Have you heard about the shocking new book about the dangers of marijuana? It’s called Tell Your Children, and it’s written by former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson. It’s been highlighted on Fox News and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Have you heard of it?
No? That’s probably a good thing. And fortunately, not surprising.
Last year, Simon and Schuster published Berenson’s novel – its full title is Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence – and it immediately brought into sharp focus the degree to which cannabis has permeated American culture. Whereas before we had Cheech and Chong movies and the occasional joke about whether or not the president inhaled, now we have full-blown legal marijuana in some of our most populous states. In the greatest American cities, people now openly smoke weed on the street.
Of course, those of us with good sense understand this is a big move forward. Progressive decriminalization and legalization of cannabis means more people have access to one of the best painkillers available; a great anti-anxiety tool; and a harmless plant that makes relaxation more relaxing. It also means fewer lives ruined by draconian drug policies.
Berenson’s book, however, takes the opposite view.
The Book. Published in 2019, Tell Your Children takes its name from the classic (and very silly) anti-pot film Reefer Madness. And, like… not ironically. Reefer Madness has long been viewed, even by pot agnostics and opponents of legalization, as a particularly corny example of how cultural panics can get out of hand; it’s generally placed in the same bin of historic embarrassments as Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds broadcast and the “satanic panic” surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s. Indeed, the film was originally financed by a conservative church group and later shown as an exploitation shocker.
Berenson largely seems to take the claims in Reefer seriously, though, arguing that full legalization of marijuana will lead to more violent crimes, claiming (wrongly, but more on this later) that weed use increases instances of schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis, and schizophrenic and psychotic people commit more violent crimes.
The Problems With The Book. Put simply, the claims Berenson makes in the books are plan wrong. Cannabis use does not cause psychosis or schizophrenia. Sure, a user might feel a bit paranoid if they’re not used to a particularly strong batch, but there’s a big difference between a few anxious hours and a DSM-diagnosable mental illness. But the claim by itself isn’t the worst of it.
It’s full of claims that have been long since disproved. The link between cannabis use and violent crimes has been disproved over and over again. The weed/violence association has a long, racist history, used as far back as the settling of the new world as a way to make Black, Hispanic and indigenous people who used weed seem more dangerous than they are (while conveniently ignoring the substantial numbers of white people who use weed).
The associations Berenson makes about psychosis, schizophrenia and violent crime are irresponsible. In addition to being flat-out wrong, the overall claim in the book that there’s a direct line from pot use to violent crime, is also unfair to people with mental illnesses, who are often just as likely to be the victims of violent crimes as the perpetrators.
Additionally, any link that does exist between cannabis and psychosis is one that demands sympathy for people afflicted by psychosis. Dr. Carl Hart, a a drug and addiction researcher at Columbia University, concluded in 2016 that “evidence leads us to conclude that both early use and heavy use of cannabis are more likely in individuals with a vulnerability to psychosis.”
In other words, people who have psychotic conditions likely self-medicate with cannabis to alleviate their symptoms, rather than being driven to psychosis through marijuana use. The argument that weed causes violence “is a bullshit claim,” Hart told the Guardian. “There’s not evidence for it.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation. In Berenson’s defense, this sort of thing happens a lot. Ever see one of those widely-shared clickbait stories with a headline like “Cheese Helps You Live Longer” or “Red Wine Is Healthy, Scientists Say?” Most of these are stories about scientists who discover correlations between lifestyle factors and health – but the headlines don’t tell you that the researchers didn’t discover a cause. Red wine might lead to a longer life, or it might not – or it might just be that people who can afford to drink wine regularly also have access to the kind of better health care that leads to a longer, healthier life.
The guy who wrote this is… not an expert. Sure, he’s got the New York Times on his resume, but it’s not as though he was working the pot-legalization beat; indeed, Berenson’s body of work seems to be considerably broader than that. What’s more telling is that while this isn’t Berenson’s first book, it is his first nonfiction book – the bulk of his work consists of Ludlowesque political-thriller potboilers with titles like The Faithful Spy and The Ghost War. So it’s not as though he’s a longtime scholar of science and public policy.
Even the scientists quoted in the book don’t agree with it. Perhaps the most damning condemnation of Tell Your Children is the fact that several of the experts quoted in its pages have publicly stated they were misrepresented. Many of them even signed an open letter debunking the book’s claims, pointing out that Berenson cherry-picked data, attributing cause to correlation, and exhibiting selection bias. “When research is misrepresented to uphold and perpetuate the worst myths about people of color and people with mental illness,” the letter states, “we are required to speak up.”
Cannabis is here to stay, whether guys like Berenson like it or not. Look – weed has been used around the world throughout most of human history, and for a good deal of that time it’s been either openly legal or completely unregulated. At the end of the day, Tell Your Children didn’t make much of an impact. Buzz around the book died down a few months after its release, largely spurred by the resounding chorus of refutations.
So why write an article about it at all? Why bring attention to it? Good question. If the whole upshot of Berenson’s book is that people have mostly forgotten about it, why spotlight it at all, even if to point out its inaccuracies and irresponsible reporting?
The answer is that we still live in a culture where a book like Tell Your Children can get published, because there’s still a statistically significant number of people who would buy it, read it and believe it. And as long as the anti-cannabis forces are still aligned, people who understand the profound value of cannabinoids like THC and CBD have to be armed with empirical data and factual refutations.