Reefer Madness in Reverse: Happy Talk about Pot

Marijuana is safer than alcohol.  No one has ever died from using marijuana.  Legalization of marijuana will allow law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes and will eliminate the black market.  Marijuana has clear medical benefits.  State regulation of marijuana will guarantee product uniformity and produce significant tax revenue.  Marijuana reduces opioid addiction and crime.  Mental health problems related to marijuana (like psychosis) are overstated and can be explained away without viewing pot as the primary cause.  All these claims, especially those about safety and mental health, are debunked by Alex Berenson’s book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. 

Berenson, a novelist and New York Times journalist, only began this countercultural work after his typically liberal sentiments about marijuana were challenged by his wife, a forensic psychiatrist, who matter-of-factly suggested he read relevant studies on the subject after she observed, to her husband’s surprise, that one of the violent criminals she evaluated in New York was “of course… high” and had “been smoking pot his whole life.”  Berenson’s book was the unexpected and (for marijuana advocates) unwelcome, result of that challenge.    

The author’s work begins with one of many horror stories that provide flesh-and-blood corollaries to the statistical data that fill most of its pages and clearly link marijuana (and more specifically the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, THC), to schizophrenia.  In this episode, a 37-year-old mother in Cairns, Australia stabbed eight children to death. Then Raina Thaiday stabbed herself and waited outside her house, ranting.  Not surprisingly, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. The largely ignored aspect of this case (and others like it) was the connection the judge noted between Thaiday’s use of cannabis since grade 9, and her psychosis: “All the psychiatrists thought that it is likely that it is this long-term use of cannabis that caused the mental illness schizophrenia to emerge.”  This observation was made not in 1936, the year Reefer Madness débuted, but in 2017 by an Australian judge summarizing the opinions of several psychiatrists. 

What Berenson discovered in his exploration of a multitude of studies is that the Australian case is by no means exceptional and corresponds with findings, including prized longitudinal studies, that link marijuana use to psychosis. Reportage of this information, however, is apparently verboten among most American journalists and pundits.  Instead, they prefer to tout the medical benefits of marijuana while ignoring the clearly deleterious effects of THC, a chemical that is more than ten times as prevalent in today’s cannabis as it was in the 1960s.  Case in journalistic point: There is no mention of Thaiday’s long-term marijuana use in Wikipedia’s short article on “Cairns child killings,” though it does say, misleadingly, that “no drugs were found at the crime scene.”  To be scrupulously fair, the article contains a footnote link to the judge’s finding about the defendant’s mental health, and if one reads two-thirds of the way down the long opinion, a hypercurious investigator will discover the judge’s previously mentioned conclusion about cannabis and schizophrenia.  It’s a good illustration of the way bad news about marijuana is typically buried in America’s media.

Berenson observes that the typical playbook for our country’s marijuana advocates (who, as former House Speaker John Boehner illustrates, have now gone corporate) has been to promulgate its medical benefits as a precursor to eventual legalization.  Currently more than sixty percent of Americans have followed that buzzed logic even though “neither cannabis nor THC has ever been shown to work in randomized clinical trials” which, as the author further notes, is “the only reliable way to prove a drug works.” Moreover, what may be marijuana’s most effective pain-relieving component, cannabidiol (CBD), is almost nonexistent in most cannabis today, so “whatever good [it] may do is irrelevant.”  

Berenson’s book isn’t remotely close to Reefer Madness 2.0.  That moniker should go to journalistic happy-talk about weed over the last three decades. (For an additional take on the tsunami of misrepresentations, I recommend Ann Coulter’s recent column: “Media Pot Reporting: Just Don’t Call Us Uncool!”)  Berenson’s work never asserts that folks who smoke an occasional joint will likely be jumping out of windows or mutilating their spouses, though he does provide many examples of cannabis-related violence.  Instead, the book is an honest presentation of scientific evidence that shows heavy marijuana use makes developing schizophrenia (which will afflict about one percent of the population) significantly more likely.  The term “heavy” is important since one in five pot smokers, about eight million Americans in 2017, are daily users, whereas only one in fifteen alcohol drinkers consume that product every day. 

In addition, Berenson cites CDC statistics to make clear that marijuana was implicated in at least one thousand deaths between 1999 and 2016, a fact someone should convey to former libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, who put the number at zero.  Even those figures may be understated in view of the fact that in 2014 America’s “emergency rooms saw more than 1.1 million cases that included a diagnosis of marijuana abuse or dependence -- up from fewer than 400,000 in 2006.”  Other studies clearly contradict Senator Cory Booker’s assertion that violent crime fell in states that legalized pot and provide instead clear evidence of a substantial rise in murders, assaults and marijuana-related traffic fatalities.  Finally, the counterintuitive belief that marijuana availability actually reduced opioid addiction in pot-legal states is exposed as a premature, geographically-biased bit of correlation-equals-causation wishful thinking.  

In short, what medical studies and marijuana legalization have clearly shown thus far is that one can expect more pot smokers, more young pot smokers, more heavy pot smokers, more addiction, more crime, a black market filling the demand for more potent and cheaper pot, and a rise in schizophrenia alongside the occasionally grotesque violence associated with that malady.  Berenson, by the way, notes that schizophrenics are five times more likely to engage in violence (and almost twenty times more likely to commit murder) than individuals without that diagnosis, a fact regularly obscured by combining that very dangerous group in the much larger “mentally ill” population.  Berenson also mentions but does not pursue in detail more tentative but quite likely outcomes of increased cannabis use -- a lack of motivation, depression, and long-term cognitive damage.

The fact that much of the medical information contained in Berenson’s book has actually been publicized in Great Britain and digested by the British public accounts for the fact that that country has not seen the precipitous rise in marijuana use that’s occurred recently in the U.S. and Canada.  Nor have the maladies predictably associated with cannabis increased much in Great Britain.  Berenson’s own recommendation for marijuana laws in the U.S. stops at decriminalization and finds the rush to legalization a blind and ignorant leap into a future that’s sure to be the worse for it -- sometimes violently so.  

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?"  is also available on Kindle