On 23 June 2019, Garry Trudeau returned to a topic that has woven its way through Doonesbury since the earliest days of the strip: marijuana. Zonker asks Zipper to sweep out the drying shed at their (now quasi-legal) marijuana grow-op, Z&Z Bud. Zipper resents having to do menial work when he could be focusing on “the business plan” and working to “scale up and finally grow the company.” In a classic bit of stoner humour, Zipper’s monologue about his plans to“disrupt the industry,” “rock a massive IPO,” and “retire as boy billionaires” is derailed when the pair can’t figure out which of them is high.
I’ve noted in previous posts that Doonesbury was among the first mainstream newspaper comic strips to address the revolutionary political and cultural issues of its times, including the war in south-east Asia, second-wave feminism, and Black Power. Similarily, Trudeau helped bring the growing visibility of marijuana use to the funny pages. In this post and the following one, I’ll be looking at the history of weed in Doonesbury, tracing how GBT chronicled the evolution of attitudes towards cannabis in America, from its being framed as a dangerous drug with heavy legal consequences, to a natural remedy for a wide variety of ailments, to a valuable commodity from which capitalists can extract value for shareholders. I’ll also be looking at two recent comics about historical and contemporary attitudes towards marijuana. This post includes a review of Box Brown’s Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, a comics history of American marijuana prohibition. Next time, I’ll be writing about Owlin’s How Do You Smoke a Weed?, a comics users guide to cannabis written in the light of weed’s growing semi-legality.
The earliest Doonesbury strips about weed employed a softer version of the drug humour that drove strips like Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, featuring gags that rejoiced in the silliness of getting stoned or that poked fun at squares who hadn’t turned on. GBT’s first strip about cannabis, which ran on April 12, 1971, could have run in one of the underground comix of the time. Mark offers Mike, who is reading a copy of Playboy, a cigarette: when a bikini-clad woman materializes out of the pages of his magazine, Mike quickly figures out that he hasn’t been smoking tobacco. Not a great strip, but certainly one that pushed the boundaries of the family funny pages. Other early strips made conservative revulsion and paranoia about grass the butt of the joke. Two classic strips from 1971 illustrate this: On 17 August, 1971, Mark introduces himself to his mother’s bridge club, saying “My name’s Mark. I smoke marijuana,” grinning as pandemonium ensues among the uptight suburban housewives. Soon after Zonker was introduced to readers, B.D. busted his new “uptight end” smoking “the dreaded killer marijuana” during football practice. B.D. reacted by informing Zonker that the “evil weed” led to “COMMUNISM!”
The revulsion towards marijuana displayed by B.D. and Mark’s mother’s bridge friends becomes dangerous when it’s backed up by the power of the state. The vilification of marijuana and the use of the law, police, and the prison system to punish its users is the subject of Box Brown’s recent work of comics history, Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America. The book begins with a brief look at the effects of marijuana, a glimpse at Hindu mythology about its origins, and a look at how British colonial officials in India attempted to control the drug. Brown then brings us to the New World, where the hemp plant arrived in 1528 with Herman Cortes. The industrial hemp which he brought with him for the purposes of growing fibre for ropes, paper, and cloth was eventually re-purposed by people who enjoyed smoking its flowering buds. By the middle of the 19th century, smoking cannabis had become popular in Mexico, and extracts from the plant could also be found in patent medicines in the United States. Brown then traces how Americans’ real love affair with marijuana began in the first decades of the 20th century, when the Mexican Revolution drove refugees into the United States, bringing cannabis culture with them. Mexican-Americans forged social links with African-American communities, facilitating the spread of marijuana’s popularity in the United States, notably because of weed’s popularity among jazz musicians in New Orleans.
Marijuana’s popularity with two racialized American communities drives Brown’s main argument: the criminalization of cannabis grew directly out of racism, fed by fears that drug-crazed Mexicans and Blacks represented a threat to the the law and public morality. Criminalizing weed gave the law an easy way to target marginalized populations for police scrutiny and incarceration. Brown focuses on the notorious Harry J. Anslinger, who in 1930 became the first commissioner of Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger made a career out of turning the users of marijuana and other drugs into common criminals. That said, he didn’t work alone: America deployed important cultural resources to stigmatize pot and pot smokers. As Anslinger built a legal infrastructure that enabled the state to imprison people for smoking pot, public anxieties about the links between marijuana, race and sex were being fed by newspapers that ran fake story after fake story framing weed as a threat to the purity of young white women who, once addicted to it, would submit to sexual degradations at the hands of Black men.
