CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is the new graphic novel by Box Brown, published by First Second. It is a most remarkable book in how it packs together a disparate clump of facts and myths and makes sense of it all. Here you find a detailed yet accessible answer to the question: How do you take something essentially good and make so many people believe the exact opposite–and why? The short answer: Because it is something running counter to the self-interest of those in power. The long and twisted history of how and why cannabis became illegal in the United States is the latest in the always insightful and informative Box Brown books. The following is my interview with the author of artist himself conducted via email:
Will we ever get back to a sensible approach to cannabis? Will cannabis ever lose the stigma attached to it?
It’s getting better every day and I think in states where it is legal we are seeing the stigma end. They’re seeing that it’s a good, normal industry and the world has not in fact ended. It’s more difficult for teenagers to get cannabis in legal states, people aren’t turning into sociopaths or anything. I think people really need to live through things to really get used to them and understand the real truth about things. My new mantra is that we need to legalize the whole plant. There is still tons of stigma baked into medical cannabis laws. As a PA medical patient you have to go to this special facility with all kinds of security and pay in cash, etc. this is not helping the stigma. It makes patients feel like they’re carrying some sort of radioactive material. It’s going to be a constant push and pull for the next 10, 20 years or more!
In looking back at how a stigma was created over cannabis, you feature how Mexicans were turned into scapegoats during the Great Depression. The “over-immigration” of Mexicans was blamed for lack of jobs for U.S. citizens, the evil of marijuana and whatever else Mexicans could be blamed for. I guess everything old is new again, right?
This was what immediately stood out to me. I knew cannabis was tied to race now. It was disheartening, though unsurprising to find out it’s been like that since the beginning. The first laws against cannabis were in places where Mexicans were butting up against Americans. El Paso, TX had the first local ordinances and it was 100% just so they could arrest Mexican people, almost nothing has changed in these 90-100 years.
The road to cannabis illegalization in the U.S. was secured when it became a matter of self-interest for the federal government to discredit cannabis. And you show how William Randolf Hearst promoted his own brand of “fake news” in the campaign against cannabis. That propaganda took its toll and has left its mark. Is it your hope that your book will help in rehabilitating how the general public views cannabis—or are you just reporting the facts?
I think my philosophy in this respect is that the facts themselves are so absurd that they make their own argument for legalization. I want people to walk away from my book not only supporting legalization but realizing that this isn’t just a cash grab. Ending cannabis prohibition is righting an 83-year-old wrong. It’s not there simply for people to get rich. We screwed up royally with prohibition and we need to fix it.
What sparked your interest in pursuing this book? Maybe you can provide a window into what set the wheels in motion. It seems to me that it might be a case of the more you learned about the federal government’s misinformation campaign, embodied in Anslinger, the more it motivated you to document it.
I was arrested for cannabis possession when I was 16, 1996. Since then this has been an extremely passionate interest of mine. It just didn’t make sense to me that cannabis possession was treated with handcuffs, probation, possible juvenile detention, court, etc. and underage drinking was treated with a phone call home. I found out in my research that in 1996, the year I was arrested the Clinton administration was looking to be tough on drugs and the number of people arrested for cannabis in the US in 1996 DOUBLED from the previous year. I was caught up in Clinton wanting to be perceived as tough on drugs.
What can you tell us about your process? I asked you once at some convention about your hand lettering and you said that you prefer to hand letter since you get the best kerning that way. I think you’re right. Share with us how you put a page together and what you do by hand and what you do digitally.
Okay, so I do most everything with traditional tools: pencils, bristol board, ink, micron pens. Everything is hand-lettered. Then I scan inks and do finishing in photoshop, this basically just means adding screen tones. Although recently I bought a bunch of actual screentones from Japan and scanned those. So now when I add tones in photoshop I’m adding in a scan of an actual screentone.
Share with us anything you might like about the research involved. How long did it take for you to put this book together?
It’s kind of a never-ending process. I feel like I’m still researching the book even though it’s been done for a long time and is now published. I had to edit my bibliography for space, the book would have had 20 more pages. Even still I feel there are things that could be updated but you have to call it a day at some point. The whole process takes 1 to 2 years.
You have certainly achieved an impressive level of excellence in creating graphic novel format work that manages to go into detail, finds just the right places to linger, while being mindful of being concise and consistent. Has your storytelling style come to you naturally or did you set out with a plan on how to tackle a subject, being it Andre the Giant or the story of Tetris?
I often think of it the way I think about comedy improv. I think all of writing and creating is improvised. There’s never a plan from the beginning. Even people who do sit down and make a plan are improvising when they’re making up the plan. You’re always making stuff up as you go along and then editing out the bad or irrelevant or inauthentic stuff. I’ve definitely learned a lot since I made the Andre the Giant book. I think I’ve matured a lot as a person and as a cartoonist. Still trying to work on my drawing though!
What lies ahead? Please give us any final thoughts on projects up ahead, whatever comes to mind.
Very focused on cannabis right now, but I will say I’ve got two projects in the pipeline both concerning 1980’s television.
CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is a 256-page trade paperback available as of April 2, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.