Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Cannabis by Box Brown

Nothing just is illegal. There's always a story, like the warning labels on small appliances - every single "thou shalt not" is because somebody thought "fuck yeah, I shall."

Some of those rules are so old - don't kill people, don't take their stuff - that they seem like they've always been around. But that's just because when you gather together a few humans in one place, at least one of them is going to try some of that shit. So everybody codifies the obvious stuff early, and then the ball of rules starts rolling downhill and gathering more and more to itself as it goes.

Eventually, a society starts outlawing things you put in your own body, for whatever reasons that makes sense to it at the time. And, since humans are never in agreement, there's usually nearly as many people violently opposed to outlawing that stuff as violently in favor of it. (See: Prohibition.)

Box Brown is telling a particular version of that story here in Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, his 2019 non-fiction graphic book. He starts off with some ancient dude on a beach grooving to the vibes of the universe, and continues with some historical scene-setting for the next fifty or sixty pages to show how various tight-assed Dean Wormer types in the Anglosphere kept harshing the buzz here and there. 

But the bulk of Cannabis is the story of Harry J. Anslinger, the man responsible, more than anyone, for cannabis being a Schedule I drug in the USA and all of the trouble and repression that flowed out of that. Well, he was against cannabis well before that point, and it was just one step on his lifelong crusade against the devil weed, but you get my point - that was the legal linchpin of the thing.

Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Treasury's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, holding the job for over thirty years. And he comes across, in Brown's telling, like a roadshow J. Edgar Hoover, a smaller, lesser version of the obsessed G-man who just wants everyone do do only the things he thinks is correct, because that will make the world right. Brown also makes it clear how racist Anslinger and the anti-cannabis movement was: it was largely a reaction to the fact that first Mexicans and then Black Americans were the ones using cannabis, and there was a lot of race-baiting to get the anti-cannabis laws passed. Brown also points out, repeatedly, how shoddy the supposed "science" was - Ainslinger and his minions started from a premise and declared it was true, even as actual researchers were unable to prove the things they confidently asserted. 

Anslinger was horribly wrong, Brown argues - and anyone reading this book will be inclined to agree with Brown - and the end of Cannabis shows the countermovement, which has only been picking up speed since Brown finished this book. (My home state, New Jersey, decriminalized cannabis via a ballot measure last fall, which apparently, as a large East Coast state, is a Big Deal.) But the bulk of the book is how this police state was assembled and what it did: that's the story.

Brown always strikes me as a meat-and-potatoes kind of comics-maker: he doesn't do flashy things with the narrative, sticking to declarative captions and a chronological presentation. His art is stripped-down as well: clean and crisp, full of chunky lines defining areas of black and tone. Cannabis is in that same mode, telling the story without having the creator get in the way. It's detailed, well-researched (there's a big list of sources at the end) and awfully serious for a book about Mary Jane.

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