The New York Times is slowly figuring out pot.
The New York Times is slowly figuring out pot. The Stranger

The New York Times published a mea culpa of sorts yesterday after they fanned the fires of Reefer Madness last week in a widely condemned editorial titled "What Advocates of Legalizing Pot Don’t Want You to Know."

Last week's editorial from Alex Berenson warned the Times's massive readership that pot legalization was creating dangerous ripple effects across the country. Berenson, who just released a book about what he perceives as the dangers of legalization, argued that legal pot was increasing mental illness rates, including driving people into schizophrenia and increasing violent crime. Berenson cites a number of different researchers in his editorial but many of those people almost immediately denounced his argument as distorting their work. Now the Times itself is picking apart his argument. Aaron E. Carroll, a contributor to the paper, dismantles Berenson's arguments (without directly naming him) in a blog post published yesterday.

Carroll interviews the researchers that Berenson had carelessly pulled work from. As I said in my own response to his misleading editorial, those researchers show that Berenson intentionally confused correlation with causation when it comes to pot's effects on mental illness. And just outright misstated the facts when it comes to violent crime.

Berenson had put in clear terms that pot can cause schizophrenia. Here's a quote from his editorial last week.

Worse — because marijuana can cause paranoia and psychosis, and those conditions are closely linked to violence — it appears to lead to an increase in violent crime.

Berenson claimed that a recent comprehensive report backed up his argument, but one of the report's authors, Dr. Ziva Cooper, told Carroll that Berenson got it wrong.

She says some have misinterpreted the report to state that the report’s committee concluded that cannabis causes schizophrenia. It did not.

“This was stated as an association, not causation,” she said. “We do not yet have the supporting evidence to state the direction of this association.”

Berenson's claim that pot had increased violent crime in Washington and Colorado after those states legalized pot also didn't hold water, according to Benjamin Hansen, a professor at University of Oregon. Hansen's data shows that the two states actually had lower crime rates than expected after legalization. I'm not going to conflate causation with correlation—these statistics don't actually prove that legal pot lowers crime rates—but it certainly doesn't show that pot caused an increase in crime, which is what Berenson is arguing.

Carroll wades into another point that Berenson didn't mention in his New York Times editorial but does cover in his book: does legalizing pot increase fatal car accidents? Berenson argues that it does, which was parroted by Malcolm Gladwell in an equally terrible piece in this week's New Yorker. Here's how Gladwell unequivocally put it in his shitty story:

Does the use of cannabis increase the likelihood of fatal car accidents? Yes.

Well, it turns out that isn't the case, according to Hansen's data. Carrol said that "Mr. Hansen and colleagues showed that marijuana-related fatality rates did not increase more after legalization than what you would expect from trends and other states." Gladwell also does not include any discussion of the difficulties in measuring cannabis intoxication. There is no scientifically accepted way to measure how high a person is. In fact, the one thing scientists agree on is that THC concentration in the bloodstream, which is how most states currently measure pot intoxication, is not a scientific measurement of how stoned you are. So the blood alcohol tests that Berenson and Gladwell are relying on are not accurate measures of how high someone is when they are in a car accident.

But why would Gladwell or Berenson, two intellectual holdovers from the earlier age of prohibition, want to discuss things that don't fit into their established narrative that pot is bad? This whole Reefer Madness tour that Berenson has been embarking on is evidence of how much the East Coast media needs to learn about cannabis. The New York Times is absolutely part of the prohibitionist mindset, where cannabis is assumed to be a societal ill that only delusional stoners use and support. In these circles, pot is best talked about when we are discussing its dangers. Even this particular blogger for the Times, who thankfully is correcting Berenson's editorial, has fallen victim to trumping up the dangers of pot without fair context.

This blog post by Carroll is helpful but it's a tiny step toward discussing pot in a well-informed manner. The harm of Berenson's media spectacle has already been done. Far more people will read his splashy editorial in the Times than this thoughtful blog post, and his book is already in its third printing.