By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

Box Brown’s most recent work, Cannabis - The Illegalization of Weed in America, tells the story of how cannabis came to be vilified and turned into an illicit substance in the United States. Its pared back, grayscale illustrations and laconic narration follow cannabis’ initial use in India, its cultivation in the New World, its recreational use in Mexico, and how the racist and anti-immigration policies of the early 20th century gave birth to Reefer Madness and the War on Drugs. Well-researched, witty, and ultimately optimistic, the novel is a wealth of absurd (but true) stories about what happens when racism and anti-drug paranoia are allowed to flourish.

Jay Fox

Like many histories about cannabis in the U.S., Brown’s narrative focus is Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor to today’s Drug Enforcement Agency. With the exception of perhaps former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover or former President Richard Nixon, no other person was more responsible for turning cannabis from a folk medicine, industrial crop, and relatively benign intoxicant (these were well before the days of strains like Godfather OG) into a menace that was once considered as dangerous as heroin by many Americans. Cannabis was Anslinger’s white whale.

As Brown reveals, Anslinger would have almost been a comically one-dimensional authority figure and peddler of patently false tales had he not had so much power or the ability to shape policy (sounds familiar). Despite repeated arguments from researchers, doctors, scientists, and even New York City’s Depression-era mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, Anslinger’s fountain of misinformation and outright lies found their way onto the pages of newspapers and magazines (again, sounds familiar). Not only was he responsible for the “gateway theory,” he also repurposed tabloid stories to turn them into cautionary tales about the effects of “devil weed” and to drum up anti-immigration sentiment.

Anslinger used his connection to publisher William Randolph Hearst to plant these stories. As they evolved from flagrantly racist tales of Mexican murders and African-American rapists, they began to focus on how cannabis turned seemingly normal (white) individuals into killers and corrupted (white) youth. His most gruesome stories were known as his “Gore Files.” Brown’s illustrations of these bizarre episodes are most certainly the highlight of the book.

Surprisingly, Brown does not spend a great deal of time discussing the Beats or the counterculture of the 1960s. This is not a criticism. Far too much attention has been paid to the way that artists like Allen Ginsburg and John Lennon became the targets of bogus investigations. Unfortunately, this has overshadowed how the original targets of anti-cannabis policies were people of color, particularly Latinx immigrants in the Southwest and black jazz musicians in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and even New York. On top of focusing on the stories of these individuals, Brown also calls attention to how anti-drug policies continue to disproportionately impact communities of color.

Ultimately, however, Brown ends his book on a high note. Despite all the propaganda and misinformation, despite the absurd sentencing rules and restrictions on research and the vapid (but effective) “Just say no” campaign of the 1980s, cannabis advocates persevered. They continued to push for decriminalization, for more research, and for increased access to a medicine that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. As Box notes: “Whatever is yet to come in the future, cannabis will grow. And humans will harvest.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the story of weed in America, this is an excellent introduction.



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.