Box Brown charts the path of cannabis’s colorful global history with a documentarian’s style. From hemp seeds introduced to Mexico during Cortes’s brutal colonial explorations to the cannabis plant’s use by Indian Sadhus in their meditation in the late 19th Century followed by its prevalence in the Jazz epicenters of the United States in the early half of the 20th Century to its modern day status and usage, Brown lays out an intriguing timeline fraught with the kind of drama that only non-fiction can afford. His newest graphic novel “Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America” is a long but easy read that manages to posit difficult questions about the ham-fisted way the substance’s use has been vilified and legislated for more than 100 years, and Brown pulls no punches.
Written and Illustrated by Box Brown
From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, cannabis legislation in America and racism have been inextricably linked. In 1518 Cortés introduces hemp farming during his violent colonial campaign in Mexico. In secret, locals begin cultivating the plant for consumption. It eventually makes its way to the United States through the immigrant labor force. It doesn’t take American lawmakers long to decry cannabis as the vice of “inferior races” and spread lies about the dangers of cannabis. As a result, the plant is given a schedule I classification, alongside heroin. Box Brown delves deep into this complex and troubling history and offers a rich, entertaining, and thoroughly researched graphic essay on the racist legacy of cannabis legislation in America.
Brown is no stranger to provocative subject matter, having recently tackled no-holds barred biographies of Andre the Giant and Andy Kaufman. Here, Brown treads territory that may be equally unfamiliar to many, and yet it plays out in an all too familiar way. In Brown’s exposé on the history of cannabis in modern culture, readers will undoubtably find the hallmarks of many thoughtful pieces of the 21st Century that share historical perspectives on 20th Century America as a common backdrop. Namely that America’s history, while emblematic of the best of us—what Abraham Lincoln described as “our better angels”—, has been blemished by the evils of racist xenophobia and hypocritical puritanism. It is difficult to read Brown’s book and not have both a viscerally human reaction as well as an incensed political one, no matter what one’s persuasion might be, but in fairness to the material this review will sidestep the politics for the rest of the way (whew!) and confine itself to the work and how effective Brown is in making his argument. He clearly has a point he is trying to make, and the final pages make that point undeniably explicit.
Midway through Brown’s book, aficionados of comic book history may recognize a similarity between the alarmism fomented over the threat of cannabis consumption to traditional family values and that of the crusade against comic books similarly demonized in the post-World War II era. Dr. Fredric Wertham had almost every parent in America convinced that comic books were the root cause of juvenile delinquency in their communities. Actual statistical findings and other mitigating cultural factors be damned. In Brown’s book, Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, plays the pied piper role, the Dr. Wertham sounding the alarm for the American people regarding the harmful physical, psychological, and societal effects of consuming marijuana on equally shaky factual ground. If there’s a fault in the depiction of Anslinger it’s that it is almost comically one-note, especially as Brown begins to use thought balloons as a window into his motivations for his actions, which remain unclear apart from Brown’s not too subtle assertion that Anslinger’s sexism and racism explain his actions. These raison d’êtres are often overlooked in the type of historical survey that Brown presents here, but from a storytelling perspective the narrative needs an antagonist like Anslinger, the father of the popular conception that marijuana is a gateway drug to more dangerous substances.
Anslinger’s crusade reached a crescendo when federal laws were passed by President Harry Truman to create minimum sentences for the possession and use of all drugs, including cannabis, but Anslinger’s aspirations were more global in nature. The final section of the book that opens with the construction of the United Nations is easily the most eye-openingly revelatory and tragically familiar, bounding through the intervening decades (and presidential terms) to our present day changes the tone of the book dramatically. It becomes more immediate and more urgent, providing concise biographical snippets on major and minor figures in the footnotes of America’s war on drugs. While it falls short of a call to action, Brown’s history lesson morphs into something else, a work of passion that serves as an intensely personal plea for understanding about not just the nature of cannabis, but also about its status as a fulcrum by which the levers of class and race operate.Continued below
Speaking of revelatory, Brown’s cartooning, like his previous work, continues to be a masterclass in clear and refined storytelling. His panels are a study in precise linework, oftentimes disarming readers with their surface-level simplicity that belie complex themes. His palette is white, black, and a single mid tone, mirroring Brown’s almost clinically deadpan tone that often surprises with its understated humor and gut punch pathos. Throughout the book there are clever design flourishes that keep the narrative intriguingly readable. In addition to being an accomplished cartoonist, Brown’s sense of design is on full display here, reaching a nadir of effectiveness that serves his story well. And this is a story. Yes, it is part history lesson and part exposé, but the underlying story of how a plant with a centuries-old history came to serve as the looking glass into societal problems that plague American socio-political culture today is a prescient as it could be. Readers with little interest in the history of cannabis will likely find things of great value in Brown’s book on that premise alone, and even if they don’t agree with some, most, or all of Brown’s assertions, they will likely come away with a more sympathetic view of proponents of marijuana legalization. For those that already hold this view, Brown’s book presents an impassioned case for continuing the discussion over this very complicated issue, and with “Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America,” Brown becomes an important voice in that conversation.