Making the Case Against Cannabis
The BFG Interview With Alex Berenson, Author Of ‘Tell Your Children’
For years, I was one of marijuana’s most fervent and loudest advocates. Then I realized that was my addiction talking. In November 2017, I quit cold turkey and entered recovery. It’s taken a long process to emerge out from under marijuana’s cloud. While I’m not interested in campaigning against legalization, I’m also viewing the march toward Big Weed with a lot of skepticism. And I’m not alone.
With full marijuana legalization all but a certainty, novelist and reporter Alex Berenson has taken on the role of lonely gadfly. In his new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, he argues that, far from being the cure-all its most fervent advocates claim, that cannabis is actually a dangerous force in society, leading to madness and murder. His controversial, but non-ideological and impeccably-researched book got a major preview in a New York Times editorial and a full segment with Tucker Carlson. And no less a persona than Malcolm Gladwell is airing Berenson’s ideas and research in a current New Yorker article.
Berenson and I did a little interview via email, which didn’t exactly make me feel more optimistic about the coming age of legal weed.
NP: I experienced violent, though mercifully never criminal, outbursts while high. I always just attributed it to some sort of character flaw. I’ve always been an emotional person. But after reading your book, I’m now thinking that marijuana made my emotional problems worse. After a certain point, they may have even been the CAUSE. Does my story sound familiar to you? Are ordinary people reacting this way to pot?
AB: The story does sound familiar to me, and I have heard even more anecdotes now that the book is out. A typical example: “The weed smokers in my soccer group–2 had insane episodes where they almost got killed or killed other players and one threatened to ‘Beat the shit’ out of me for no reason.” Obviously anecdotes are not proof, but they fit with the science showing that cannabis can cause paranoia and psychosis.
Your book makes the (essentially) previously unstated claim that cannabis use leads to psychosis. What kind of pushback have you received from that claim?
A lot of smokers say I’m crazy. As I tell them, they aren’t arguing with me, they’re arguing with the National Academy of Medicine, the gold standard for scientific health-related research in the United States.
I saw a report on CNN that one in ten people who use cannabis becomes addicted. And then I saw that report widely mocked on social media. Why are people so unwilling to admit that marijuana can be addictive and that cannabis might have negative health consequences?
I think the real percentage is probably even higher, especially with the new high-THC formulas. But because cannabis has limited negative physical effects–in other words, most people can use a lot of it without a hangover, and quitting it doesn’t cause physical withdrawal–people tend to downplay its negative mental health consequences and the problems it is causing them. As one psychiatrist told me, it’s insidious.
Do you see any benefits to legalizing pot?
Not really. If criminal justice disparities are the concern, we can solve most of those with decriminalization.
Large tobacco companies are getting into the pot business. Do you think that contributes to the tamping-down of reports about marijuana’s negative health consequences?
Nah, I think the advocacy community has done a great job of screaming Reefer Madness for about 30 years.
Have there been recent reports of pot-related violence in the news? Are they spreading? Do you feel like a lone wolf reporting this news? Are people calling YOU crazy?
Yes, many. I detail some in the book. The worst of all are parents who commit violence against children; marijuana turns up in those cases with disturbing frequency. It is hard to say whether they are spreading, since we don’t have good national or state statistics on the causes of murders, just very blurry topline data. And we don’t even have that on serious but non-fatal violence, like aggravated assaults.
Do I feel like a lone wolf? A little, but I have talked to enough psychiatrists and researchers to be confident in the science. People can call me whatever they want.
Why do so many celebrities extol the virtue of marijuana? Are they addicted? Or are they just lucky enough to not experience its negative side effects?
I think we have seen plenty of celebrities suffer negative effects–Pete Davidson, Amanda Bynes, and Darryl Strawberry have all recently said that cannabis use has been a problem for them, and I can think of several others where the issue has been raised–I mention Kanye West in the book. Until it turns violent, we sometimes write off some psychosis-related behavior as almost comic, especially when it comes from people with big public personas.
Why did you call your book “Tell Your Children”? After all, that was the original working title of “Reefer Madness.”
I expected I would face serious backlash for this book and instead of running from it I decided to lean in. As far as I’m concerned, I’m a journalist, not an advocate–I’m just the messenger for a bunch of scientists and physicians who are too busy researching and helping patients to waste time on talk shows–but I knew how the book would be received.