If you have any burgeoning interest in cannabis and drug policy, you probably have heard of Alex Berneson’s new anti-marijuana book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence this past week. He’s experienced the kind of book coverage an author dreams of in 2019, with a very notable piece of publicity in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell.
Berenson’s main position is that he’s anti-legalization, but pro-decriminalization. This contention is informed by the following sentences in his book, first highlighted by Vox: “Marijuana causes psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence.”
Readers of this site will likely approach Berenson’s book with skepticism. After all, Berenson titled the book Tell Your Children, a knowing wink to the 1936 film Reefer Madness, which was originally titled Tell Your Children. While the pros of cannabis legalization are many—ending the War on Drugs, properly studying the medicinal benefits, and limiting criminal activity surrounding illicit drug trade, including at the border—the cons still require a closer look as we undergo one of the more monumental changes in drug policy over the past century.
Curious observers of Berenson’s press coverage will notice a disturbing trend: the scientists behind the research which forms Berenson’s negative marijuana conclusions in the book have all emerged to state one thing—Berenson misinterpreted the research.
First, you have RAND Drug Policy Research Center co-director Beau Kilmer. Gladwell quotes Kilmer in his piece for his warning to Canadian parliament about cannabis. Kilmer “tweeted in response to Berenson a rather comprehensive study showing, ‘Marijuana use does not induce violent crime,’” as Rolling Stone pointed out.
You also have Mark Kleiman, drug expert and NYU professor who has also expressed caution over bullishly legalizing marijuana at any cost. In his book, Berenson asserts that violent crime rose in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington—the first four states to legalize adult-use cannabis—in 2014. But, as Kleiman told New York Magazine, “Nothing interesting happened with regard to pot in 2014, but there was a national uptick in homicide in 2015–2016.”
Despite Berenson’s claim of “sharp increases in murders and aggravated assaults since 2014” in Oregon, for example, the FBI reported that the murder rate there went up a grand total of 1.0 percent from 2015 to 2016, as compared to a nationwide uptick of 7.9 percent, and then dropped by 11.6 percent between 2016 and 2017, a significantly steeper drop than in the rest of the country. If one insists on positing a tight causal relationship between pot laws and murder rates, one could just as easily argue that Oregon’s homicide trajectory has been softened by pot legalization in these years, at least relative to national trends, saving a number of Oregonians’ lives.
Both Gladwell and Berenson heavily lean on 468-page report titled “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids” by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Here is where the potentially troubling link between marijuana and schizophrenia emerges. But Ziva Cooper, research director at UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative and committee member on the National Academy’s report, told Rolling Stone that Berenson misinterpreted their conclusions about schizophrenia.
“To say that we concluded cannabis causes schizophrenia, it’s just wrong, and it’s meant to precipitate fear,” Cooper said, mentioning the association between schizophrenia and cannabis use required more evidence before drawing any definitive conclusions.
“People who have schizophrenia are also known to be very heavy tobacco smokers, but we don’t say that tobacco causes schizophrenia,” she added.
The list goes on for these type of comments. Vox did a comprehensive breakdown of Berenson’s claims with refutations from other significant data and the scholars behind them. (An example: Berenson leans on Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs by historian Isaac Campos for his research on Mexico and drug violence. Campos emailed Vox to say Berenson “pretty badly misrepresented” his work.) Or you could view a similar breakdown in the New York Times, positing how we can reasonably view marijuana’s potential risks without fear mongering headlines.
Overall, it appears Berenson hand-selected data and research that supported his thesis and omitted any counterevidence that could portray a more balanced look at marijuana legalization. He also mistook correlation for causation, as Cooper told the Times.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on drug policy or on marijuana research, but I will say this: When a bunch of other really smart people say your misinterpreting their work your findings are based on, maybe it’s time to re-examine those findings.