Meet Brian Box Brown, the cartoonist tackling NJ legal weed and the cannabis industry

PHILADELPHIA – The first time Brian Brown realized that something was terribly wrong, he had been handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car.

He was just a 16-year-old New Jersey teenager with an arrest record, set to undergo months of drug testing because he’d been caught smoking a joint. He couldn’t shake the feeling that, if he’d been caught with a few kegs of beer, the cops would have just called his parents.

It continues to bother him, 25 years later. Now, he’s Brian “Box” Brown, award-winning cartoonist with nonfiction graphic novels on the New York Times bestsellers list. He makes a living from comics but still can’t shake the feeling that the powers-that-be – the government, law enforcement, even publishers – have a problem with him because he smokes weed.

Even though he has a medical marijuana card. Even though weed is legal in 23 states.

“It’s bulls–t,” he said. “It was always bulls–t. It should just be struck from the record, not turned into a different from of bulls–t.”

It’s a terse, if not explicit, manifesto for “Legalization Nation,” the comic strip Brown publishes online and in syndication every Wednesday.

“Legalization Nation” is about many things – about government and corruption, about law enforcement and social justice and Brown’s own life as a card-carrying medical marijuana patient in Pennsylvania (though he spends a lot of time talking about New Jersey).

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The comic strip serves as a living sequel to his 2019 book, Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, which traced the history of the drug from its earliest, ancient roots to prohibition in the United States and across the globe and the birth of the medical marijuana movement in the mid-1990s.

Brown’s cannabis book was published amid the nationwide wave of marijuana legalization — but he couldn’t tackle any of that. Publishing takes a long time and any book that tackles legal weed would be immediately out of date by the time it hit shelves.

Enter “Legalization Nation.”

Brown writes and draws the strip itself on an easel in his basement studio in northern Philadelphia, before digitally inking, coloring and lettering it and sending it off for syndication through King Features, which famously syndicates Popeye. Every Wednesday, he publishes a new edition online at ComicsKingdom.com.

Now, he’s trying to publish the first collected edition of Legalization Nation with a crowdfunding drive on Kickstarter, prompted after hearing publishers claim that such a book would never sell.

As of Monday, Brown had raised more than $11,000, nearly halfway to his $25,000 goal. He’s even marketing it to a new clientele.

“I usually hit up indie-friendly comic shops, but there’s less and less across the country every year,” he said. “But there’s more and more independent cannabis shops every year. I think the book would be good for them, because it would educate their consumers about corporate cannabis and why they should be spending their money at an independent store.”

Brown has dedicated numerous strips to calling out what he sees as a cushy relationship between the biggest cannabis companies in the country and government regulators. There are short explainers about new laws and issues they present to consumers. And there are snippets from Brown’s own life, like his hunt for an edible at an unlicensed dispensary in Manhattan before catching an Amtrak back to Philadelphia.

Brown openly admits that he’s not an unbiased reporter, but the comic is undoubtedly journalistic in the vein of classic editorial cartoons. He tries to interview at least one person for every strip, and he’s illustrated his conversations with Jeff Brown, executive director of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, as well as advocates and mom-and-pop cannabis operators from across the country.

It’s still a comic strip, though: Curaleaf, one of the world’s largest cannabis companies, is often portrayed by a Monopoly man-style caricature. A New Jersey cannabis customer has dollars signs for eyes as they walk into a dispensary.

Brown draws himself in many of the strips, with curly hair, a beard and mustache, big eyeglasses and a joint or bong in his hands. It’s a pretty fitting likeness, save for the Simpsons-like yellow skin.

More:Curaleaf can sell NJ legal weed after all, cannabis regulators decide

“The art style looks like the Sunday papers, and his style is unique. But his approach is serious,” said Chris Goldstein, a regional organizer with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “He tells complex stories in six panels that other people would struggle to explain in a two-hour Netflix documentary.”

While Brown liked to draw a kid, it wasn’t until college that he realized how much he loved the actual process of making comics. He’d doodle in the margins of his notebooks “instead of paying attention” and pass around one-panel, New Yorker-style comics to his friends.

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He spent the better part of a decade balancing part-time gigs to pay the bills while publishing small comic zines and online strips — until 2014, when his graphic novel, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, about the professional wrestler and actor, hit the New York Times bestsellers list.

Now, comics are his career.

More:Q&A: Meet the author of an Andre the Giant graphic bio

He sold and published books about the oddly thrilling history of Tetris and comedian Andy Kaufman. He illustrated another book on the “life and lies” of Vladimir Putin” and a fiction book about child actors. This summer, he published “The He-Man Effect,” about the effect of 1980s toy marketing on kids as they turned into adults.

Brown is working on another book, but Legalization Nation has become his passion. It’s the only outlet where he can scratch the itch formed as a 16-year-old New Jersey teenager suddenly faced with a criminal record, feeling wronged because he’d been caught with a joint instead of a keg of beer.

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It’s perhaps the most common theme in Legalization Nation — that cannabis users shouldn’t be vilified.

In one strip, Brown included a small caricature of himself, still largely lifelike, skipping across green grass, with a big goofy smile on his face.

“Cannabis is not bad. Cannabis users are good people,” Brown writes. “Not being ashamed is an effective strategy for positive change and better laws.”

Two arrows point to Brown’s self-portrait, simply saying “good” and “not bad.”

Another points to the joint in his hand, with a comically large puff of smoke: “Nothing to be ashamed of.”

Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and a little bit of everything else. He’s won a few awards that make his parents very proud. Contact him at mdavis@gannettnj.com or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.

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