It was a rude awakening that sparked Box Brown’s lifelong fascination with marijuana.
The Philadelphia illustrator was a 16-year-old kid, living in Cranbury, N.J., when an officer slapped handcuffs on him in the middle of an empty baseball diamond. He’d been smoking a joint. “They blew every stoplight rushing me to the station,” Brown said. “It was hard to see it as anything but a huge hypocrisy and travesty of justice.
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"It was humiliating,” said the Ignatz award-winning cartoonist, whose police record listed him as Brian Brown. “But it was exciting. And the arrest hardly kept me from becoming a user, an enthusiast, and advocate. Or writing a book about it.”
In Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America (First Second/Macmillan), Brown carefully traces the science, mythology, and hysteria that has snaked through humankind’s long history with cannabis. And he does it with a gorgeously minimalist style.
On Saturday, the unofficial high-holiday of stoners everywhere, Brown is making two Philadelphia stops on his national book tour. He’ll be reading and signing copies of Cannabis at Brave New Worlds comic shop in Old City and later in the evening at the Philadelphia Temple of Cannabis and Hemp in Kensington.
With cannabis legal in some form in more than 30 states — and Big Marijuana erupting into a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry — the book couldn’t be more timely.
The Inquirer caught up with Brown as he was in a Lyft on his way to an interview with a Canadian radio station. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How’s reception of the book in America’s far-flung cities and what have you come back with?
I’m just finishing up the tour. People are pretty excited about the book, and about legalization. But many are ignorant about how much Big Marijuana, especially on the East Coast, is exploiting users.
Exploiting users? That’s strong language. Why do you say that?
We’re seeing cannabis pricing that’s out-of-control in places like Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois. All these places have extremely high-priced cannabis in the medical programs; that’s because the laws make the market that way. It costs up to $700 an ounce in some of those states. It costs about a dollar an ounce to grow.
It is disgusting. And that’s why I wrote the book. I don’t think you can make an informed decision about legalization and how it should go unless you know about the entire history. There are companies that are lobbying against growing cannabis at home so that nobody can make their own medicine for cheap. Meanwhile, Big Marijuana has taken it out of the black market and they’re using money and power to make sure they’re the only ones able to sell it. At the same time, police in New Jersey are still arresting people every day for marijuana possession and the state is trying to turn those same people into customers.
I was recently talking with a large group of patients in Pennsylvania that are fed up and they’re [angry]. A lot of them have gone back to the black market because they say they can’t afford their legal medicine.
Marijuana wasn’t always illegal. What happened to make it contraband?
The whole history is all based on racism. Authorities used cannabis to hold power over African Americans and Mexican immigrants. In 1930, Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger claimed marijuana was a national menace, caused insanity and violence, and said blacks who used it forgot racial barriers. He convinced Congress in 1937 to pass a law and tax it at $100 ounce, when the cost of cannabis was only 38 cents a pound. Before anyone knew the law existed, cops started arresting buyers and sellers.
How much did you know about the history before you set out to write?
I knew a decent amount. I’d been researching on and off since I got arrested in 1996. That was 20-something years ago. And it’s never left my sight.
What’s your next project?
Box Brown speaks and signs copies of Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Brave New Worlds — Old City, 55 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia (215-925-6525), and from 8 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Philly Temple of Hemp and Cannabis, 2516 Frankford Ave. Philadelphia (215-644-8594).
Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival
In Scranton’s Nay Aug Park, the fifth-annual free event celebrates cannabis culture and the state’s medical marijuana program. The fest, the state’s largest, will have three stages and dozens of jam bands performing for 10 hours. It will also feature hundreds of vendors of food and retailers selling cannabis culture products — hippie and hipster stuff — from CBD to soap to glass pipes. 1901 Mulberry St., Scranton, 18510. Find more information at penncannafest.com.
Jewish Sauce Boss 420 Experience Holiday Party
TerraVida Dispensaries 420 Celebrations
Live music, barbecue. Deals for Pa.-registered patients. Free. 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at all TerraVida Holistic Centers. 1626 Old York Road, Abington 19001; 249 Planebrook Road, Malvern 19355; 64 N. Main St. Sellersville 18960. Click for more information.
National Cannabis Festival
Rapper-producer and hemp enthusiast is hosting local MCs and DJs in celebration of the 10th anniversary of his debut, Asleep in the Bread Aisle. Roth will spin at the event (“I might pick up the mike, too,” he says). Displays of hemp and CBD wares from the area. Noon to 6 p.m., Sunflower Hill, 1725 N. Fifth St., 18+, free with registration. Information: www.bit.ly/420sunflowerhill