Alan Chazaro: Congratulations on publishing your second book for young adults. What’s your background as a reporter and how did that inform the way you approached this book and the subjects you chose to interview?
Caitlin Donohue: I’ve been reporting on cannabis since I started my column [Herbwise] at the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2012. I moved to Mexico City a few years later. I have had a very unique experience of being able to see the world of cannabis — and cannabis prohibition in particular — on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Seeing how it works on an international level inspired me to share it with young leaders and readers. The people I spoke with come from all over the Americas: Argentina, Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia, Canada, the U.S. They all have different experiences with a certain role that cannabis plays in society. A 14-year-old from Buenos Aires who takes it medicinally. An auto shop worker in LA who was incarcerated on cannabis charges. An architect from Mexico who constructs using hemp-based materials. A former NBA player, Al Harrington.
Al Harrington played for the Golden State Warriors when I was growing up. I never knew he was involved in the cannabis industry.
He’s special because he’s one of the only people in the book who is from the legal, commercial cannabis industry in the U.S. When I tapped people for this, I wanted to show different parts of the cannabis spectrum. I found that people in the legal cannabis industry didn’t want to be involved in a project geared towards young readers and education, or around cannabis policing or any of that. But Al understood what I was doing right away. We talked about what cannabis means to him and how it entered his life as a teenager, not as personal consumption, but how him and his friends were criminalized around cannabis. Cops would line them up and search them for drugs, which I think is sadly a common experience for Black and brown people around the world. He understood why young people could use more information about it and how cannabis impacts our personal health.
Your book explores various perspectives on the cannabis spectrum throughout the Americas. What’s a major takeaway you’ve had?
I really wanted to make it clear in this book that even though we’re all talking about the same plant, it has different roles and levels of acceptance in other regions and countries. So much of it is about cannabis, but it’s also about prohibition. I wanted that point to come across about how prohibition isn’t linked to how dangerous drugs are. Most of the time it’s established as a tool of racism and classism, and leads to horrific violence which the power structures use to control very specific communities. This plant impacts all of us differently depending on who we are: our racial background, our neighborhoods, our gender, our social class, and so on. This book reminds us that we are all community members. We all use drugs in different ways for different purposes. I hope the book can be a starting point to talk about not just weed, but other issues impacting the lives of young people around the world.
What are some benefits of cannabis, and why should anyone who is against it consider softening their views on it as an illegal substance?
I spoke with a nursing professor at the University of British Columbia, and she interviewed hundreds of young people about drugs in their life. She uses educational resources to teach kids about drugs in a harm-reduction perspective, rather than the traditional binary of abstinence versus addiction. She underlines the fact that we’re all drug users. Humans have always been drug users. It will never be about eliminating drug use. Even drugs that are more “recreational” in nature, it’s about being in touch with our bodies and minds.
For people looking to know about the health benefits of cannabis, there is a chapter about how its medicinal purposes can help to maintain a high quality of life. There are some conditions where people have used cannabis and it has proven to have dramatic results on improving their specific condition. There’s also a chapter in the book about the impacts of non-psychoactive cannabis in our lives. Hemp flour, hemp milk. There’s a lot of very positive examples of cannabis’ impact on a day-to-day basis.
The Bay Area has always been an informal hub for weed usage and distribution — dating back to the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Is there anything about the history of cannabis here that has gone overlooked?
One part of the cannabis industry in the Bay Area is the role it played in the AIDS epidemic. In California it was an HIV/AIDS patient who really figured out how cannabis could help give appetites back, it helped with nausea. The queer community wanted to keep each other safe, and they weren’t necessarily concerned with cannabis being deemed illegal by the government. There was a famed HIV/AIDS patients cannabis club [activist Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club] that was raided very publicly during the run-up to Proposition 215 [the first medical marijuana legislation in the country]. The cops and the state wanted to turn public opinion against medical marijuana, but voters decided to do it anyway. It’s another example of why it’s important to look at how drug prohibition impacts specific communities and how it falls on different people’s backs, and that has happened in Bay Area culture and communities for decades.
This book is geared towards young adults. What do you hope they gain from reading Weed: Cannabis Culture in the Americas?
I think kids are ready for so much more than we give them credit for. By covering up certain subjects it creates fear where there doesn’t need to be fear. When I was little, I had some D.A.R.E.-type of officer visit my classroom and I remember being so anxious and fearful for the rest of that day. I went straight home and waited for my mom. I told her about how bad drugs are and how people who do them are bad. Thank god my mom took the time to educate me on her own. When I inevitably tried weed, I didn’t have any paranoia or neurosis around it. It allowed me to develop a healthy relationship with cannabis — although I have had moments of problematic uses at times. But kids are capable. What’s more is that we’re setting them up for real confusion, particularly around marijuana. Right now there is gourmet weed being marketed on every level and the cannabis industry in California is massive. So it’s really time to be giving young people more tools to work with.
Did you encounter any challenges while writing this book?
Honestly, my challenge might start now. Finding the platforms to share it, getting it into classrooms, getting people to care about it. We’re in a moment of hysteria in the United States. And a lot of it is directed at children’s literature. I looked closely at the list [of banned books] and it’s almost exclusively first-person accounts of being queer, non-binary or being a person of color. So I’ll be in good company. Of course, some people will freak out about seeing a book on weed for young readers. They think that by banning books about tough topics that those topics won’t enter the lives of kids, but that’s not the case. If they don’t learn about cannabis through a book, someone else will teach them. It’s about having a panorama of information.