For the last few years, a wave of legislation has been decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana all across the United States. Cannabis advocates have long said that it should never have been illegal. The story of how the substance became outlawed in the first place combines willful ignorance, petty careerism, and good old-fashioned racial prejudice.
In the newly released Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, cartoonist Box Brown looks back through history to see how cannabis came to the U.S. and how two of history’s most powerful nations worked to create a narrative of fear and immorality around the drug.
Drawn with Brown’s signature puckish minimalism—previously seen in his books on Tetris and Andre the Giant—Cannabis time-travels across continents to track how European colonizers and indigenous peoples clashed over weed’s role in society. This white-vs-brown struggle created a cyclical dialectic that would reach a fever pitch in the Reefer Panic of the early 20th Century, mutating into the War on Drugs in the 1980s. I spoke with Brown on the phone while he was on a book tour in Seattle. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows below.
io9: The way you string all these historical moments together it makes the case that the story of reefer panic throughout the ages is really one of weaponized racism. Were you surprised to find out how far back these attitudes went?
Brown: It’s funny, going back and doing the research, it’s clear that the War on Drugs in the ‘80s were racist laws. But, when you see similar attitudes when Britain colonized India, you understand that the whole point of these laws was to control who could use and profit from cannabis, all the way back from the beginning. And that was just sad. At first, I found it surprising, but by the end, it made sense.
io9: You explicitly tease out the cycles of repression of cannabis use that have been going on for centuries. In Mexico, India, the United States, and then globally as a result of the actions in the United States. A chief goal was curtailing the freedom and rights of non-white people.
Brown: Right. I think that the general population is not super-aware of how deep it goes. People kind of know about the ‘80s Ronald Reagan-era War on Drugs but I don’t know if they know how deep it goes. I think knowing this history can help people make decisions about the future of where legalization is headed. In a lot of places, it’s on ballot initiatives. We’re literally making these decisions ourselves. If you think cannabis was something the hippies invented, and see it as a fun thing to do, then sure, legalize it, tax it, do whatever. I think if you know the whole history behind it, then you see what we’re emphasizing with certain legalization proposals.