Did you know that this is Banned Books Week? Every year, the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read, and promotes the value of free and open access to information. The Association states, “By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.”
Typically, books are challenged or banned by parents, school districts, and those associated with public libraries. Books can be banned for reasons as specific as criticising the lumber industry and promoting witchcraft, but far more typically it is because of sex, drugs, and profanity. This list will specifically focus on books where subject matter involving marijuana resulted in the book being banned.
While NORML advocates individuals should wait until they are adults to consider consuming cannabis, that’s no reason to lie and exaggerate its relative risks and dangers to children who can see through this over-the-top rhetoric. Ironically, most of these books are at least underlyingly anti-drug, and portray marijuana (or specifically marijuana abuse) in a highly negative light. You would think that parents would want their kids to read about the consequences of drug abuse (no matter how fantastical some of these books portray it), not hide them from it.
Here are five times that marijuana contributed to a book being banned!
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
“After a week of not talking to anyone, I finally called Bob. I know that’s wrong, but I didn’t know what else to do. I asked him if he had anything I could buy. He said he had a quarter ounce of pot left. So, I took some of my Easter money and bought it. I’ve been smoking it all the time since.”
You will see that every fictional book on this list will share many of these same features.
- Innocent teen protagonist enters a new school and meets new people.
- Teen protagonist is pressured to try marijuana, usually by a love interest. This also acts as a metaphor for losing their virginity, and thus their innocence.
- Not-so-innocent teen protagonist tires of marijuana and gets hooked on much harder drugs.
Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the high school characters use various substances (mostly marijuana) to try to quiet their respective demons, i.e., being gay in a homophobic high school and in love with the closeted quarterback, abused by your boyfriend, in love with a girl who sees you as a little brother, suicidal thoughts, etc. Because this is a Young Adult novel (albeit a very good one), the drug use only makes their problems worse. It also plays into the myth that there is a culture of peer pressure related to trying marijuana, which just isn’t the case. To give the book some credit though, the resulting fallout from their light drug use never gets into too harsh a territory. No overdoses or crack parties.
Author Stephen Chbosky expertly sums up why the book is so often banned and challenged. “Perks (of Being a Wallflower) was banned for reasons of teenage sexuality, drug use, and alcohol. Or as kids call it… going to high school.”
Looking for Alaska by John Green
“‘Studies show that marijuana is better for your health than those cigarettes,’ Hank said.
Alaska swallowed a mouthful of French fries, took a drag on her cigarette and blew smoke across the table at Hank. ‘I may die young,’ she said, “but at least I’ll die smart.”
Sorry Alaska, but this isn’t true. Studies have shown that cannabis exposure, even among young people, is not associated with causal, long-term changes in brain morphology. Nonetheless, Looking for Alaska has been high on the American Library Association’s Top Ten Challenged Books list almost every year since its publication in 2005. One Kentucky parent called the novel “filth” and insists it will tempt students “to experiment with pornography, sex, drugs, alcohol, and profanity.”
The coming-of-age novel revolves around a teenager entering a new boarding school, meeting a diverse group of fellow students that introduce him to drugs, sex, and other mind-expanding elements. The titular character Alaska, acts as the resident manic-pixie-dream girl. The second half of the story switches genres, becoming darker and more introspective. Unlike some of the other books on this list, Looking for Alaska neither demonizes nor praises marijuana. It simply is something that is present in the lives of certain characters. No one is peer pressured, no one “overdoses”, and no one starts smoking meth. In terms of realism regarding teen marijuana use, I personally feel it rings pretty true. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to something as alien to real life like Go Ask Alice.
Marijuana Grower’s Guide by Mel Frank and Ed Rosenthal
“When cannabis becomes legal, commercial seed houses will develop varieties to suit each gardener’s requirements: ‘Let’s see, I’d like something thai grows about six feet in six weeks, develops a giant cola, matures in sixty days, smells like cheap perfume, tastes like heady champagne, and takes me to the moon.’”
If books like this were more mainstream, maybe more people would be interested in STEM fields. First published in 1974, Marijuana Grower’s Guide has been called “the bible of basic cultivation”. Out of the pack, this book has obviously the most straightforward stance on marijuana, with no need for literary interpretations. In 2004, a man from Jackson, Wyoming took serious issue with the Teton County Public Library carrying Marijuana Grower’s Guide, comparing it to “books on bomb-making, assassination, how to make methamphetamine and child pornography.”
