Prohibitionists are back and want to blow up the world of pot.
Prohibitionists are back and want to blow up the world of pot. The Stranger

Marijuana is an addictive gateway drug that worsens the opioid epidemic, is medically proven to drive people insane, is nearly as bad for society as prescription painkillers, and increases violent crime where it is legalized.

That's the story on pot if you read a whole slew of East Coast media outlets this week. From the New Yorker to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal to Mother Jones, the country's top news outlets have been running stories with headlines that paint a dire and depressing picture of cannabis. It's been a media spectacle fit for a groundbreaking medical study, but there’s actually no new science behind these claims, only an author trying to make a buck off a new book and an uncritical media environment that is hungry for someone to make an argument against legalization.

Author and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson's new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, is full of the anti-legalization talking points. The Berenson-friendly media outlets that got advanced copies (this does not include this pot-loving publication) say the book is full of damning statistics that show pot causes society’s ills, and Berenson is being painted as a brave reporter willing to take on the pot establishment and show the evils of weed.

But almost as soon as journalists started jumping on Berenson’s bandwagon, the actual scientists behind the research Berenson cited distanced themselves from his book. Those scientists say he is distorting their research, mistaking correlation for causation, or he is just outright drawing incorrect conclusions.

Rather than taking on all of the credulous articles written about Berenson’s book, I'm going to examine the claims Berenson makes in his own words in a New York Times editorial published this week, titled “What Advocates of Legalizing Pot Don’t Want You to Know.”

Let’s get into what Berenson doesn’t want you to know.

Berenson’s first major claim is that a 2017 report from the National Academy of Medicine concludes cannabis use can cause schizophrenia. He pulls this scary quote from the report: “Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk.”

That quote looks scary, but this single line from a nearly 500-page report misleads what the scientists actually found, according to Ziva Cooper, a UCLA pharmacologist and a co-author of that very report. Cooper wrote on Twitter that researchers only found an association between schizophrenia and cannabis use, not a causal link between the two. And later research found that people with a risk of schizophrenia may be more likely to use cannabis, which means that pot use is likely only correlated to schizophrenia, not the cause of it. Without this causal link, there is no reason to blame pot for schizophrenia. Ice cream sales and violent crime both peak in the summer; that doesn’t mean we should fight crime by making ice cream illegal.

Cooper also said there is placebo-controlled evidence that CBD, one of pot’s non-psychoactive compounds, can improve the symptoms of schizophrenia and there is actually an association between cannabis use and improved outcomes for people with the disease. Berenson, of course, left this out of his editorial.

Berenson then moves from his incorrect claim that cannabis causes schizophrenia into saying that the more potent pot of today “further increases its risks.” He makes this claim without providing any evidence for why pot with an increased THC percentage is more dangerous. He just drops that fearmongering fact out there and then leaves the reader with this helpful analysis: “Think of the difference between a beer and a martini.”

Um, ok? One can taste good while the other tastes like nail polish remover? One can kill a person after 20 servings while the other can kill a person after 10? (Meanwhile pot cannot kill you regardless of how much you ingest.) Berenson fails to explain what this has to do with anything.

Berenson then moves into a discussion of how legalization has increased the frequency of pot use by regular users. This is probably the one interesting topic he brings up, although he predictably stokes fear rather than doing any thoughtful analysis. What does it mean when more people start using pot daily? It’s something I’ve often asked in my reporting, including some honest self-reflection on my own pot use, but all of the experts I have talked to have said there isn’t a clear answer to this question. It may improve society as much as it hurts society to have regular cannabis users. We really don’t know yet, but Berenson does not explore this in any length.

He then rattles off a few stats showing mental illness rates are rising nationally alongside increasing cannabis use, offering “intriguing evidence” that pot causes mental illness. He, of course, does not provide any of this intriguing evidence before moving on to the criminal justice portion of the editorial, which is the ugliest.

Berenson claims that pot has not had much of an impact on criminal justice in the country because most people in prison aren’t serving jail time for pot crimes. But while it's true that few people end up imprisoned just for weed—in 2013, for instance, California reported that only 441 of its 134,000 prisoners were incarcerated for solely marijuana-related crimes—tons of people are arrested for marijuana possession.

I hope all of our Stranger readers are smarter than Berenson’s editors at the New York Times and can see why his claim that pot hasn't had a large impact on the criminal justice system is faulty, but I’ll spell it out.

The biggest impact of pot prohibition on the criminal justice system is how an errant whiff of pot smoke or a roach in your pocket entraps people. A cop searches your car because they smell pot and then suddenly you’re on the ground in handcuffs because the cop also finds some other evidence of a crime. That original pot crime might never even make it into the court system, or if it does, a pot possession charge can get dropped as part of a larger plea deal while other crimes caught in pot’s dragnet linger on the person’s record. This, of course, impacts poor people and people of color more than white people, something Berenson makes no mention of.

Next up on Berenson’s editorial hit list is his descent into pure Reefer Madness, writing that pot “appears to lead to an increase in violent crime." There it is folks! We are truly back in 1936, when the infamous anti-pot propaganda film claimed that pot will make people commit violent murders. Rather than using a cast of actors to make this point, Berenson instead cites data from states where pot was legalized.

Before recreational legalization began in 2014, advocates promised that it would reduce violent crime. But the first four states to legalize — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — have seen sharp increases in murders and aggravated assaults since 2014, according to reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Police reports and news articles show a clear link to cannabis in many cases.

This data, if it was accurate, proves nothing about pot. Again, he confuses correlation and causation (remember that ice cream analogy). But the data itself isn't even correct, according to Benjamin Hansen, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon.

“While it is true that homicide rates went up in CO and WA more than they rose for the nation as a whole, the homicide rates in Colorado and Washington were actually below what the data predicted they would have been given the trends in homicides from 2000-2012. This suggests, at best, we can’t conclude that marijuana legalization increases violence, and perhaps even there could be small negative effects.
Berenson’s response to this new analysis has been to post news reports to Twitter that show people behaving violently after they use cannabis. Thus proving that not only does he not understand the difference between causation and correlation, he also doesn’t understand that singular anecdotes do not establish a causal link."

Berenson goes to some lengths to claim that he is not a propagandist and Tell Your Children should not be compared to Reefer Madness (forget for a moment that the original title for the film was literally Tell Your Children). But there is no reason we should give Berenson the benefit of the doubt when he cherry picks and manipulates data. Our society has been deeply damaged by pot fearmongerers like Berenson, from the impacts on criminal justice to the delayed FDA-approved therapies that can clearly help people to just regular folks being denied a safe buzz from pot.

I believe that legalization is the only sensible way to treat pot, but how exactly we legalize and regulate is a complicated question. We need people to be critical about our policy decisions, and we need scientists to keep studying what happens when we smoke pot (and if they keep looking, they will likely keep finding new benefits). But people like Berenson who merely have a book to sell and don’t care who they damage in the process don’t deserve to be listened to. And the media blitz surrounding Berenson’s book clearly shows how much East Coast media circles need to learn about pot.