Alex Berenson’s ‘Tell Your Children’ Obliterates Notion of Marijuana as Harmless Pastime
On April 11, 2018–too many days past April Fool’s Day to be any kind of a joke–John Boehner announced on Twitter that his “thinking on marijuana has evolved.” Boehner has since joined the board of a cannabis corporation and recently hosted a marijuana investment conference. In November, the presumably dry-eyed former Speaker of the House wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The trend could not be clearer: Cannabis prohibition is coming to an end. A Gallup poll last month found 66% of Americans favor legal marijuana. I am now one of those Americans.” Boehner is correct: a remarkably robust number of Americans support legalizing cannabis, which is just about the only issue on which Americans agree.
It’s standard fare these days to smell marijuana on city streets and to see edible cannabis for sale. Back in 2015, the Times reported on dinner parties where cannabis was paired to the food, and in 2016, published a darling piece on Colorado’s cannabis tourism. The Times’ Styles section has become a reliable source of pro-marijuana articles; this Sunday featured an almost incomprehensibly offensive profile of a social media artiste who mines his outsider status (black, gay, manic depressive) for money for rent and weed. Other sections have recently covered THC and beer, spa weed, and the new scientific research into marijuana in Canada, which shares the States’ pro-marijuana fervor.
As of December 2018, 33 states and Washington DC have some sort of legalized marijuana, and 10 states allow outright recreational use. From lawmakers to law enforcement to the average voter, marijuana has ceased to be a gateway drug to danger. Now it’s a gateway to relaxed, hipster sophistication. What could be the downside to a drug that is touted as a medical miracle, a safe way to chill, a hobby that doesn’t harm the user? As comedian Katt Williams describes cannabis, “That’s the side effects. Hungry, happy, and sleepy.”
Alex Berenson’s sweeping new book challenges all of our assumptions about marijuana. Berenson, a former reporter from The New York Times, covered everything from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina, and then began his series of Faithful Spy novels about his character John Wells. Berenson’s broadside on cannabis, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, is a blistering critique of the cannabis culture and the industry–even the legislation–that blindly supports a dangerous drug.
Berenson knows from the outset he’s fighting an uphill battle. The 66 percent bloc of Americans, the coolness factor, the partnership between WASP culture maven Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg, the fact that Boehner swapped The Federalist for High Times–it’s a pro-marijuana world now. It seems impossibly stodgy to preach against the horrors of weed. But the numbers don’t lie, and most common knowledge about marijuana, that it’s medicinal, it has a calming effect, it’s not habit-forming, is dangerously wrong.
Berenson began his investigation into marijuana with his wife, a psychiatrist who evaluates defendants claiming mental illness, mentioned the link between schizophrenia and marijuana, a link she’d seen hundreds of times. Berenson, like most people not in the mental health industry, assumed that schizophrenics self-medicate with marijuana. No, she said. It’s often the other way. Heavy marijuana use triggers mental illness. Berenson fought the urge to mansplain and took his wife’s suggestion that he should read the studies. This book is the result.
Berenson’s research begins with a study conducted in 1908 in India, where a British doctor, George Ewens, wrote a book detailing cases of insanity linked to heavy use of marijuana. When the patients were treated and ceased their intake, their symptoms disappeared. Ewens detailed 95 incidents of “cannabis-induced psychosis” that led to violence and murder. A Swedish study conducted over decades revealed that Swedes who had self-reported smoking marijuana more than 50 times had developed schizophrenia at a rate six times as high as people who had never smoked. Similar results were found in studies in England, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The evidence was striking enough that in 2008, the United Kingdom reclassified marijuana as a Class B drug, meaning it was now a criminal offense to smoke it.
What could have changed? Berenson notes that “the actual amount of THC available for inhalation in a typical 1970s joint was no more than 2.5 to 5 milligrams,” and users typically shared those joints. Today, “marijuana is far stronger, regularly 20 percent to 25 percent THC. At that potency, a single joint can contain more than 100 milligrams of the drug.” (40-41). Today’s smokers tend to smoke much more frequently, and users can now eat or drink products infused with THC.
Additionally, the much-touted medicinal use of marijuana has been grossly overstated. The National Academy of Medicine reported in 2017 “no evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids can help cancer of any kind. Worse, it found some evidence that cannabis use is associated with testicular cancer–and that mothers who smoke are more likely to have children who develop leukemia and brain cancer.” In fact, NAM found, the only truly effective medicinal use was for nausea related to chemotherapy, spastic muscles in MS sufferers, and two rare forms of epilepsy.
Berenson works with an expert data analyst at New York University, Dr. Sanford Gordon, to unknot some of the numbers. He discovers that the “number of cases where a patient had a primary psychotic diagnosis and a secondary diagnosis of cannabis abuse rose 70 percent between 2006 and 2014. By then, people who had a cannabis abuse diagnosis accounted for more than 15 percent of all the psychosis cases that American hospitals treated–far more than any other drug.”
The link to violence is startling. Berenson focuses on a 2017 speech by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker that sought to end the federal prohibition of cannabis. Booker said, “Eight states and the District of Columbia have moved to legalize marijuana…these states are seeing a decrease in violent crime.” As Berenson notes, “Booker is fortunate that he’s a media darling. A less-liked politician would have been called a liar.” In fact, Booker is completely wrong. Berenson sets the record straight:
“In 2013, Washington had 160 murders and about 9,000 aggravated assaults, according to the annual report that the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs compiles. In 2017, the state had 222 murders and 13,000 aggravated assaults — an increase of about 40 percent in both categories. That increase far outpaced the national rise in crime. Murders rose by about 20 percent nationally from 2013 to 2017, and aggravated assault about 10 percent.
“The other three states saw the same trend….A statistical analysis showed only a 6 percent probability that the fact murders rose faster in the four marijuana states than the United States was due to chance – and almost no probability that the aggravated assault rise was due to chance.”
Berenson goes on to detail many horrific crimes worldwide connected to marijuana abuse. In each case, marijuana was the only drug used. For example: “Only about 1 out of every 100 Texans is a daily marijuana user. Yet in more than one-third of all the child deaths from abuse or neglect in Texas in 2017, authorities found that the perpetrator was using cannabis at the time of the child’s death. If the case studies don’t sway you, the statistics will.
The book has flaws. Berenson has written a comprehensive attack on the cannabis industry, but it needs to be sourced like a reference book. It’s inexcusable that a book with so many detailed studies and references lacks an index or even a list of further reading, omissions that will hopefully be addressed in subsequent editions. Berenson glosses over exactly how he and the NYU professor extrapolate data. This section warrants a much clearer and precise explanation of the Stata program, what data was mined, and exactly how these numbers were so badly misinterpreted by others. How come no one else did this exact experiment? Marijuana advocates are going to replicate this research, and Berenson should have made his methodology crystal clear and unequivocal.
Also, at times, Berenson deploys a flip tone. He uses the expression “yes, really” far too many times for a scholarly work. In places the book reads as breathlessly as one of his thrillers. But I quibble only because I don’t want the research here to be dismissed because of its imperfect delivery. Ultimately, I think Berenson is right.
As I was reviewing this book, I happened to see a marvelous performance of Network and was thinking hard about our collective loss of dignity and humanity, and how a giant corporation profits from exploiting the madness and loneliness of one man. I left the theater, turned the corner into Times Square, and saw two Weedworld food trucks selling their THC-infused cookies, candies, and gummies at the Crossroads of America. “Yeah it’s legal!” the woman in one truck shouted at passersby. “Just eat enough and you’ll get high!” A line started to form, despite the bitter cold.