Nothing can bind you to a topic quite like handcuffs.
Cartoonist Box Brown was 16 when he was arrested for cannabis possession. He was smoking pot with some friends at a New Jersey ballpark when the police caught him.
"It was clear that they were scoping the area for this this very thing," he told Civilized. "With us, they hit the jackpot."
It was 1996, and the Clinton administration was cracking down on drug offenses. Brown saw firsthand how the justice system treated those convicted of cannabis crimes – the court dates, the fines, the probation. It was hypocritical, he felt, especially considering how often law enforcement turned a blind eye to underage drinking.
"Since then, I’ve been closely following the legalization process, and studying the history of it."
More than two decades of fascination with the cultural context surrounding pot have finally paid off with the release of his new book, 'Cannabis: the Illegalization of Weed in America,' a graphic overview of the drug’s complex history in the United States.
Brown’s non-fiction comics, centered around cultural touchstones like Tetris and pop culture titans like Andy Kaufman and Andre the Giant, have graced the New York Times best seller list and been met with widespread critical acclaim.
With his latest, Brown zeroes in a subject with a much broader, more complex history than he has yet tackled in the form. After all, where do you begin to write about something that had existed longer than history itself? According to Brown, you start "as close to the beginning of time as possible".
The book opens with a drawing of a white, silhouetted figure smoking from a pipe.
"The history is unclear about who discovered cannabis and first consumed it,” Brown writes. “But we do know how they got high."
Brown explains how this imagined consumer would have been affected by the cannabis, listing the positive sensations of euphoria, the stimulation of creativity, the alleviation of pain. Just as plainly, however, he depicts the feeling of paranoia, disorientation, and other negative effects associated with being high.
For Brown, creating an honest account was paramount.
"I’m a cannabis enthusiast, and I can’t deny that," he said. "But, at the same time, it wouldn’t serve a purpose to propagate questionable facts in favor of cannabis."
Researching the book started with Brown accumulating as much information on the subject as he could get his hands on, combing through it with a skeptical eye and setting down the facts as best as he was able. Throughout this process, themes began to emerge – spirituality, propaganda, and, most notably, racism.
"Knowing that race plays such a big part in cannabis legislation now, it was kind of eye-opening to see that it was always the case," he said. "It was the whole point of these laws, in a way."
The book’s narrative begins in earnest in the late 19th century, when the first cannabis laws began to crop up in the United States.
In America, he notes, "a lot of it had to do with the Mexican population starting to immigrate into the United States. They used cannabis laws to harass, and even in some cases to deport people."
The legal history of cannabis in America is a convoluted one, plagued with misinformation and competing facts. It is also pretty dry, with many of the key moments taking place in dull courtrooms during long legal discussions held by old men in suits. For Brown, finding interesting ways to present this story was what made it fun.
"That’s what makes comics great—there is such a playful nature in the form of comics that you can kind of use that to hold people’s attention," he said. "It’s both challenging and fun to try and find interesting ways to visually depict what could otherwise be just a boring moment."
To pull this off, Brown tells the story in a series of vignettes that cover the propaganda and research surrounding the drug, as well as its legal history and the stories of those most affected by it. In his mind, Brown saw cannabis as the "protagonist" of the narrative, which "all the other elements sort of danced around."
One of the books’ chief antagonists is Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, one of the most demonized figures in cannabis, and perhaps the man most responsible for making the substance illegal in the US.
Brown, though, chose not to depict Anslinger as a "purely racist, bloodthirsty maniac," opting instead to present him as a "careerist", simply looking to put his interests ahead of others.
"I wanted to be fair," he said. "My theory with non-fiction work is to depict events as truthfully as possible, and just in choosing the right events, that's how you get your point across. You don’t get anywhere by exaggerating it."
Brown believes that exaggerated facts and one-sided opinions still contribute to keeping people in the dark about cannabis, citing recent reports like Malcolm Gladwell’s controversial New Yorker piece on the speculated link between cannabis and violent crime.
"This is the same kind of thing that Anslinger propagated that has been time-tested not to be true," Brown asserts.
He is also skeptical of some of the press that he sees in favor of cannabis.
"I have a hard time believing a lot of the 'miracle cure' stuff," he said. "Not that I don’t think it’s therapeutic, but curing cancer? Come on."
On the whole, though, Brown remains a strong proponent of cannabis – as well as a regular user.
"I use it pretty regularly every day," he tells Civilized. "There are certain strains I try to stay away from when I’m trying to work, ones that make me a little lazy."
As a medical patient, Brown finds that it helps him work in more ways than one, acting as both a relief and a creative stimulant. He finds that different strains allow him to do different things, but some parts of the process are easier to do while under the influence than others.
"The easiest thing to do high is ink. It’s the most fun, too," he explained. "Everything is all set up for you, you’re just tracing, lettering, it’s almost like a meditative thing."
He acknowledged that not everyone is able to work like that, however, saying "being high is kind of a unique experience for everybody."
This, he tells Civilized, was a big part of his reason for undertaking the book in the first place - or any of his graphic novels, for that matter.
"It’s always sort of a personal journey for me," he said. "It’s an inward look into my own obsessions."