I met Malcolm Gladwell once. Working at one of the Austin coffee shops I frequent, I overheard that distinct voice of his—a reassuring, rigorous tone that his prose also embodies. Eventually I approached him, commenting how I enjoyed his work, but he seemed busy, not really looking to engage, as was his right. Polite, but not altogether genial, if I had to characterize the interaction.
Now, I only write that to clarify I don’t think he’s a bad guy. But he seems quite lost in the weeds when it comes to cannabis. In a recent New Yorker feature titled “Is Marijuana As Safe As We Think It Is?”, Gladwell posits significant concern over the public’s embrace of cannabis. He cites lack of research on marijuana’s myriad effects and compounds, while also worrying about the increasing potency of commercial cannabis, and how its usage could link to rises in schizophrenia and violence.
— Tom Ley (@ToLey88) January 8, 2019
What has drawn the ire of cannabis activists and public health advocates across the internet is how Gladwell seemingly mistakes correlation for causation—or at least his winking suggestion of such conclusions—and how the scope of his story seems written with blinders on, altogether ignoring significant context or contrarian evidence to the research he highlights.
Here at The Fresh Toast we’ve exposed both sides of the argument: that marijuana may work to trigger psychosis in some while also questioning the cause-and-effect relationship between cannabis and schizophrenia cases. “Researchers have to tread carefully in evaluating the evidence and avoiding scaremongering,” Musa Sami, Researcher and Academic Psychiatrist at King’s College London, wrote on this site.
You should also know that anyone within the cannabis industry worth their salt has expressed to me a need for more research on cannabis and a tempering of expectations that cannabis might be a miracle penicillin. Even the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has made open calls for more cannabis research. In other words, shouting the need for more cannabis research is not a revolutionary stance.
Just reading the responses to my @NewYorker piece on the unknowns about marijuana. I’m puzzled why pot advocates would be hostile to the idea of learning more about the consequences of their habit. Haven’t we been through this w the climate deniers?
— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) January 8, 2019
Gladwell, however, doesn’t tell you why more significant research on cannabis hasn’t occurred. Because the federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, universities and institutions hoping to study cannabis in a clinical trial must first acquire approval from three different government agencies: the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In addition, scientists studying cannabis have long battled an additional loophole their colleagues focused on other Schedule I drugs—like LSD or MDMA—do not face. For the past 50 years scientists could only use cannabis grown from NIDA at the University of Mississippi. The problem? The federal pot farm was delivering unusable moldy samples.
Thanks to a crusade from Rep. Matthew Gaetz (R-FL), that should soon change. Gaetz sponsored the Medical Cannabis Research Act, which forces the government to hand out more cultivation licenses for marijuana to be used in scientific research. This is an improvement, but the irony is a Colorado-based researcher cannot simply run to the store, buy some weed, and use it for research. They must jump through many hoops, like Arizona-based Dr. Sue Sisley did only to receive the moldy weed she did.
This is why some American researchers have demonstrated jealousy over their Canadian brethren. Because of all the limitations I’ve laid out, many Americans researchers conduct observational studies—meaning they follow subjects already using cannabis while asking them questions or to perform certain tasks, then develop findings from there. It’s not an exact science. Thanks to Canada legalizing cannabis, it’s opening a treasure trove of data for Canadian researchers to dig through and develop more conclusive findings. Seriously, Canadian scientists are downright giddy over their newfound opportunities to conduct the research they’ve long hoped to do.
“It’s super exciting,” Sean Myles, research chair in Dalhousie University’s Department of Plant, Food, and Environmental Sciences, told Motherboard. “Like, this never happens. All of a sudden, there’s an organism on the planet that’s worth a tremendous amount, that nobody knew anything about, and you’re allowed to investigate it with some pretty deep pockets behind it.”
Here is where it’s probably worth mentioning that Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian.
Much of Gladwell’s story revolves around a new anti-marijuana book from Alex Berenson, a former investigative reporter at the New York Times. It’s titled Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. Worth noting for you non-cannabis historians out there: Tell Your Children was the original title for the 1930s anti-cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness. The book was released today and has enjoyed one hell of a press rollout.
So Alex Berenson's new anti-marijuana book goes on sale today. These are all interviews, op-eds and features based on it that went up in the past week. I don't know who the guy's publicist is but he's doing a hell of a job pic.twitter.com/pfHhC5KRom
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) January 8, 2019
In interviews, Berenson makes claims about medical marijuana users like “nearly all were recreational users before they became ‘patients’” and “medical legalization is simply a backdoor way to protect recreational users from arrest.” His book is quoted liberally, whether it’s being directly cited or not, in Gladwell’s piece, as one journalist pointed out.
Gladwell: studies of twins suggest a gateway effect!
Me, in an actual book with citations and shit: you didn’t look at the OTHER twin study that found something else, dick. pic.twitter.com/oi8h3btEGC
— Dave Levitan (@davelevitan) January 8, 2019
Also, my god Gladwell! Read the goddamn study! He clearly just read Berenson’s work and did no actual research of his own. Below are Gladwell version, Berenson version, and the study’s ACTUAL hypothesis. “Not associated” is NOT THE SAME THING as “predict the opposite”! pic.twitter.com/1JeNQ36bVq
— Dave Levitan (@davelevitan) January 8, 2019
This whole backlash has raised questions about Malcolm Gladwell being a “tobacco industry shill.” That label originated with a 1990 Washington Post article Gladwell wrote titled “Not Smoking Could Be Hazardous to Pension System.” But the accusation gained momentum, however, when a S.H.A.M.E. article demonstrated Gladwell’s possible ties to Big Pharma and Big Tobacco. To his credit, Gladwell recently responded to the controversy.
“I have been staunchly anti-tobacco for as long as I’ve lived,” Gladwell wrote in an email to the Huffington Post. “I’ve never smoked. No one in my family smokes. I hate smoking. (I’m a runner, for goodness sake.) I am someone who is passionate about the dangers of smoking. It’s something I have cared about for years—and I’ve attempted to write about the issue with intelligence and insight. For these morons to come along and somehow maintain that I am sympathetic to big tobacco is beyond offensive.”
You’re free to draw your own conclusions there. Personally, I don’t consider Gladwell a shill or a hack by any means. However, it seems Gladwell has been taken in by Berenson’s book, because of, if for no other reason, its research underpinnings support Gladwell’s position on cannabis. While plenty of other research exists out there to showcase marijuana’s positive medical benefits and what scientists are saying about cannabis, it appears you won’t hear them from Gladwell.