (which would be the countries allowed to produce this specific demand? Perhaps just the colonies or countries which the 'north-hemisphere league' could control economically?). The new idea would start to organize itself in the following years, through many international encounters.

In 1912, the Haye Convention reunited 13 States. The european delegations still needed to protect their opium business in the Eastern, prohibition was still not considered a real option.

In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles would pass on to the recently created 'League of Nations' the mission of controlling opium and other drugs' traffic. The first international institutions became responsible for watching over drug markets and traffic.

In 1925, the first international regulamentation on coca leaves, opium, cannabis and its derivatives (cocaine, heroin and kif) was created.

The WHO, World Health Organization, another very convenient union of interests, is responsible for the classification of new substances. The fabrication and selling of drugs is automatically restricted to scientific and medical uses. Alongside this, in 1952, the first antidepressants and anxiolytics were created.

Between 1909 and 1953, many other international meetings and agreements happened, and we can see how the roadway to drugs prohibition was paved. What happened in those years was the auspicious changing of the prohibition interests: no longer as in the beginning of the century, with USA interests against European ones, but as a new self-sustainable conflict between consumer countries of the North Hemisphere and producer countries of the South.

In 1961, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was a big step to drugs prohibition history. 115 States were present, 77 delegations signed the document prohibiting 108 plants and other natural and synthetic substances. The Single Convention prohibited production and supply of specific (nominally narcotic) drugs and of drugs with similar effects except under licence for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research.

It is rather amusing to see how the web of drugs, healthcare and economic goals is weaved. What is not amusing, but terribly worrying, is to perceive how rarely this 'web' cares for the actual health of individuals. The prohibition of drugs did move big amounts of money between traffic, pharmaceutical industries and States which now 'fought against drugs', but it did not present any solutions to which was, afterall, the first reason of prohibition itself (romantically): drugs consumers' health. Public health issues involving drugs would, in fact, be worsened by the consequences of absolute prohibition.

Other worrying 'indirect' consequences of the prohibition can also be perceived in other areas of life quality. If in a single Convention, a new war on drugs was globally settled, with no actual evidence of its efficiency — of any kind — perhaps other financial moves could also be done with the same use of power control. So, in the same year, the International Union for Protection of Varieties of Plants was born. If other intergovernmental institutions could actually prohibit the three main anodyne plants* worldwide while making money on the production and selling of cocaine and heroin (and let’s remember that these are 'exclusively' for medical and scientific purposes), was it not possible to institutionalize other types of vegetal control? And so the first laws on transgenics, breeding, patents and seeds were created.

Again, in 1961, this time in a different continent, the Third World Congress of psychiatry would adopt the first medical classification of psychotropics, created 4 years before by Professor Jean Delay, also known as the first to introduce psychotropic medicines in hospitals. Such classification would distinguish psychotropics from narcotics. Again, concepts and regulations are created and transfigured in order to attend economical interests. Again, health is a second priority.

*An anodyne substance is a substance which alleviates pain. The main three anodyne plants are cannabis, coca and poppy.


EHRENREICH,B. ENGLISH. D. Witches, Midwives and Nurses.1972.

FEDERECI, S. Caliban and the Witch, 1998..

XAVIER COLLE. F.. La vente libre de drogues, 2000.

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