DREAMing about Drug Reform: An Interview with Arturo Lua Castillo

By Alexander Lekhtman|March 27, 2018

A candid talk with Arturo Lua Castillo, named Outstanding Student Organizer of 2018 by Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Arturo Lua Castillo

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A candid talk with Arturo Lua Castillo, named Outstanding Student Organizer of 2018 by Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Our tired feet trudged through mud and leaves as we climbed up the mountain of Forest Park. Down below us, miles over the hills and the river, the city of Portland, Oregon gleamed in the night behind a veil of red cedar trees.

It was a humid Saturday evening on the weekend of the 2017 Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) conference. This event brought together a coalition of students and activists from around the world to share ideas and tactics in the fight against the War on Drugs. But after a long day of talks and networking, I had stolen away from the hotel to join in this hike with a group of seven other kids.

I was wrapped up in a conversation in Spanish with some of my Mexican friends. Arturo Lua Castillo called Mexico as well as the U.S. his home, while Juliana and Melissa were visiting from Mexico City to attend the conference.  

The topic was drug words. “I know ‘smoke weed’ in Spanish,” I declared. “Aprendí de mi baterista: ‘fumar mota’!” They laughed. “Bueno!” Juliana said. “Y también, hablamos: yerba, maría, macoña, café, mostaza, y quemar pie de diablo!”

“‘Pie de diablo?’” I repeated. “Feet of the devil?” 

“That’s more common than you’d think,” Arturo said. “Here’s another word for you: ‘Cyph.’”

“That’s Spanish?” I asked.

Arturo laughed. “Of course not, it’s English! That’s what me and my buddies say in the Bronx: ‘Yo, you guys wanna cyph? Last night’s cyph was wild!’”

I would have gladly stayed all night on the mountain, but Arturo was eager to return to the hotel before late to attend the night’s Awards Ceremony. His campus chapter of SSDP at the University of Albany was nominated for an award—so he couldn’t turn up late and covered in mud.

Navigating off the mountain in the dark proved a challenge, and we took many wrong turns along the way—punctuated by louder and louder groans of exasperation by Arturo. I followed behind with Juliana, Melissa, and our other friends, fighting to contain my laughter.

Now, barely a year later on Saturday, March 3, 2018, Arturo Lua Castillo was presented with the Outstanding Student Organizer Award by Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland.  

Arturo is originally from Mexico but lives now in Mt. Vernon, New York, just north of the Bronx. He studies both Economics and Latin American Studies at the University of Albany (SUNY Albany). He is the President of the his campus chapter of SSDP, a position he’s held for two years. He joined the campus chapter in his first year at the school. During his time with SSDP, he’s proud of having increased the chapter’s membership, lobbied for local drug policy reforms, and changed the school’s campus policies to put condoms in vending machines.

“Because we’re in the state capital we’ve been blessed with many lobbying opportunities,” Arturo said. His chapter—along with other SSDP around the state—joined together to lobby for ‘Ban the Box’, a bill which aimed to eliminate criminal history screenings from college applications. The initiative succeeded in pressuring the SUNY system to amend their own application process, allowing people who were formerly convicted or incarcerated to more easily pursue educational opportunities. Arturo also helped lead a lobbying initiative to legalize marijuana in New York state—a fight which is ongoing.

“One of my greatest achievements so far is just being able to get more students involved in the organization,” he told me. “It shows because before we used to only have about four people that would come to the SSDP conferences—and those four would be the entire chapter. Now this year, we were able to bring nine students. So I’m very proud of that.”

I caught up with Arturo in the midst of the learning and festivities at the conference, and we sat down to discuss his background in the drug reform movement and his place in it as a young Mexican-American.

What got you interested in drug activism in the first place, and what keeps you interested?

At first I simply wanted to learn more myself. I was very curious about the cannabis industry, and I still am. But as I learned about that, I learned more about how it’s a machination for oppression. My interests went from strictly the business side to also including a very strong human rights interest. I work to fight the systematic oppression many groups of people face today.

How has learning about the War on Drugs brought you closer to your own history?

One of the things I began to study more is the history of my people. For example, psilocybin has played such a key role in the religions and beliefs of Pre-Colombian cultures where I’m from. Before that, all I really heard about psilocybin was just ‘magic mushrooms’. I only understood the American culture surrounding its recreational use—that you get to see a lot of trippy shit—but I knew nothing about its ritual and sacred use.

I’m grateful also for the excellent Latin American and Caribbean Studies department at the University of Albany. The education they’ve given me informs and inspires my activism in this space. The more I learn of this history, the more I recover little bits of the past, little bits of my identity, that have been lost.

How did you in turn educate your parents about these issues?

It was a slow domino effect. My parents always knew that I loved learning and I’m very scholarly, and they always supported that. As I learned about the War on Drugs, I learned too about our culture and I said to them, ‘You know I love to learn but now I’m learning about us, our people, and I’m learning about drugs.” My conversations with my parents about our history, who we are, and how this whole thing has been used to repress our people has been able to change their minds.

It was a long process. I didn’t convince them in one session. But I began opening up their minds to different perspectives gradually. Until finally, I told them I smoke weed, and they said at this point, with all I’ve told them, that’s not even a  problem.

Can you talk about your brother’s impact on you, and how you found hope in an unexpected place?

My younger brother suffers from autism. He has never been able to socialize and live a normal life. Ever since I was really young I was always thinking about my brother’s diagnosis: What can we do? What can be done? Through the years you get so used to doctors and other people telling you nothing can be done for him. So you just become numb.

There are many families like mine who just want their kids to have a good quality of life. We’ve experienced so much pain for my brother with synthetic drugs. It’s an unbelievable hypocrisy that the drug the doctor gives you has a side-effect that is the same symptom that drug is meant to treat.

