For the first time in decades, federal marijuana legalization seems possible in the foreseeable future. Given the wave of states’ legalizing cannabis through ballot initiatives, the grudging acceptance of its “inevitability” by the Food and Drug Administration, and the number of Democratic candidates slipping it into their campaign agendas, cannabis advocates are finally seeing years of activism come to fruition on a nationwide level.
Proponents bank on positive outcomes like a reduction in both the size and racial disparities of our country’s prison population; more latitude for researchers to study marijuana’s value as a medicine; and ready access to medical marijuana for anyone who needs it.
But some people don’t see marijuana legalization as a victory for social justice and medicine, or even as a boon for business. Former New York Times reporter and current spy novelist Alex Berenson is among them. Berenson doesn’t just find the fervor and fanfare around the burgeoning marijuana industry distasteful. He wants you to be afraid—very afraid—of legalization, and he’s written a new anti-pot screed to make that case.
Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence draws both its cheeky title and its ideological inspiration from the notorious anti-pot film Reefer Madness. In it, Berenson attempts to build a causal relationship between marijuana use and psychosis, especially schizophrenia, and then links that psychosis to violence in order to argue that marijuana legalization will increase violent crime. He does this using research studies, interviews with concerned psychiatrists and researchers, and numerous gory anecdotes, such as one in which a habitual marijuana user murders his girlfriend and makes “a necklace from her teeth.”
Berenson believes that his book is a vital addition to the conversation about legalization. But even though he’s an accomplished journalist (he reported from Iraq in the early 2000s and covered the health-care system later in his career), Berenson was not an expert on marijuana, mental health, or violent crime prior to writing this book. And based on the finished result, it doesn’t seem like he’s become one now, either.
Tell Your Children is divided into three sections: “Then and Now,” a historical overview of marijuana policy, domestic and worldwide, over the last century or so; “Proof,” a laundry list of studies and interviews aimed at supporting the connection between marijuana and psychosis; and “The Red Tide,” some 50 pages of true-crime vignettes in which marijuana and violence intersect, to lethal effect.
As a narrator, Berenson is very much present throughout the whole of Tell Your Children. He states in the book’s introduction that he began his investigation into the connections between pot, psychosis, and crime after he had a conversation with his wife, a forensic psychiatrist, in which she told him that all of the violent criminals she’s worked with have smoked marijuana. Berenson serves as a guide, a man whose path of discovery is meant to mirror the reader’s own, and he paints the consequences of full-blown legalization in broad, angry strokes.
As Berenson proclaims in the book’s 11th chapter (for anyone who had somehow managed to miss the point in the nearly 200 previous pages): “Marijuana causes psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence.” While this phrasing conveys a sense of urgency, it’s also a wild oversimplification. But it’s a point that Berenson has doubled down on in his various interviews promoting the book, including the profile that Mother Jones ran in early January—one that the magazine later ran a correction for, acknowledging that the piece had “overstated the connection…found between marijuana, bipolar disorder, and the risk of suicide, depression, and social anxiety disorders,” as well as “the connection between the increasing number of pot users and the number of people over 30 coming into the ER with psychosis.”
Much of Berenson’s prose is so heavy-handed that the book’s final lines could only register as absurd on a first read: “The black tide of psychosis and the red tide of violence are rising together on a green wave, slow and steady and certain. All anyone needs to do is look.” But in certain sections of the book—particularly the middle third, where Berenson’s barrage of studies and interviews with concerned psychiatrists begin piling up—the fearmongering almost starts to work. The notion that frequent marijuana users could be ticking mental-health time bombs begins to seep in, and it’s a frightening prospect.
It turns out, however, that what it takes to dispel Berenson’s particular strain of dread is a clear-eyed examination of the existing consensus around marijuana, especially when compared with Tell Your Children’s more outlandish claims. Though it’s clear that Berenson has poured an immense amount of time and energy into researching his book, when it comes to marijuana itself, he still makes some pretty basic mistakes.
