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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Marijuana - It's Just a Plant by: Ricardo Cortes

At a time when DARE officers encourage children to snitch on parents or family members who use drugs and increasingly shrill professional drug fighters such as former deputy drug czar Andrea Barthwell advise parents to tell their children that their own drug use was a "mistake," "It's Just A PLANT!" is just the sort of antidote for the not-so-magic propaganda mill horror stories that pass for "drug education" in the United States. A beautifully illustrated children's story about marijuana, "It's Just a Plant" addresses some of the complexities of pot in a sober, thoughtful, and non-propagandistic manner -- and as important, in a manner that will make those issues understandable for curious children and approachable for nervous parents.

In 48 pages, Cortes takes readers on a guided tour of current marijuana issues from medicinal use to recreational use to the plant's illegal status. The language is simple enough for young children, yet clear enough to actually address these complex issues. The story begins with eight-year-old Jackie discovering her parents enjoying a joint in their bedroom one night. Faced with a child's inquisitiveness, Jackie's mom promises to explain about marijuana the following day.

And the next morning, off they go on their bicycles to meet first Farmer Bob, where mom buys the family vegetables. But Farmer Bob also grows marijuana, and Jackie gets to see and smell the skunky plant as Bob explains it has been grown by human for thousands of years and used for numerous purposes, including getting high. "What do you do with the flowers?" asks young Jackie. "People eat them and smoke them. Can you believe that?" Bob answers. "Some people say marijuana makes them feel happy. Others say it's 'dreamy.' Actually, the flower has different effects on different people who try it: artists, doctors, teachers, writers, scientists, even presidents," he explains. "Why do you use it, Farmer Bob?" Jackie asks. "I don't," he said. "It just puts me to sleep."

As young Jackie ponders what Farmer Bob has told her, it's off to the doctor's office to learn about marijuana as medicine. "Marijuana," kindly Dr. Eden explains, "is used for different reasons. Like many plants, it can be a medicine, and it is sometimes called a drug. It can heal the eyes of some people, help other people relax, and it calms the stomach and helps people eat when they need to."

But when Jackie asks if marijuana would help her, Dr. Eden is quick to explain that it is not for kids. "Marijuana is for adults who can use it responsibly," she says. "I do not recommend it for everyone. It can be a very strong medicine -- too strong for you now." Here Cortes may be open for criticism that he is conflating recreational and medical use, and for suggesting that some medicines are not appropriate for children -- would he say that morphine should not be given to a child in pain because it is "for adults who can use it responsibly"? -- but perhaps such conundrums are too much to resolve in a book aimed at children and their parents.

Next, Jackie and her mother encounter four black men smoking marijuana on the street, only to see the police arrive and order them against the wall. "Mister, why are you arresting people?" the perplexed child asks. "Young lady, these men were smoking what I call grass, and that is against the law," the policeman explains. "Marijuana is against the law?" the confused child asks uncertainly.

Officer Friendly explains, mentioning that marijuana was not always illegal, but "then one day, a small but powerful group decided to make a law against marijuana." Despite the protests of doctors, politicians and lawmakers made the plant illegal and "our government started War around the world to stop people from growing it."

Cortes deserves special credit here for introducing the "radical" notion that the law can indeed be an ass and that "the law is the law" is only the beginning, not the end, of the debate. He presents a mini-civics lesson as Jackie's mother explains that "the government can make a mistake," but that "we live in a country where we have the right to change the law if it doesn't work." The police office chimes in as well, saying that not all police officers believe marijuana should be illegal, and "If you think the law is mistake, maybe you should work to change it." (In case you're wondering about such reasonable police officers, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is one of the groups who helped the book see the light of day.)

Here, one wishes to leap beyond civic-minded platitudes and introduce young Jackie to cultural currents that sneer at unjust laws. "Unjust laws exist," 19th century American Transcendentalist proto-hippie Henry David Thoreau once famously noted. "Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them and obey them until we succeed, or shall we transgress them at once?" But perhaps that is a lesson that can wait for the junior high years.

Radical nit-picking aside, "It's Just a Plant" is a refreshing alternative to the stale and frankly unbelievable propaganda that passes for drug education aimed at children these days. For parents confronted with curious children, the book provides a comforting beginning point for dealing with the issues surrounding drug use in our society and a healthy antidote to the fear-mongering of the drug warriors. Just make sure your kid gets to read it with you before she goes to DARE. Gee, maybe she could even share her copy with the DARE officer.


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