If you have a drug to treat mood swings, one of the side effects shouldn’t be drastic mood swings. Before he was being medicated, he’d have a violent mood swing, but then with the drug it’s a depressed mood swing. Neither of those two things should happen. That’s simply not treatment.

But then I learned about cannabis as a potential treatment for autism. Certain cannabinoids might help in reducing those mood swings and allow them live easier.  

Whenever new research comes out, it gives me hope. There’s still work to be done. We’re still not sure what the effects of cannabis are on autism. I hold onto that hope that maybe it can help. If it can help his mood, it can help him live a better quality of life, then it’s worth it. Even my father has supported this.

How does your family and national background impact you as a student and an activist?

Where we come from in Mexico there isn’t much. We were farmers back home. We were so poor we sometimes only had one meal for the whole week. Thankfully, through the prosperity we found in the United States we were able to buy lands and we’ve come a very long way. We now own lands back in Mexico, we’re healthy, and we’re stable but this all came after a lot of trauma.

Getting across the border was a big deal for our family. When I was several months old, my father left Mexico for the U.S. When I was three years old he came back down to Mexico to meet us, and I didn’t even recognize him. That broke his heart. So he said, “We have to be a family. We have to be together.” That’s when my family decided we would go to the U.S.

But ever since then, there’s a bit of a survivor’s guilt that you live with. You see all the trouble going on back home and all the people you left behind. The good things that happen in this new life hurt a little bit. It’s bittersweet, because you realize what you missed out on.

I just recently met my grandmother for the first time, this past year here in the U.S. She had finally acquired a visa and she was able to visit this country for a month. Had I been where I was born, my grandmother would have been like a second mother. The whole family raises us. We’re meant to have these really close bonds, it’s how we are as a culture. It’s very hurtful, to be estranged from her for so long, to not even be able to hug her. It’s especially hurt my mother a lot. It’s hard to live with my family and see that pain.

What other family do you have in Mexico or elsewhere?

I have a lot of cousins and uncles and aunts. Many of my family remain in Mexico, but thankfully a lot of them have been able to move to the States. We have some family now in New York and in California. That distance between all of us sucks. We should all be together.

In what other ways has your immigration status affected your life?

While I was applying to college, one of them was giving me a particularly hard time applying. They were treating me as a foreign student. They were asking me to pay the international tuition, even though I was eligible for in-state tuition. They wanted bank statements and all kinds of other documents. I got on the phone with a woman from Admissions to explain my situation. After she realized I was a DACA recipient, her tone changed severely.

‘Well, if you do get in,’ she started to say, ‘if we do accept you, being that you are an illegal immigrant,’—and I hung up. Those are still very hurtful words, regardless of your political stance. To tell someone they are illegal, is just wrong. I didn’t follow through with my application. I thought, if this is just admissions, what is administration like?

So my status has closed some doors, but some of them I have closed myself, because I don’t have a tolerance anymore. Since the age of five I’ve been called an illegal alien. In every document I’ve seen, I’ve had to put down this admission that I am a little bit less human—and I’m sick of it and I won’t take it. I’m just as much a human being as anyone else.

How has the recent political turmoil around the future of the DACA program affected you?

I have to say, on this issue the U.S. government has disappointed me my entire life. I’m upset, I’m frustrated, but to a certain degree now I’m not surprised. I firmly believe anyone else in my situation, had they come from another country, they would have been called refugees. But for us we just hear, ‘You’re an immigrant and we don’t want you here.’

What is the relationship between this immigration crisis and the War on Drugs?

A lot of us are only immigrants here because of the War on Drugs. There was a point in time when we were only in the U.S. because of crippling poverty in Mexico. As the years went by, while I was away, things got very violent in my home state of Michoacán. Now, we stay here because going back would mean returning to a very violent place. When I speak to other Mexicans and tell them I’m from Michoacán, they just fall silent. Because they know what happens there, and it’s very hard to hear sometimes.

I had a childhood friend back home—or so my mom reminds me, as I was so young I barely remember. A couple of years ago he disappeared and his family was so distraught. They eventually found out he had gotten mixed up int he wrong crowd and landed in jail in Mexico City for petty theft. Then this last year my parents told me the story of someone else whose remains were found in a black plastic bag. Investigators concluded he was dismembered alive. It’s not just people who get caught up in the wrong crowd, or people in the drug business, that die in these ways. Oftentimes innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire.

Why do you think it is important for people like yourself to speak up about this crisis?

I can only speak for myself, because all of our situations are unique. But one of the reasons I’ve started speaking out about this is because I’ve come to terms with what could happen. I know I may have to leave the US, I may be deported, especially because of my outspokenness. There have been many immigration activists who have gotten deported solely because they were outspoken about this. This is a risk I am fully willing to accept. I have an education now, which is the most valuable thing I have, and I believe I can use that either in Mexico or Canada, or hopefully keep using it in the U.S.

This isn’t about just me, and I can’t just sit idly by while all of my fellow Dreamers are in this same crisis. Not all of us can speak up. Many of us can’t make that sacrifice, and I fully respect that. That’s why I’m speaking up for those who can’t.

What do you want to say to others like you in your predicament to give them hope?

One of the things I tell people is that the government can take away your presence here, or your rights, and use different labels for that purpose. But they can never take your humanity, or your knowledge, and you need to hold onto both those things. And if you don’t have enough knowledge, don’t worry because you can acquire that. And you don’t need a college education necessarily, all you need to do is educate yourself and have faith in humanity and stick through it. Because you need that knowledge to fight for your rights.

Believe me, there are more people who are with you—on your rights, on your humanity, that believe you are a person, that you matter—than there are against you. And the course of history shows there will be more who agree with you and will join you.

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Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander Lekhtman is an editorial fellow at Filter.