If you want to learn more about America’s long sordid war on drugs in general and marijuana in particular, there are no shortage of books on the topic. But if you’re looking for a quick primer to get yourself up to speed, one that will entertain as well as enlighten, then consider grabbing a copy of “Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America,” the latest graphic novel by award-winning cartoonist Box Brown.
“Cannabis” is a shorthand take that tells how the plant arrived on these shores and the manner in which it came to be demonized. It’s an instructive look at how racism and mass hysteria drove the crackdown on something that medical and scientific experts understood even at the time to be of little harm. In a story that’s easily read in one sitting, Brown makes it abundantly clear that the authorities were (and for the most part still are) much further removed from reality than even the most THC-addled stoner and shows how the anti-drug frenzy of a handful of overly empowered bureaucrats (one in particular) spread beyond America’s borders and across the globe.
Before getting to that insanity, however, Brown opens his story in India, where legends from thousands of years ago tell of the cannabis plant being gifted to the god Shiva, who planted and harvested it. Cannabis became sacred to Hindus, and by the 1890s its use was so widespread that the British, who then held India as a colony, became alarmed. Aggressive research was performed in an effort at finding something – anything – to justify outlawing it. The final conclusion was that apart from temporary intoxication, there was no harm to be found. And so the British did what the British were inclined to do: They taxed it.
Brown then jumps to the New World, where the Spaniards first introduced hemp to the vanquished Aztecs. It was intended as an industrial crop, but by the 1760s Mexicans had, through botanical experimentation, discovered other uses for the plant. And while the Catholic Church condemned it, the Mexican people embraced cannabis smoking as a relaxing group activity.
And so it generally remained. Cannabis wandered into the United States in the late 19th century and was quickly incorporated into patent medicines, but, in an age when opium and cocaine were also household cupboard items, it didn’t cause a stir.
The government didn’t get involved until the Mexican Revolution, the decade-long war begun in 1910 that sent refugees over the border, raising alarm bells being echoed again today. Populist politicians evoked stories of drug-crazed Mexicans to whip up fear. Meanwhile, the plant found its way into New Orleans and other cultural hubs where it quickly grew popular among jazz musicians, who were, of course, black. The situation was ripe for exploitation by any unethical individual looking for a ticket to power.
As any student of drug war history knows, that individual was Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger had all the traits needed to turn cannabis into the Devil’s lettuce. But as Brown makes clear, it took him awhile to come to this conclusion.
Appointed to the office by Herbert Hoover in 1930, Anslinger’s initial focus was opium, which doctors were then prescribing in such gratuitous amounts as to create a nation of addicts (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, state legislatures were outlawing cannabis as a tool for rounding up and imprisoning minorities, and before long Anslinger, a deeply racist man, saw the benefit in pursuing federal prohibition.
Brown presents the well-documented story. Like his British forebears in India, Anslinger sought any excuse to outlaw the plant but kept coming up dry. Research consistently showed it safe, and, despite lurid claims by yellow journalists and law enforcement hard-noses, there was precious little evidence tying cannabis use to criminal behavior.
This is where the British opted for taxation. But not Anslinger. In yet another antecedent for today, he turned to alternative facts. If the drug couldn’t be honestly tied to crime, it could certainly be dishonestly connected.
And so it was. The bulk of this book follows Anslinger’s despicable career, which resulted in hundreds, then thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of nonviolent people being jailed.
The latter pages offer a short run through the Nixon administration’s dismissal of studies that continued to proclaim the plant as safe, opting instead to escalate the drug war in order to lock up minorities and hippies. Nixon also demanded that other countries, including India, crack down on it.
Brown then turns to the 1980s AIDS epidemic, when the therapeutic benefits of cannabis were first fully realized, leading to the rise of medical marijuana. From there he moves into the tenuous present, where legalization gained the momentum just two decades after the peak of the Just Say No anti-drug movement initiated by Nancy Reagan. For the first time there’s reason for optimism, but the forces seeking to stamp cannabis into oblivion still operate.
Because he’s a graphic novelist and not a historian, Brown does take a few liberties, primarily by placing thoughts in Anslinger’s mind a couple of times. And earlier histories from India and Mexico have to be partly inferred because documentation isn’t extensive. But overall this book is exceptionally accurate to what happened. Brown’s uncluttered black and white cartooning style helps drive the story without distracting from it.
And the story told is tragic. One of lives imprisoned, destroyed, and sometimes lost. Not because of cannabis but because of the government’s response. Meanwhile, the plant itself, Brown notes near the end, “still has never killed anyone.”
David James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.
Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America
First Second Books