Wyoming has some of the strictest marijuana laws in the country. Possession of under three ounces of cannabis is a misdemeanor that can be punished with up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine; possession of over three ounces is a felony. Still, there hasn’t been an amendment yet to prohibit cannabis related books. At the time of the challenge, the book was checked out. The Teton County Commission promised it would put the book on hold when it was returned. 17 years later, there has not been an update on if it was returned to the shelves.
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
“Oh damn, damn, damn, it’s happened again. I don’t know whether to scream with glory or cover myself with ashes and sackcloth, whatever that means. Anyone who says pot and acid are not addicting is a damn, stupid, raving idiot, unenlightened fool! I’ve been on them since July 10, and when I’ve been off I’ve been scared to death to even think of anything that even looks or seems like dope. All the time pretending to myself that I could take it or leave it!”
20 pages later…
“The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary. Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead. They called the police and the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do. Was it an accidental overdose? A premeditated overdose? No one knows, and in some ways that question isn’t important. What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of thousands of drug deaths that year.”
Go Ask Alice was basically the literary equivalent of Reefer Madness for the 70’s set – with the same level of artistic merit. In summary, Alice (a pseudonym) is a nice and otherwise typical 15-year-old keeping a diary, from the years 1968 to 1970. She moves to a new school where she meets a girl who pressures her to smoke pot. She likes it so much that she figures all drugs are fine. The aptly-named Alice then goes down a rabbit hole of unprotected sex, intravenous drugs, and other hippie horrors. The diary’s last entry is from the book’s editor, Dr. Beatrice Sparks, who claims she received the diary from an actual teenage girl she knew.
Although Go Ask Alice is militantly anti-drug and pro-chastity, it has constantly been challenged and banned since its publication.
After its massive success, it led to a series of “anonymous” teen diaries edited by Sparks, all focusing on the dangerous the all-American teen faces everyday. Things like sacrificing yourself to Satan (Jay’s Journal) or getting impregnated by your teacher (Treacherous Love: The Diary of an Anonymous Teenager) were commonplace in the universe of Go Ask Alice. Just as an archaeologist might dig up a previously undocument prehistoric tooth, Dr. Sparks was extremely adept at tracking down diaries of dead teenagers. These stories served not only as titillation for suburban kids to vicariously live more interesting lives than their own, but also to suburban parents to affirm their own confirmation bias that terrible things happen when kids visit big cities and/or stop going to church.
Eventually, people began getting suspicious when Dr. Sparks – purportedly just the editor – began to try to be somewhat of a literary celebrity. People also noted that “Alice” didn’t really speak like a real teenager, but more in the linguistic vein of a Mormon youth counselor. A Mormon (purported) youth counselor like Beatrice Sparks. After more investigation, it came out that Sparks was a fraud. Not only did none of the diaries come from real people, but she didn’t have a PhD, and most likely was never even a legitimate counselor at all.
If you read Sparks’ books as the fiction they are, they aren’t a bad way to kill a few hours. Again they share the “so bad, it’s good” appeal of Reefer Madness. Unfortunately though, there are still people who take these sorts of wild accounts as fact, and use that false information to advocate against marijuana legalization.
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
“Been smokin’ pot since I was 13,
couldn’t quit if I tried. Besides,
why try? It keeps me happy,
Written entirely in verse, Crank is like Go Ask Alice for the teen-intellectual set. I actually really enjoyed Hopkins’ books when I was a young teen. The grittiness and unique narrative style felt like a nice reprieve to the Twilight and the Gossip Girl books, which were the other popular YA series of the mid-aughts. With that being said, even someone “educated” about drugs by public school curriculum under a conservative Florida government, could surmise that the average teen doesn’t jump from weed to crystal meth at the drop of a hat.
A major trope of YA fiction, specifically books geared towards girls, is the drug-pushing straw man (usually in the form of a mysterious new boy in school) that simply won’t take no for an answer. Not only is this insulting the intelligence and strength of teenage girls, but it also just isn’t very accurate. Teens are waiting until they are older to try marijuana, especially in places where it is legalized.
It joins the same club as Go Ask Alice, as a vehemently anti-drug book that is still deemed a bad influence to teens. Go figure.