“What’s that, Mommy? Mar-a-whahh?” Jackie asked sleepily.
“Marijuana,” smiled her dad, “is a plant.”
This loving exchange is found in It’s Just a Plant, a children’s book about weed. The now-updated title is getting re-released this 4/20 to reflect a different cannabis reality from its initial launch 15 years ago.
Author and illustrator Ricardo Cortés, 46, says when his book was first released, it was called an outrage and belittled on-air by since-disgraced Fox News star, Bill O’Reilly.
“There’s been a sea of change in the culture,” the New York-based artist says. “I never would have thought Snoop would team up with Martha Stuart, smoking weed on live TV.”
But even as 33 U.S. states have now legalized medical cannabis, stigma still exists and that gives children mixed signals, Cortés says.
“The whole point of this book is for it to be a tool for parents to open up a conversation,” he tells Mugglehead from his Brooklyn apartment. “Because otherwise kids are getting their information half from the pop culture, and then half from stuff from federal education programs in the U.S. like the Just Say No campaign.”
Cortés might be best known for illustrating the global best-seller Go the F*ck to Sleep, the “children’s book for adults” that was famously narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson. But the author started his book career 16 years ago when he first self-published It’s Just a Plant.
“A children’s story book about marijuana — when I first published it in 2004, it was really difficult to talk to people about it then,” he recalls.
Cortés says people are more aware today that the decades-long U.S. war on drugs and draconian cannabis policies have caused major social injustice rather than making the country safer.
He believes spreading awareness to youth remains important because many parents not only use pot, but some are still incarcerated for using it.
“And other kids have parents who use the plant medicinally. We can educate children about plants without piquing a desire to try them,” Cortés says.
Children’s weed book still promotes safety first
When the book first came out, the story centered around a little girl who catches her mom and dad smoking a joint late at night.
In bright and vivid illustrations, the parents take their daughter the next day on an education tour to a farmer and a doctor to learn weed isn’t for kids, but it’s helped some adults for hundreds of years. She then meets a police officer who explains that cannabis is illegal and he has to arrest people who use it.
But in the updated version, Cortés says, the police officer explains that weed is not illegal everywhere as some places have changed their laws.
“I wanted to update the text to reflect how the laws have changed dramatically,” he says. “To make it a little bit future proof, or however long parents are actually going to need to talk to their kids about the plant.”
Along with the new text, he says the front and back cover are new, and the 48-page book also includes new illustrations, as well as an endorsement in an afterword from Marsha Rosenbaum, founder of the Safety First drug education project.
Cortés is open about his own weed use. But he says the book is also for people who don’t use cannabis because prohibition hurts everybody with wasted tax dollars and overfilled prisons.
Although he doesn’t have children of his own, Cortés says he’s read it to his nieces and nephews.
“But I think the gatekeeper of this book should be the parent of a child,” he says.
It’s Just a Plant explicitly addresses the potential harm of drug abuse and insists that cannabis shouldn’t be experimented with by children, Cortés explains.
“There are other drugs like alcohol that also can be used responsibly in a happy, healthy family.” he says. “Like anything, I think basically the conversation just needs to be more about the education about it. And honestly, when people are more empowered with knowledge, they can make better decisions.”
An odd time to release any book
When he first released the book, he said he had to scrape together his own money and funding from a U.S. cannabis policy organization to print off 3,000 copies, which sold out over the course of two years.
But this time he has the Go to F*ck to Sleep publishing team behind him to take on production duties, allowing him to focus on the artistry.
Cortés says releasing the book on 4/20 was done for obvious reasons.
And while a children’s cannabis book might seem strange to introduce at any time, he says it’s even odder to launch it during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“The most important thing that people can do right now is to deal with their own health and safety.” But on top of that, he says, we also need to keep making culture, art and writing our story.
Living in New York — an epicenter for the virus in the U.S. — has been scary at times, Cortés says.
“I know some people who have passed away. So it’s real, you know?”
To address the seriousness of the pandemic in a not-so-serious way, he collaborated with his friend and author of Go the F*ck to Sleep, Adam Mansbach.
The two put together a modified version, Stay the F*ck at Home, which went viral when Samuel L. Jackson read it on Jimmy Kimmel Live! earlier this month.
Just in case you missed it on @jimmykimmellive, here it is in raw, uncut form for easy listening: “Stay the F*ck at Home.” Let’s all do our part to keep everyone safe and healthy! #STF@H @jimmykimmel @adammansbach @feedingamerica pic.twitter.com/TDyusAyz9G
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) April 2, 2020
“It’s a horrible situation we’re all in,” he says. “So I was happy to get the word out there because the quarantining is important, and our little project was a funny way to get people talking and spread some awareness.”
Still a ‘long ways to go’
But Cortés says he hopes It’s Just a Plant could also be a tool and maybe even a distraction from conversations about the coronavirus while people hunker down at home.
“One thing that’s happening right now is there’s a lot of home-schooling taking place,” he says. “And there’s also a lot of parents out there smoking grass to relax right now, or to help with some type of ailment.”
Cortés applauds the fact that many states have deemed cannabis an essential service, but says there’s still more work to do in normalizing the plant.
With the 2020 U.S. election on the horizon, Cortés says both Joe Biden and President Donald Trump aren’t promising candidates for federal legalization.
“Not only in some places it is illegal and we have to change that, but there are still a lot of people whose lives have been destroyed by the criminal justice system,” Cortés says. “There are still people in prison for non-violent cannabis use.”
“We’ve definitely come a long way, but obviously we still have a long ways to go.”
Top image courtesy of Ricardo Cortés