For a guy who primarily illustrates children’s books, Ricardo Cortes sure gets in trouble a lot. He’s probably best known for drawing the pictures for Go the Fuck to Sleep, a jokey “children’s book for adults” that became an internet and real-life sensation—Werner Herzog and Samuel L. Jackson both read it, and it hit #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list before it even came out. But Ricardo went through another whirlwind of bizarre publicity six years ago when he came out with It’s Just a Plant, a book where a kid stumbles across his parents smoking pot and has the world of marijuana explained to him by his patient, reasonable mother. Because he didn’t write POT IS EVIL AND WILL KILL YOU in big red letters on the cover, a bunch of people yelled about how It’s Just a Plant was encouraging kids to toke up—it was denounced on the floor of Congress, and Bill O’Reilly brought Ricardo on his show to berate him for encouraging drug use in children.
More recently, Ricardo wrote and illustrated a free book aimed at adults that describes the principle of “jury nullification,” which is the idea that if a jury disagrees with a law, they can declare someone innocent even if they’re technically guilty—even if the person has confessed. Jury nullification has been used in the past by racists who want to let whites get away with murder, but Ricardo wants juries to use it to let any non-violent drug offender walk free, a view he shares with The Wire creator David Simon, among others. I recently had coffee with him and this is some of what we talked about.
VICE: What kind of drug education did you receive as a kid?
Ricardo Cortes: DARE.
Oh man, they’re the worst. Did you come out of that thinking that pot would kill you?
I just kind of had this vague idea that drugs were bad. But also I remember there was a moment in DARE where the cop was talking about alcohol and how bad it was, and a girl in my class said, “Do you drink alcohol?” The cop said, “Yeah, but I’m older.” And then she said, “But if it’s so bad and it kills people, then why do you drink it?” So that kind of education can happen within DARE, which is awesome.
Then you ended up writing a drug-educated book that got you on O’Reilly. What was that like?
Going on O’Reilly was fun. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fight him. I was a little nervous, like, wow, he’s so good at destroying people. That’s his den, he’s a lion, he could take me out. So I just wanted to agree with him, basically, but agree with him in a way that might be surprising to him. Obviously he is against having problems with drugs, that’s what this book is about. And he wrote a book that was surprisingly progressive about sexual education.
I haven’t read his book, what’s it about?
It’s his message distilled to a junior-high level. I actually read it right before I did that interview just so I could be like, “Well, hey Bill, you say that we should talk to kids about sex—are you saying you are trying to teach kids how to have sex? Because that’s the inevitable…” Like that’s the analogy that I would draw from this book. I’m not teaching kids how to roll a joint, but I’m educating kids about pot.
And you’re educating adults about jury nullification. How did that happen?
I did a jury stint in Brooklyn a couple years ago and I had the same reaction a lot of people do, like: “Oh I don’t want to do this, I don’t have time to do this.” And I actually said during the jury-selection process, when we were asked, “Does anyone here have any problems that will make them unable to render a fair judgment?” I actually said I wouldn’t convict anyone for any drug crimes. They said, “Well, this is a robbery case and has nothing to do with drugs.” So I ended up being on the jury. And it was actually an amazing experience. The guy seemed pretty guilty, because of the evidence, but I saw a couple holes in what the police were saying. Then, in the jury room, everyone thought he was not guilty because they didn’t trust this cop or that cop. I couldn’t believe that there were people more skeptical than me of cops. And through our dialogue we came to see, yeah, that doesn’t make sense and that doesn’t make sense and we voted to acquit this guy. I saw the defendant’s face—he was like, “Wow, thank you.” And I thought this is a pretty cool system and I’m really impressed by it. I think that was the same time that I saw the David Simon piece, which I thought was fucking amazing.
Prosecutors would throw you off the jury if you said you would vote “not guilty” automatically. Do you think it’s OK to lie if they ask you so you can get onto a jury?
I don’t know. I mean that’s the best critique of something like this. If everyone starts saying that then no one’s going to get on juries. I guess I was asked that and I did tell the truth. But they don’t ask if people are for or against jury nullification yet because it’s not well known. If it does become known, should you lie? No, I think it’s cool to say “I’m for jury nullification and I would vote to acquit…” and explain the whole thing so that 50 potential jury members in the room go, “Oh wait, what? I never heard that.”
To learn more about jury nullification, download Ricardo’s book here.