It sounds like something a couple of stoners would dream up in a late-night toke fest, but The Scratch & Sniff Book of Weed is very real. It's also more serious than you might expect.
The book's decision to incorporate the novelty sniffing element was sudden, but perfectly logical, says co-author Seth Matlins. In fact, he and his co-author and partner, Eve Epstein, were "surprised that nobody had done it yet."
Matlins, a pothead "since first hearing Pink Floyd in 1982," and Epstein, who enjoys using cannabis oil, see the sniffing as a way to hook readers. Both have marketing backgrounds as executives, for a content and media company (Epstein) and a global talent, media, and marketing agency (Matlins). So they understand the extent to which the medium, not just the message, matters.
They also acknowledge that not all of the smells work perfectly. (Some of the sweet scents drift toward a vaguely bubblegum-y aroma, while the savory smells, like the burger, evoke an odd combination of meat and perfume.) Epstein points out that the humor behind the idea was more important than actually capturing each smell. They've included a cotton-candy smell in the discussion of cottonmouth, for instance.
The scratch-and-sniff component wasn't just about grabbing attention. Epstein and Matlins talk about appreciating the multi-sensory elements of weed—the smell, the feel, the taste—and wanted to capture some of that for their book.
The different bodily sensations associated with weed crop up again and again in the book. The authors report positive experiences with cannabis-infused oil, used during sex. "Weed works magic," they write, "producing dopamine, which ignites our pleasure centers… and induces 'general euphoria.'" They also summarize some of the many medicinal and rehabilitative benefits of weed, from improving the appetites of cancer victims to helping those addicted to opiates kick the hard stuff.
Epstein and Matlins also wanted their work to evoke some of the pleasures of handling a book. Epstein is wistful about the nostalgia factor associated with the smell and feel of physical books, which are increasingly being displaced by digital formats. The Scratch and Sniff Book of Weed, with its thick pages, lavish illustrations by Ann Pickard, and careful attention to design, is clearly a book that's meant to be held.
What it's not intended to be is just a joke book. Matlins explained, "We didn't write it for a stoner mentality." Instead, the aim was to be the "Sesame Street of weed": entertaining and educational.
The authors also wanted the book to contribute to a larger conversation about the need for weed policy reform in the US: Ten percent of the book's profits will be donated to the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates against the war on drugs. And the book ends with an impassioned appeal to "Legalize It," after having surveyed the medicinal applications of weed as well as its long history of human use.
In the course of researching the book, the authors discovered not only one surprising tidbit after another—for instance, North Korea is the only country where weed is available at supermarkets—but also just how maddening the history of the anti-weed movement is.
This is apparent from the first few pages, which note that the term "marijuana" is so problematic that the authors won't be using it. The book explains that the term was popularized by the head of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s, which explicitly referenced the threat of "darkies" using the drug.
It isn't entirely clear from the book's short snippet why "marijuana" itself, derived from a Spanish term, is an offensive word. This occasional lack of context might be inevitable in a 4,000-word book with a breezy, whimsical tone—essentially a picture book for adults. But as Epstein told me, "What makes a term racist is precisely the context in which it's used." While "marijuana" doesn't reference a particular group, its early usage was so closely interlinked with racist fear mongering and othering that the word has become tainted by association.
"What we tried to do was weave 4,000 years of history and experience into something that furthers the conversation and hopefully plays some role on the path to decriminalization and legalization."
More generally, Epstein noted, "One thing that's become clear to us is that most of the opposition exists not because of any demonstrable danger but for political reasons or reasons of greed." In terms of politics, for example, the drug war under Nixon was "part of a larger ploy to disenfranchise people of color or other factions in the US—basically hippies," which was recently substantiated by a former Nixon aide. On the economic side, the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries have played a major part in stoking fear about weed, whereas, according to Epstein, "most of the narrative that's been created around it has zero evidence in fact."
Matlins and Epstein have tried to chip away at some of the misinformation and stereotypes around American pot use in the text but also through visuals. There are four characters who recur in the pages of the book: an Asian grandmother, a black college student, a Latina soccer mom, a middle-aged white dude. According to the authors, these four were chosen to reflect the current demographics of weed users, who represent a far more diverse (and mainstream) group than the proliferation of, say, Judd Apatow movies might suggest.
"What we tried to do was weave 4,000 years of history and experience into something that furthers the conversation and hopefully plays some role on the path to decriminalization and legalization," said Matlins.
Christine Ro is a writer living in London.
The Scratch and Sniff Book of Weed is available now in bookstores and online from Abrams Image.