Stepping away from chronicling the history of pop culture icons such as Andy Kaufman and the videogame Tetris, cartoonist Box Brown turns to the history and cultural impact of marijuana in Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, which was published April 2 by First Second.
Brown examines the vast history of marijuana with care, diving in headfirst to record its role in eastern mythology through the herb’s journey from Spain to the Americas. Since its importation into the U.S. in the 19th century by Mexican immigrants, the drug has been repeatedly demonized by government officials falsely attaching it to social stigmas around race, sex, violence, and psychosis as it entered early jazz culture and then the counter culture. Brown offers a thoughtful timeline that ends with the popular demand for medical and recreational use of cannabis and the beginning of the legalization process we see today..
What were some of the reasons behind writing this book and how you structured the story?
So, I’ve had kind of a long personal history with cannabis. I was arrested for possession when I was a teenager. When I was sixteen back in 1996. And you know, I kind of saw what went down in the legal system from that perspective of a teenager. It was obvious to see, like, how much special treatment I got just because I was a white kid from a somewhat affluent suburb.
Let me just say also that doing this book was like working on [my earlier book about the popular videogame] Tetris because when I was working on the Tetris book I was kind of thinking about the game as the main character. I was trying to do the same thing here with cannabis and have the story follow cannabis around as if it were a character with it’s own personal history.
How did you decide where to start your history of marijuana?
It’s not as if cannabis kind of came from any one particular culture; it was always around. It’s like alcohol or something that’s been around forever. But once written language came about, some cultures wrote about it. I mean in the Hindu religion it’s written into their holy books. We only know about who wrote about it and where it entered popular culture. It’s not this thing that was invented in 2012 in Colorado and I think that there’s some part of the population that thinks that in a way.
The book doesn’t shy away from how the issue of race and how it has been used to stigmatize the use of cannabis and make it a focus for the police. How important was it for you to make that a focus?
Going into it I knew that there was a big racial disparity in who’s arrested for cannabis possession and who gets harsher sentences; it’s anybody who’s not white, basically. I knew that [the history of targeting people of color using marijuana] was a big deal in [the legalization movement]. It was interesting to me that when I went and finally looked back at the history of marijuana it was always about the subjugation of other races. That was the intended purpose and it has accomplished that purpose really well. So I really wanted to make that the centerpiece because I think that a lot of the discourse around cannabis is often tongue in cheek. It’s kind of a big joke like, Cheech and Chong, you know. I wanted to focus on the victims of the war on cannabis that’s been going on for 83 years.
How did you feel about using a cartoon to illustrate the history of a substance with such a lengthy and dreary history of racist and misguided public policy?
Difficult subject matter in comics is kind of like—I hesitate to say fun—but what I’m in here for is to communicate ideas. Even though my comics are cartoony and reminiscent of Nancy, or something like that, they're really just the way I communicate ideas. I think that's one of the powers of comics is that you can sneak in heavy ideas via this comics conduit. It helps people understand [difficult or complex subjects] by using clear images.
What is your reaction to current efforts to legalize marijuana and what do you hope to accomplish with this book?
So what we’re seeing now are people in power still using cannabis to subjugate people. Like in the legalization on the east coast it’s big corporations. They say “we’ll set up this cannabis thing for you as long as long as there’s no home grow. As long as it’s still illegal to grow your own.” So these large corporations leave out small businesses by making the license to grow cannabis prohibitively expensive so there's no small business access.
The book is competing against at least 83 years of [anti-cannabis] propaganda. There’s still a large portion of the population that believes that cannabis leads to harder drugs and causes psychosis. Every single one of the lies made up during the Reefer Madness period gets brought up daily by somebody. So I would hope that I am trying to combat against that and give cannabis a clear name.