Article by Uki Goñi, The Guardian
Alicia Castilla was watering the plants in her garden on a quiet Sunday afternoon when five police patrol cars screeched to a halt outside her home. A team of 14 officers “armed to the teeth” stormed through her gate and arrested the mild-mannered, 66-year-old intellectual. They seized everything they could find: computers, her mobile phone, books, even an orange squeezer.
They also impounded the 29 cannabis plants she was watering and 24g of marijuana they found in her possession. She was taken to a police station where she spent the night handcuffed to a bench. “They treated me like the female version of Pablo Escobar,” Castilla told the Observer. But far from resembling the infamous Colombian drug lord who inspired the 2015 Netflix series Narcos, Castilla was a peace-loving, grey-haired author whose book Cultura Cannabis had become an unexpected bestseller. Like many Argentinian sexagenarians, she had recently retired to nearby Uruguay. The seized plants were for her personal use. “I make a living writing about marijuana, not selling it.”
Castilla’s arrest in 2011 sent Uruguay into shock. Although the consumption of recreational drugs had never been outlawed in a country that prides itself on its broad-mindedness and liberal institutions, its cultivation and sale remained forbidden. The author faced between two and 10 years behind bars.
Her imprisonment at the women’s prison in the town of Canelones became round-the-clock news. “I fell into a foul-smelling pit that reminded me of Midnight Express. Cockroaches crawled over the bed, there were rats the size of rabbits in the bathrooms.”
Castilla realised she had become a national celebrity when her fellow inmates broke into spontaneous applause on her arrival. The eldest of the 120 women imprisoned there, her fellow inmates nicknamed her “the reefer grandmother”, a moniker that was quickly picked up by the press.
Thousands marched to demand her release. The protests soon galvanised a longstanding demand for the full legalisation of recreational cannabis. “The media coverage was crazy. Legislators started bringing legal marijuana draft bills for me to look at in prison,” Castilla, now 72, recalls.