My last three Doonesbury-related posts examined Garry Trudeau’s chronicle of the legal, economic and social changes surrounding marijuana in the United States over the last fifty years, mostly told through the experiences of veteran stoner Zonker Harris. In the 1970s, Zonker faced the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence over a trumped-up possession charge; in the 1990s, Zonker distributed medical marijuana as a humanitarian venture during the HIV/AIDS crisis; in the new millennium, state legalization of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational purposes allowed Zonker to fulfill his calling and become a successful entrepreneur, selling boutique artisanal weed. Studies on the effects of legalization of marijuana on usage rates have provided mixed results, with some showing the possibility of increased use and others showing no such effect. Regardless of where the truth lies, however, there’s no question that with marijuana becoming easier to access in many jurisdictions, there is a need to ensure that potential customers enter the market with the facts they need. The comics medium has a long history of being used to educate diverse audiences about any number of topics, from Will Eisner’s work for PS, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, a U.S. Army periodical teaching soldiers how to take care of military equipment through Safer Sex Comix, a comics guide to safer sex practices produced by the non-profit Gay Men’s Health Crisis at the height of the AIDS epidemic. A recent comic builds on this tradition by giving readers what they need to know if they’re considering smoking marijuana.
How Do You Smoke a Weed? A Comics Guide to a Responsible High, published by Iron Circus Comics, is a beginner’s how-to guide to the basics of smoking marijuana by Lin Visel, Joseph Bergin III, comics creators who work collectively under the name of Owlin, assisted by researcher Lauren Keller. The book follows Sprout, a young Weeping Giant Sequoia and a new smoker who wants to make informed choices about cannabis, as she travels through a mystical landscape encountering magical characters who share their knowledge of pot-smoking with her. The book’s key them is summed up in the three-word maxim “knowledge is power”: armed with the facts, people can figure out how to best enjoy marijuana and make it work for them. While teaching basic knowledge about what marijuana is and how to use it, Sprout’s quest underlines a critical point: every user is different, having their own needs, wants and preferences. What works for one smoker might not work for another, and it’s every smoker’s responsibility to make sure they approach the drug in a way that ensures their personal well-being.
When weed becomes legal in her world, Sprout sets off into the Weed Zone in search of the previously-forbidden herb; she meets a group of pot-smoking Ents who give her her first nug (the strain is Jack Herer, described on the Leafly website as “a sativa-dominant cannabis strain that has gained as much renown as its namesake, the marijuana activist and author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes“) and send her off to “seek help beyond” for knowledge on how to smoke. En route, Sprout encounters fantastical creatures who are eager to teach her the finer points of getting high. Mama Osita is an old bear who teaches Sprout about the basic anatomy and chemistry of the cannabis plant, shows Sprout how to roll a joint, and coaches her through her first smoking session. PigBadger, a porcine metalhead, demonstrates the fine art of using a bong. Gigi and Vivi, a pair of enchanted women who dwell in the forest, fill Sprout in on how to deal with the munchies while making healthy food choices and how to make a pipe out of a variety of vegetables. Marijuanaowl and his friends Turtle and Sunny give Sprout information about how to deal with the unease that can come with overindulging in ganja, including something that I did not know, that smoking a high-CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabinoid with no psychoactive properties that is becoming increasingly popular for its medicinal effects) strain can actually “lessen the psychoactive effects of THC.”
Customers walking into one of North America’s newly-legal weed shops will be met with a (literally) dizzying array of choices. Owlin gives readers straightforward explanations of how various strains of weed come to have the effects they do. Trichomes, “sticky little hairs on the flower” synthesize cannabinoids, including THC, the compound that produces psychoactive effects, and terpenes, which act as “building blocks for THC and other cannabinoids” and give each strain its particular flavours and aromas. Indica strains, best known for their relaxing effects, feature linalool, which can help with “insomnia, depression, anxiety and convulsions,” and caryophyllene, “helpful for pain relief, muscle spasms and insomnia.” Sativa strains, which are described as “energizing,” feature humulene, which can “suppress appetite,” and limolene, which can “lift your mood and lower your stress.” Hybrid strains, unsurprisingly, combine properties from indica and sativa plants. The various properties inherent in different cannabinoids and terpenes, however, do not determine a strain’s effects in any concrete manner. Owlin provides a handy chart that illustrates the “entourage effect” or how the chemical properties of a particular strain of weed with work with a smoker’s personal body chemistry, mental state, method of intake, and environment to produce a particular type of experience. (It should also be noted that there seems to be an appreciable lack of consistency between samples of marijuana sold as the same strain.)
My only criticism of the book is that it left me wanting more information and more of its enchanting artwork and dialogue. The style of the book fits the subject matter perfectly. The text is straightforward and provides tons of information without ever sounding like a lecture. In contrast to the black-and-white inkwork of classic stoner comix like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the artwork is cartoony and colourful, transporting the reader to the sort of magical place that comes to mind when being pleasantly buzzed. Yet while there is lots of useful information about smoking weed, other methods of ingesting the drug get much less attention. Vaping only gets a quick mention (and I have lots of questions about the processes behind producing marijuana vape juice, especially given recent reports of vaping-related illnesses and even deaths). Other forms of cannabis like shatter and hashish are not discussed, and neither are edibles, a method of taking THC that can lead to nightmarish consequences – every stoner I know has a story about the time they ate one brownie too many and ended up way too high. And while Owlin does an admirable job of discussing the science of weed in layman’s terms, a more detailed analysis might have been fun. Comics is an ideal method for explaining complex science in terms a non-scientist can easily grok. I recently read Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, and was amazed at how it used words and pictures to make the fundamentals of nuclear explosions eminently clear without being simplistic. I would love to see something similar on, say, the chemical changes that take place in a smoker’s brain when the THC hits.
I also wonder if the book could not have done more to discuss the potential downsides of marijuana beyond issues associated with vaping. Owlin does warn smokers that weed “can be habit forming,” and advise them that they should “pay attention to [their] consumption and respect this beautiful, powerful, and potent plant.” Research about the potential cognitive and mental health effects of pot, especially among younger users, is worth engaging with if one sets out to give readers the tools they need to make smart decisions about weed.
That said, the book clearly accomplishes what it set out to do: giving people who are new to pot smoking the basic facts they need to get started. People walking into their local pot shop for the first time are liable to feel overwhelmed by all the strains behind the counter and all the jargon associated with smoking. This fun and accessible book gives them what they need to help make their experience with marijuana an enjoyable one.