For example, he repeatedly miscategorizes CBD as “non-psychoactive,” though the cannabinoid has been linked to alleviating some symptoms of anxiety—which means that CBD has been shown to have psychoactive effects, just not intoxicating ones. This mislabeling is an explicit attempt to separate CBD, which has been approved by the FDA in the form of Epidiolex to treat some kinds of epilepsy, from marijuana itself. “No no no,” Berenson interjects in an exasperated parenthetical statement. “Once again, CBD isn’t cannabis…. it bears repeating that nearly all marijuana sold today contains high levels of THC and almost no CBD.”
Berenson also claims that medical marijuana is “the same” as recreational marijuana, despite the fact that 13 states have programs that grant patients access only to a limited range of products with low THC, such as the gelatin cubes that are the sole edible allowed under Utah’s new medical-marijuana bill.
Berenson also declines to mention marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act—a legal classification for substances “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” a prohibition that makes it extremely difficult for American scientists to conduct research on marijuana’s effects—and instead implies that the dearth of research and clinical testing in the United States is simply the product of enlightened indifference. “In all, the studies [about cannabis and psychosis] covered tens of thousands of people in a half-dozen countries, though not the United States, as if American researchers didn’t think the issue worthy of their attention,” he says instead.
Additionally, while Berenson takes the trouble to position himself as an expert at interpreting data based on his time as a reporter covering the health-care industry, he has been criticized for cherry-picking studies in this book. The most notable critique comes from one of the researchers who conducted the study he cites for “arguably the most important finding of all”: a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that Berenson claims establishes the link between psychosis and marijuana. “In response to the recent @NYTimes editorial on cannabis and as a committee member on the @theNASEM #cannabis and #cannabinoids report we did NOT conclude that cannabis causes schizophrenia,” pharmacologist and cannabis researcher Ziva Cooper tweeted in response to an op-ed by Berenson in The New York Times.
Cooper followed this up with another tweet highlighting two of the study’s findings: an association “between cannabis use and schizophrenia,” and an association “between cannabis use and IMPROVED cognitive outcomes in individuals with psychotic disorders (not mentioned in the editorial).” In a third tweet, she added: “Since the report, we now know that genetic risk for schizophrenia predicts cannabis use, shedding some light on the potential direction of the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia.”
Likewise, Berenson relies heavily on selective anecdotal evidence. For example, he recounts the story of a Mormon man who shot and killed his wife after eating part of a THC-infused candy bar—but he glosses over the marital problems that the couple were having at the time of the wife’s murder, and the fact that she’d expressed a fear of her husband to friends in the days prior to her murder.
The limits of Berenson’s own perspective occasionally reveal themselves, such as when he minimizes the impact that marijuana policing has had on people of color. He argues that those incarcerated on marijuana-related charges alone make up only a fraction of the US prison population, but he doesn’t pause to consider how the racially disparate arrest rates for even simple marijuana possession have impacted black and brown communities throughout the War on Drugs. Similarly, when he interviews a Canadian graduate student and habitual pot user diagnosed with schizophrenia, he describes the student as “the youngest child of a successful immigrant family” with “no history of mental illness,” but doesn’t stop to examine whether cultural factors could have affected that supposedly immaculate familial bill of health.
In the end, it’s not just that many of Berenson’s claims are demonstrably false (indeed, a number of people have taken to Twitter to debunk them for free). It’s that virtually none of the publications who decided to give him a platform took the time to check him on his assertions. Berenson has written in or been interviewed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and The Marshall Project, all on the topic of marijuana and its potential dangers.
Lending alarmists like Berenson such a sizable platform only obscures the more meaningful conversation that needs to happen on the subject of legalization. The lack of reparations for communities or individuals impacted by harsh drug laws; the often-onerous growing regulations that choke out small farmers and pave the way for a corporate pot industry that will merely line the pockets of billionaires; an all-too-real lack of longitudinal research on marijuana’s effects on mental and physical health; and the potential environmental impact of large-scale cannabis farming—these are all concerns that need to be addressed. Focusing on hyperbolic claims only detracts from our ability to do so.
And for a lot of people—such as cancer patients who use oral cannabis formulations to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea, or families with members serving prison time on marijuana-related charges—legalization is a crucial and urgent piece of policy. Pretending that it doesn’t have very real repercussions in the realm of social justice is an uninformed and antiquated stance.
There are numerous arguments to be had before, during, and after the process of legalization. But it is vital that the people who make them actually know what they’re talking about. Otherwise, we’re just letting paranoia get the better of us.