With the passage in 1937 of Anslinger’s brainchild, the Marihuana Tax Act, the United States finally had a way to enforce marijuana prohibition and imprison pot smokers. In the 1960s, LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s legal challenge to the Marijuana Tax Act overturned that law, but did not bring the country any closer to ending marijuana prohibition: rather, it led to the introduction of even harsher drug laws. In 1971 Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” that has shaped American marijuana policy ever since. Nixon’s commitment to marijuana prohibition flew in the face of that 1973 Shafer Commission (convened by the President himself) which recommended that cannabis possession be decriminalized. Soon after Nixon announced his decision to ignore the commission’s findings, Garry Trudeau poked fun at him for his blatant politicization of objective, expert analysis, reminding readers that the fix was in before the commission had issued its findings.
Trudeau’s critique of Nixon’s intransigence on marijuana took on sharper significance with Zonker’s horrifying encounter with cannabis laws. In the summer of 1973, Zonker and Mike were stopped by the police somewhere in the middle of the country while they were driving to visit Zonker’s parents in California. Zonker had three cannabis seeds in his bag, and thus faced the possibility of fifty years in prison. The story of Zonker’s bust is replete with hilarious moments, notably the French-speaking dog that discovers that Zonk is carrying. That said, GBT’s focus is on the human stakes of marijuana prohibition and the extent to which the state is willing to violate fundamental legal principles in order to lock up pot smokers. Although he was arrested for possessing cannabis seeds, Zonker is treated like a violent criminal, and is locked up with a man charged with first-degree murder.When Zonker’s father comes to visit him in jail, their despair at the fact that a young man may have to “serve a long sentence”is plain to see; this feeling is intensified when we see the look on Zonker’s face when his lawyer tells him that he doesn’t “stand any chance at all.”
Much as Nixon’s decision to ignore any findings from the Shafer Commission that challenged marijuana prohibition was predetermined, the outcome of Zonker’s trial seems to be a foregone conclusion: his own attorney doesn’t even bother to get him to testify in his own defense. But Zonker beat the rap after he and Mike discovered that the district attorney had illegally bugged his room. While the judge publicly chastises the DA for his malfeasance, once the courtroom is empty, he expresses his deep frustration that the plot had failed, chastising the DA, yelling: “You had it in the bag, man.” This wasn’t the first indication that Zonker was caught up in an inherently corrupt system: when Zonker’s father comes to post bail, he is bamboozled by a judge out to get as much as he can from the accused. The illegal bug, the predetermined legal outcomes, and the apparent sense of collusion between prosecutors and judges Trudeau is making an important point here: not only are America’s drug laws cruel, the people who enforce them are crooked and corrupt.
Zonker’s takeaway lesson from his brush with the law, that marijuana “may or may not be wrong, but it sure is against the law,” summarizes America’s legal approach to cannabis for the next three decades. Ronald Reagan took the enforcement of marijuana prohibition to insane new levels with an intensification of Nixon’s War on Drugs. Reagan’s anti-drug zealotry led to a sharp increase in incarceration rates, especially among African-Americans, who are almost four times more likely than whites to be locked up for cannabis possession, even though their usage rates are roughly identical. As Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow, the War on Drugs was a key part of a “contemporary system of racial control” designed to decimate the African-American population. Marijuana prohibition in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century thus represented a direct continuation of the race-based paranoia that defined the first attempts to criminalize weed.
But, as Brown documents in the last section of his book, even as the War on Drugs was locking up record numbers of African-Americans and other users of a largely harmless substance, America was undergoing a profound shift in how it saw cannabis that began with growing awareness of its medical benefits. As Brown notes, the first court ruling allowing for the medical use of cannabis actually predated Reagan’s election by four years. In 1976, Bob Randall was found not guilty of marijuana possession because he claimed that weed relieved his glaucoma symptoms. In the mid-1980s, the onset of the AIDS epidemic drew more attention to the medical benefits that grass can provide. Marijuana buyers’ clubs made it easier for people to get the medicine they needed, and within a few years, a grassroots movement advocating for the decriminalization of marijuana, first for medicinal and then for recreational purposes drove politicians in many states (though not at the federal level) to stop locking people up for possessing cannabis.
Box Brown’s artistic style is simple and direct. His bold lines and and uncluttered panels complement his deeply-researched (not many comic books have a four-page bibliography) and cogently-argued text without distracting the reader from his critical message. Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America is an important book that reveals the explicit links between American drug laws and American racism. While Brown is obviously pleased at recent developments in marijuana policy, he is not naive enough to believe that the legal persecution of cannabis users is a thing of the past. People will continue to smoke ganja for any number of reasons, from pain relief to artistic inspiration to the simple pleasure of getting high, but as long as they do so, powerful people will “make new and exaggerated false claims about cannabis.”
Zonker, of course, was at the cutting edge of the transition in America’s drug culture. In my next post, we’ll look at how GBT chronicled the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.