It's Just a Book

How a 'pro-marijuana' children's story found its way to Congress

Not even the foggiest-headed stoner would argue they want children to smoke pot. (Especially if it means children digging into one's stash.) The challenge is in dissuading kids from doing so without resorting to potentially counterproductive myths and hyperbole.

Enter Ricardo Cortes.

Last month, Cortes published his children's book, It’s Just a Plant, 48 cannabis-laden pages that he hoped would be taken as a welcome dose of "reality-based education." The former high school D.A.R.E. officer and Brooklyn-based T-shirt and skateboard designer says the book is intended for "six- to 12-year-olds." It still encourages kids to say "No," but stops short of condemning responsible adult use.

Not a how-to manual
illustration: Ricardo Cortes
Not a how-to manual

The story begins when eight-year-old "Jackie" walks into her parents bedroom, a den of Peter Max-style, Day-Glo decorum, and catches her parents smoking a joint. It ends--after an odyssey involving a gentle pot farmer, progressive-thinking doctor, and a primer on marijuana prohibition history from an officer making a bust--with Jackie proclaiming she's going to grow up and vote, "so I can make all the laws fair."

Cortes began writing the book two years ago. Knowing he was taking entirely different approach from the usual scare tactics found in drug education, he was certain major publishers wouldn't touch it. He shopped the book around to a few independent presses before deciding to publish an initial run of 3,000 copies himself. Orders have been processed primarily through the website of his company, Magic Propaganda Mill. As a single-title publisher, he decided not to approach the major retailer Barnes and Noble, which would have required him to shoulder distribution costs.

Cost turned out to be the least of his problems. Gentle librarians and distinguished legislators alike have snubbed It’s Just a Plant. Small Canadian retail conglomerate McNally Robinson told Cortes his book wouldn't fit the store's demographic. The Brooklyn Public Library requested a copy but then declined to carry the book, and two libraries in other states have yet to respond.

The book can be found on some shelves. Indie sellers in San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Baltimore, and New York are carryng the title, and one Borders in North Carolina has decided to stock it.

Reviews have been expectedly mixed. The most pointed came, unsurprisingly, from an elected official out to politicize the book. During a February 16 House Drug Policy Subcommittee hearing on "harm reduction" approaches to intravenous drug use, the committee's chairman, Indiana Representative Mark Souder, held a copy of the book in front of him and denounced it as a "pro-marijuana children's book." The representative then read excerpts into the Congressional Record. Cortes says he has already e-mailed a rebuttal to Souder's office, in the hopes will also be included in the Congressional Record. Souder's office hadn't yet seen it when contacted by the Voice.


Family time among the potted plants
illustration: Ricardo Cortes

Why would Souder go out of his way to publicize a self-published title of relatively little influence during a hearing unrelated to marijuana or educational policy? Two words: George Soros. The Hungarian-born investor is the chief financier of the drug reform movement and its most prominent advocacy group, the Drug Policy Alliance. The alliance is a key player in the world of drug reform--the go-to place for activists, journalists, and politicians interested in passing medical marijuana measures, decriminalizing marijuana, or starting needle exchange or methadone-maintenance programs. The DPA is the ideological thorn in the side of Souder and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the agency on behalf of which Souder introduces drug-related legislation to Congress.

Souder repeatedly attacked Soros and the DPA for its support of Cortes's book, which the DPA currently sells in the "drug education" section of its online library. DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann provided Cortes with a promotional blurb, while Marsha Rosenbaum, the director of the DPA's San Francisco office, wrote the book's epilogue.

Rosenbaum told the Voice she knew her epilogue was "somewhat of a risky proposition" but she never anticipated the extent of the negative backlash. "It confirms all of my worst fears that the government, in the human form of Souder, would hold up this book and claim with a straight face that it advocates marijuana use for kids." Souder, who is currently out of the country, couldn't be reached for comment.


See Jane smoke
illustration: Ricardo Cortes

The debate over American marijuana-control policy has always been framed around the minds of the young. From the campy anti-pot educational films of the 1950s to the in-school visits from police officers affiliated with the 22-year-old D.A.R.E. program, federal officials have consistently funded or endorsed persuasive approaches to education that critics say put a premium on scare tactics at the expense of scientific objectivity. In the 1930s and 1940s, pot was said to lead to blood-splattering violence and insanity, a claim perpetuated, in part, by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the Treasury Department agency that was the forerunner to today's Drug Enforcement Administration. This gave way to the slightly less sensational assertion that marijuana leads to the use of harder drugs like cocaine or heroin, a charge still in vogue among marijuana prohibitionists today, despite compelling evidence to the contrary (the federally funded 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine found no causative connection between the use of marijuana and the use of harder drugs).

But can a six-year-old differentiate how something could be against the law yet morally justifiable? "I don't think there's a magic age where it becomes OK to start talking about these things," Cortes says. "I think it's very similar to sex. A five-year-old is ready to talk about sex in some way. You don't need to break down the protein content of sperm to a five-year-old." (He and Rosenbaum are careful to say that they don't intend for kids to read the book on their own, but with an adult.)

Just a week after Souder's performance, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America announced the results of a new survey on parental attitudes. Most parents valued talking to their kids about drugs, the survey said, yet only one in three teens claimed to have learned a lot about drug risks at home. In fact, the number of parents who never talked to their kids about drugs doubled from 6 percent in 1998 to 12 percent in 2004. It's an ironic dynamic, since parents today are more likely to have used drugs than parents in previous generations.

As for Cortes, he may find the biggest market for his book isn't his intended audience. Cortes has already agreed to ship about half of his original run of books to Urban Outfitters, a national retail chain where consumers are more likely to see the book as ironic satire. That's cool, Cortes says. The point the book makes-pointing out the absurdity of marijuana laws-is one that is equally relevant to grown-ups. "Sometimes you have to talk to adults like they are children."

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