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Green gold: Karin Lock reviews Cannabis: An American History by Box Brown

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Karin Lock reviews Cannabis: An American History by Box Brown

An interesting tactic to persuade Washington state citizens to get vaccinated (as well as free McDonalds and lottery tickets) is the ‘joints for jabs’ offer. With possession legalised in 40% of the US (and Canada), cannabis is dominating new businesses in many states. In a decade, this has drastically altered the North American economy.

It was not always like this. Those old enough will remember President Reagans’ eighties slogan ‘Just Say No’ (to drugs). African and Mexican American consumers being disproportionally targeted in stop and search had occurred for decades. The new zero-tolerance War on Drugs introduced harsher sentences for possession which further decimated the tax base. In 2008 the global economy crashed.

Box Brown’s Cannabis: An American History charts the highs and lows of the plant’s journey from spiritual aid, to pariah, to acceptance. From the outset, the narrative highlights its benefits: reduced inflammation, nausea alleviation, mood elevation and creative stimulation. The negatives are also explored: paranoia, disorientation, dream suppression and short-term memory loss.

With its balanced message and simple line drawing style, this graphic novel uses humour to engage readers. It abolishes stereotypes by presenting a nuanced, more complete picture of the past. Graphic novels are becoming popular because they often focus on alternative historical perspectives. Books like Persepolis and Parable of the Sower are being repackaged as pictorial narratives to reach a wider audience.

Cannabis: An American History begins with Hindu mythology, explaining the importance of cannabis in Indian culture from 2000 years BC. The British colonial administration’s scientific studies proved no links to sanity, violence or death, and brought in taxes for Indian consumers. In the US, cannabis was being sold as an asthma cure in pharmacies.

By looking at the past, we can better understand the present. The Spanish brought industrial hemp to Central America to make ship sails and ropes to increase their fleets. Indigenous people soon cultivated a smaller cannabis sativa plant for therapeutic and ceremonial use. Centuries later their descendants gave it a new name: marijuana.

Fleeing revolution, Mexicans brought the culture north. Here the book delves into the campaigns, from the Great Depression onwards, that conflated cannabis with race, crime, sex, and violence. Jobs were scarce; and the press was awash with anti-Mexican propaganda. Jazz music was also demonised; its joint-smoking musicians labelled degenerate and dangerous.

It is the disconnect between myth, science and the law that needs dismantling. Box Brown campaigns for truth, shunning the ‘gateway drug’ theory. After heroin production was monopolised by Big Pharma, marijuana regulation was next. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act taxed the industrial growers but made public consumption and possession crimes.

This book uses art to highlight injustice and support social change. Just as AIDS activists agitated for access to medical cannabis in 1985, today the US has charities like the Last Prisoners Project, advocating for the release of the 40,000 people still in US prisons, some on life sentences for cannabis-related crimes.

What relevance does this story have for post-Brexit Britain? Despite being the world’s largest legal cannabis-producing country, Britain severely restricts NHS prescriptions. In 2019 we produced 320 tonnes of medical cannabis (75% of the world’s total), yet 1.4 million chronically ill patients had to buy it illegally.

The UK’s private ‘great green gold rush’ may have favoured some (like Theresa May’s husband) but sharing health (or wealth) was never on their agenda.