Weeding Out Reefer Madness

EW talks with the author of Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America about the racist history of marijuana laws

In his graphic novel Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, the New York Times-bestselling author Box Brown tells the unfamiliar, violent and racist history of marijuana legislation, and how American lawmakers used propaganda to set off a nationwide moral panic that would set the stage for a “war on drugs” that disproportionately punished people of color.

His deceptively simple drawings are one of his artistic calling cards and also are featured in Brown’s other books, such as Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Tetris: The Games People Play and Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.

Brown spoke with Eugene Weekly about his inspiration for the book, how he got into comics and current efforts to legalize marijuana.

Did you read comics as a child?

I started reading comics around 10 or 11, and I would read Iron Man, X-Men, stuff like that. And then I stopped reading comics when I got to high school or junior high. I think I thought they were for kids. I wanted it to be more adult. I then got back into reading comics later on in high school and in college. I got really into Life in Hell, the Matt Groening strip, and stuff like that. 

But I didn’t start drawing comics until I was in college. I was just drawing little tiny gag comics in my notebook while I was supposed to be taking notes. And that’s kind of how it started. I was an English major, and I never considered myself an artist. I liked to draw, but I didn’t think I was good enough to take a serious pursuit.

When did you start pursuing comics seriously? Was there any particular element of them that drew you to them?

When I was like 25, I started coming across indie comics and alternative comics and saw that there were comics that are weird — not superhero comics and New Yorker-style comics. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

How would you describe your own art style?

It’s hard to pick apart and describe your own work. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror. You see all the mistakes and the things you’d want to change. And when other people see you, they don’t see that stuff at all. They see the good things, or they see the things that you think of as a mistake as something that makes it unique. 

My friend [cartoonist] Noah Van Sciver talks about when you look at your work and you see mistakes — that’s the stuff that other people see and that’s what makes your drawing style, you — it’s those perceived mistakes. I dunno. I guess I draw in my own unique way.

Maybe some people look in the mirror and they don’t nitpick themselves and see mistakes, but that’s what it’s like for me. You could go crazy doing that. So it’s this weird balance you have to strike between looking for things that you can actually improve and things that don’t need to be worked on. And also being accepting of what your drawings look like. They don’t have to look like somebody else’s drawing. 

Turning to Cannabis, throughout your life, what was your relationship with marijuana like?

One of the reasons that I became interested in cannabis was because when I was 16, I was arrested for possession of cannabis. And it wasn’t like I was a huge cannabis user for a long time. It was probably maybe the tenth time I had ever used it in my life. 

Being arrested was like this traumatic experience. You get handcuffed, they drive you downtown, and you have to go to court. I was on probation. I was drug tested, all this different stuff. That was a big experience in my life, and I was constantly struck by how it wasn’t fair. The kids that got busted for underage drinking didn’t have to go to court. Their parents came and picked them up, so I kind of became obsessed with it. 

It wasn’t until recently that my publisher was cool with the idea of making it into a book. I pitched it in like 2015, and it wasn’t until now that it came to fruition. I think that just shows  how much things have changed in society as far as the way people feel about cannabis.

After the age of 16, are there any other memories that you had with marijuana that stuck out?

I definitely use cannabis a lot; I’m a medical patient in Pennsylvania. OCD is a big issue that I have. Cannabis helps, in a way. It’s funny, like certain strains kind of make it worse. But some strains really, really help. For like probably the last 10 years, it’s really been daily use for these issues, and it helps a lot. It really helps me make comics and work in a mood where I can quiet this portion of my brain that’s constantly moving and allow me to focus on what I want to do, like make comics — or dinner.

How did you approach marijuana’s racist and sometimes violent history?

The social justice aspect of cannabis is the most important thing, and it’s often an afterthought when we talk about legalization. It’s kind of well known now that people of color are arrested at a higher rate for cannabis even though use rates are the same. It was interesting and sad to me that to learn that was the purpose of the law from the beginning: to arrest people of color, especially with Mexicans.

How do you feel about current efforts to legalize marijuana?

We’re seeing people who are ostensibly on the side of the legalization with really, really bad ideas or no ideas. Recently — I’m in the Philly cannabis activist community — a friend of mine was talking to a state representative in Pennsylvania about the high costs of medical cannabis and his response was: “Oh, the prices, don’t worry about the prices. Because once we get the health insurance companies involved, it’s not going to be a big deal.” And I wanted it to reach through the phone and strangle this guy.

Price, to me, is about social justice just as much as releasing prisoners and stopping arrests is because this is a plentiful, natural resource that should be available for use by anybody.

To wrap things up, is there anything you hope people will take away after reading your book?

I think cannabis users, for the most part, are on board with true legalization. But I would hope that the people who are not interested in cannabis who might read the book, I hope that it changes the way they see legalization. We hear a lot of people say, “Oh yeah, I’m for legalization. We should legalize it, tax the shit out of it.”  

And I want to say: “No, don’t tax the shit out of it. Tax it like any other product.” 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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