Activist David Malmo-Levine’s comic book debunks drug war myths

A weed historian’s recipe for resistance

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It has taken 10 years, but cannabis activist and self-proclaimed agitator David Malmo-Levine has released Vansterdam Comix.

From decades spent galvanizing crowds at smoke-ins and 4/20 demonstrations, Malmo-Levine has had a front-row seat to cannabis legalization in Canada. And now there’s a comic book detailing all of it.

Since 1994, he has been arrested multiple times, self-represented at the Supreme Court, and advocated for peaceful civil disobedience—all in the name of social justice and cannabis liberation. He is also the city’s unofficial weed historian as founder of the Herb School in 2004 and the Herb Museum in 2007, which preserves things like prohibitionist propaganda and pharma relics of the plant’s once-acclaimed medical benefits.

“Noam Chomsky said: ‘The responsibility of intellectuals is to tell the truth and expose lies,’ ” Malmo-Levine says during a chat with the Georgia Straight at a Hastings Street cannabis lounge. “Now that I have done my homework on the drug-war lies and how to resist scapegoating nonviolently, anyone who reads this [comic book] is both empowered and given a sacred duty.”

Inspired early on by renowned American linguist and political activist Chomsky, Malmo-Levine set out to create a manifesto of the misinformation plaguing a subculture he helped build: Canada’s weed community.

The result? A 420-page, highly detailed, and contextually rich comic book chronicling the global drug war, anchored on his involvement in Vancouver’s cannabis movement.

Malmo-Levine pays tribute to English novelist George Orwell in his dedication, which should inform any literate reader of its politically radical contents even before the first few pages.

An initial attempt at the comic was incinerated on April 27, 2004, when an arsonist burnt down Blunt Brothers, a local bring-your-own-bud lounge. All that remains of the early copy is the cover, which is included as the last page of the new comic. After completing the second draft, the author toted the manuscript around in a backpack to weed-industry events, pitching the book to publishers. In 2018, Don Briere, owner of the dispensary Weeds Glass and Gifts, invested. Now the graphic encyclopedia of activism is bound in a glossy soft cover and ready for distribution at a handful of remaining grey-market dispensaries throughout the city.

The book’s interwoven stories, brimming with decades’ worth of vibrant, hand-drawn illustrations, detail firsthand accounts of drug busts, rallies, and free-love celebrations, all of which were predominantly oral history until this record.

Teaming up with local artist Bob High, whose illustrations can be seen in dispensaries around Vancouver, Malmo-Levine presents both an anecdotal and evidence-based framework for understanding the anti-prohibition movement, unpacking myths that have stigmatized generations of pot smokers.

"Bob is amazing. He's like no other artist out there. I have I never known anyone who could realize the crazy shit going on in my head and turn it into something everyone could understand," says Malmo-Levine. "He's got a special gift."

The book also delves into the activist's formative years, starting with his first encounter with the concept of social justice while watching the 1977 Star Wars movie a day before his sixth birthday. The evil-empire-versus-the-grassroots-rebellion narrative would translate into his fight for the right to smoke weed after sparking up for the first time on a summer day while listening to Pink Floyd at the ripe age of 14.

“I was suicidal growing up. I can’t forget that part of me. Up until when I started smoking weed, I was a hormonal mess. No social skills, graces, awkward as fuck, horny as hell, and scared about nuclear war, and not wanting to suffer unnecessarily,” he says. “Cannabis took the edge off of all of that and gave me reason to chuckle.”

Seeing the positive impact weed could have on his own life, Malmo-Levine committed to spreading the word about the plant's benefits—calling for fair and equal access for all.

"Right now, we have legalization for the rich and the old. We still need to push for a legalization that includes the young and poor," he says. "We need activists now more than ever. All of them. Anybody who’s willing to stick their neck out. It’s a crucial point."

He has written about “reefer madness”, the crude capitalization on parental hysteria, and political scapegoating on his website, PotFacts.ca, and in books in the past, but his most comprehensive work is certainly Vansterdam Comix.

Piper Courtenay

For many Canadians, legalization began as an idea in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s head—a campaign promise fulfilled. To those people, anything before that was just a bunch of hippies smoking weed and blowing it in the face of “the man”.

“It’s so much more than that!” Malmo-Levine says. “There are some key moments in our activism history that I managed to record in there to show how a group of scapegoats can resist their genocide in a nonviolent and almost fun way.”

In the book, he explains the origin stories of some of the best-known local advocates of the existing industry—from Hilary Black to John Conroy—and their early days spent fighting authoritarian figures who sought to snuff out grassroots advocacy.

He describes pivotal events in the antiprohibition fight, like Vancouver’s very first Cannabis Day in July 1996 and the origins of the 4/20 demonstrations. The book also exposes mistakes made in sensationalist media coverage, political corruption, unchecked police brutality, and criminal activity within the cannabis movement itself.

There are pages that cite the early uses of “hug power” (a peaceful tactic to protect protesters from arrest), safety tips for novice black-market pot dealers, and amusing sidebars, like the top 10 ways to get busted.

About 100 pages of the comic book document what he says often gets him labelled as “cuckoo crazy”—cited evidence backing theories about the role of cannabis in high-profile assassinations, wars, cover-ups, and mind-control experiments.

“That’s the stuff that’ll turn the world upside down,” he says, adding that validating what are often cast off as conspiracy is really why he wrote the book in the first place.

With recent federal restrictions placed on cannabis education and corporate campaigns aimed at capitalizing on a shiny new version of the industry, much of this information has been ignored or lost. Malmo-Levine’s book points a hard spotlight on some of the glaring flaws still prevailing in modern cannabis culture.

“It’s going to take a big information campaign to counteract the lies that have been pushed down everyone’s throats for so long,” he says.

“This is my weapon to fight back against the ignorance. It’s a recipe for resistance.”

David Malmo-Levine and Bob High will be signing copies of their new comic on Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Flatspot Longboard Shop (112 E Pender Street) from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

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