The thought of reading a history book may give you yawn-inducing flashbacks of falling asleep over textbooks in high school. But illustrator and cartoonist Box Brown found an inventive way of to present a subject you definitely didn’t study in school – the history of cannabis – in a new graphic novel.
Published by First Second Books in April 2019, “Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America” follows humanity’s interaction with cannabis, starting with its significance in Hindu mythology and religious practices, and the introduction of industrial hemp in North America by Spanish colonizers, leading its eventual cultivation for consumption throughout Mexico.
In both instances, the story is similar: Government officials of European origins were suspicious of indigenous people who consumed cannabis and attempted to outlaw its use by connecting it to instances of violence, mental illness, or immorality.
While cannabis could be found in some early 20th century patent medicines, cannabis culture truly arrived in the U.S. with increased immigration during the Mexican Revolution. Immigrants shared their cannabis with the black laborers they worked and lived with, leading to its association with jazz music in urban areas.
The first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger led the charge to regulate drugs (and collect tax revenue pharmaceutical companies) in the 1930s. Newspapers helped by exaggerating the association of cannabis use with violence and moral degradation – especially as its use by white Americans grew.
Throughout Brown’s book, an undercurrent of racism and greed fuel the story of cannabis in America. Sensationalized stories about crimes committed by cannabis users (whether or not they had been using at the time of the crime) sold more newspapers. Although usage rates by both white people and people of color are similar, white people are less likely to be arrested and convicted for use. Drug companies had more to gain financially if cannabis remained illegal.
Those issues are relevant today as states reverse laws outlawing cannabis use, and people of color remain incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Millions of dollars are collected in revenue and taxes, but the communities that have been negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis aren’t the primary beneficiaries of the newly-legal industry.
While Brown’s point of view about cannabis is evident, he provides a literary bibliography to cite his sources and further the spread of factual information about cannabis. As a writer for the publication with the same intent, I found his book an engaging and approachable way to begin further in-depth study of a history that remains misunderstood by many.
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