Books

America’s Racist War on Drugs Explored in Comics

Philadelphia cartoonist Box Brown examines marijuana — where it came from, its life in the US, and, importantly, the breathless national campaign to demonize a certain segment of its users.

Cover of Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America (© Box Brown, First Second/Macmillan, April 2019)

The laws currently prohibiting marijuana possession in the United States owe a lot to the sinister legacy of racist opportunists. Efforts to establish and emphasize an association between non-whites and marijuana began as soon as the drug’s recreational use was introduced by Mexican immigrants in the early 1900s. Anti-drug activists seized on the opportunity for race-based fear-mongering, and the so-called link between minorities and marijuana has been marketed to devastating effect by American politicians — its role in the broader war on drugs can’t be overstated. Given how prominent this work has been, the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests should surprise no one. In the first three months of 2018, for example, of the more than 4,000 people arrested in New York City alone for marijuana possession, less than 300 were white, according to a report in the New York Times. In Manhattan, per the same report, Black people are picked up by cops on petty marijuana charges at 15 times the rate of whites. It took time and effort to get here.

In a cleanly framed, black-and-white nonfiction comic, Philadelphia cartoonist Box Brown examines marijuana — where it came from, its life in the US, and, importantly, the breathless national campaign to demonize a certain segment of its users. While the questionable roots of anti-drug activism in Washington, DC have already been the subject of traditional reporting, Brown’s is the first graphic unpacking of this history.

Those prone to dismissing comics as a legitimate narrative form might mistake Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America for a work of straight humor: The frequent exclamation points and worming motion lines recall Sunday newspaper strips of yore. Anti-drug lawmakers, whose ballooning, melon-shaped heads (and uniformly compressed facial features) appear ready to tip over when they’re not dangerously undersized. And there are lots of people getting baked. Just as his mostly somber 2014 graphic biography of wrestler “André the Giant” is fitted with punchy gags, Brown’s new book is definitely funny, even if the subject isn’t much of a laugh at all. Cannabis is more of an exploration of how racist propaganda helped produce laws that have unfairly punished minorities and engendered anti-immigrant sentiment in the US for as long as the plant has been here. Bigoted ideologue Harry Anslinger, way back in 1930, couldn’t have played a larger role in that.

Image from Cannabis (© Box Brown, First Second/Macmillan, April 2019)

Brown traces marijuana’s recreational use in the US to the days of the Mexican Revolution. But it wasn’t until 1929, when whites demanded to be given the agricultural jobs that Mexican immigrants held here, that racists began tying the drug to foreigners working in American fields. Like most career politicians on these shores, the book’s centerpiece Anslinger — whose innocuous eye dashes and bulbous face hardens with a villain-style half-shadow built of pin-dots — prioritized revenue and reputation over everything. Street marijuana couldn’t be taxed and regulated, and as the commissioner of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the timing for Anslinger was ripe to brand it a narcotic by any means necessary.

Images from Cannabis (© Box Brown, First Second/Macmillan, April 2019)

Anslinger toiled endlessly to publicly associate marijuana with immigrants, as well as African Americans, specifically jazz artists, owing to his distaste for the bold musical form (as well as for those playing it). He is notoriously known for having hounded Billie Holiday based on a tip about her using heroin; when she died from lung congestion, suffering from heroin withdrawal because she was taken off methadone, Holiday was handcuffed to a hospital bed per Anslinger’s orders. Years before this incident, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ official’s agents had already been gathering and falsifying “data” about drug use in and around nightclubs in urban American neighborhoods for their boss. Anslinger had a friend in known racist media mogul William Randolph Hearst, whose reporters were only too eager to carry water for Anslinger.

“Stories of race-based cannabis-induced crime were favorites of newspaper editors,” reads Brown’s caption amid drawings of jagged-edged tabloid tear sheets with sensational headlines (“Weed Freak Murder”). “Crime stories moved papers. The more violent the better.”

Anslinger collaborated with state and federal agencies on a drug policy that cemented a demonstrable enough link between people of color and the weed they were supposedly peddling to white communities. No heavy lifting on Brown’s behalf is required to connect old propaganda to remarks broadcast from Pennsylvania Avenue today. Anslinger shared with President Trump a penchant for the pointed phrase “inner cities” as well as for vilifying America’s metropolises. A ludicrous staging in Cannabis of an actual testimony given by Anslinger to the House Appropriations Committee — sourced from notes about “colored” midwestern college students who smoked marijuana at campus parties and impregnated white women — feels familiar in its fear-mongering, too.  

To counter dry depictions of courtroom grandstanding or long meetings, Brown visualizes Anslinger’s “mostly fictional police report anecdotes,” which advertised marijuana users as psychotic, axe-wielding murderers. Rippling with lightning bolts, bloody limbs, and explosive onomatopoeia, the “reports” are as aesthetically dazzling here as they were devious. 

Images from Cannabis (© Box Brown, First Second/Macmillan, April 2019)

Each small milestone back then played a part in all of the anti-drug legislation we’ve seen — from the Uniform State Narcotic Act to the Nixon-era Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which labeled cannabis a threat to human health. Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, who is cited as a “Nixon aide” in Cannabis, talked in 1994 about the enemies that the President had in leftists and in African Americans. He stressed the importance of “getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then [by] criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” 

Anslinger was elderly and retired when Nixon’s grotesque drug war fantasy came to life; five years later, his heart would fail in Altoona, Pennsylvania. But as Brown ably demonstrates, the former Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner’s imprint on American drug policy has loomed large whether he’s been around to see it or not. And the damage he caused is irreparable.

Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America is available for pre-order from First Second and will be released on April 2. 

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