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The New War on Marijuana Will Be Extremely Dumb

Who is Alex Berenson, and how did Malcolm Gladwell manage to screw this up so badly?

A few years ago, I went to a new physician for a checkup. She ran through the list of questions that doctors like to ask — about allergies, exercise, my family’s disease history. “Do you smoke?” she inquired. I played it coy. “Well. Not cigarettes,” I said. “Marijuana?” she specified. I nodded, and she noted it on her clipboard, then advised me: “Just don’t do too much, or, you know, you’ll lose your oomph.” End of subject.

This is the only thinking on cannabis use passed directly to me by a medical professional — a breezy observation, punctuated by a term of elusive definition. And, in the way of smart, unpretentious doctors who trust their own experience and develop an intuitive grasp of the human organism, it turns out to be a sensible attitude. Though at the time I was writing my ass off and about to publish a second book, at age 30, I was easing into a pot-related torpor. It wasn’t until I moved to California, where I could legally purchase medicinal and then recreational cannabis, that I regained some balance in my consumption, and quit regularly smoking to the point of numbed-out apathy.

Here’s the thing: As accurate as I found my physician’s gloss on marijuana habits to be, it wouldn’t make for a fear-mongering magazine piece, let alone a sustained polemic.

Like, for example, this:

If the truth of pot is as boring and nuanced as most of us suspect (i.e., there are both positives and negatives to making it part of your routine, and it affects everyone differently), pop-science author Malcolm Gladwell would have no hook for his latest New Yorker column, which weakly promotes the now contrarian idea that the end of prohibition is driving a spike in mental illness and violence.

This conclusion is borrowed from Tell Your Children, by Alex Berenson, who has positioned himself as a voice of dissent for an era when Americans are more likely than ever to think of cannabis as harmless. Gladwell even refers to him as a “devil’s advocate,” rarely a sign of worthwhile engagement.

But, because a throwback take blaming crime on pot fits Malcolm’s “Well, Actually” brand of think piece, he buys it — despite warming up with several paragraphs detailing how little data, research or consensus there is on either the benefits or dangers of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. From there, he launches into Berenson’s analysis, which has already found a home in Mother Jones as well as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, the latter two running op-eds from the author himself.

It’s not a presentation of evidence as much as a dire hypothetical that ignores literally all other possible factors for a fluctuation in assault and homicide rates. Not so compelling, though perhaps par for the course from a guy whose work is routinely debunked. (Here’s a good thread on everything he misrepresented or overlooked this time.)

Surprised by the blowback to the article, Gladwell then drew a ludicrous comparison between legalization advocates and climate change deniers — as if the people who challenged his promotion of Berenson were debating settled science. He also disingenuously criticized them for taking a hard line against further study of the drug, a position I have seen espoused… nowhere, ever. It would be one thing if he’d written “We Need More Research on Cannabis,” but he didn’t. It was high-profile book promo for a guy who’s already convinced that weed is turning people into psychotic criminals.

The issue with someone like Berenson is that in trying to temper the national mania for cannabis as a cure-all and remind us of its potential risks — a perfectly reasonable project — he may skew toward the kind of alarmism that undercuts his justified concerns. Yes, pot has been linked with certain mental health disorders, but he exaggerates our understanding of how they’re connected.

Next, he tells us that psychosis goes hand-in-hand with violence, another association that’s nowhere near as obvious or simple as he makes it out to be. Before you know it, he’s juicing murder stats and trotting out sensational stories like the case of a Colorado man who claimed he killed his wife because he ate a THC-infused candy bar. In that trial, a detective would not testify on whether the edible was to blame, instead offering the portrait of a domestic abuser.

It’s hard to say if Berenson and Gladwell genuinely believe the argument they’re floating. Berenson, of course, sounds relatively earnest, while Gladwell may have a cynical eye for against-the-current narratives. Regardless, they share an unseriousness on policy. What, exactly, are they writing toward? How would they like to see cannabis regulated?

Gladwell says that it “probably belongs in the category of substances that society permits but simultaneously discourages,” with significant taxation, warnings and safeguards on sales, same as alcohol or cigarettes. As he may or may not be aware, this is the very system currently in place — one that will improve the more we learn about weed. Berenson, meanwhile, assures us that he is not a prohibitionist, and favors mere decriminalization, a purgatorial compromise that neither solves the problem of an illicit market nor curbs the worst excesses of police still fighting the War on Drugs. And it certainly doesn’t ensure that users are informed of the adverse effects he’s pointing at.

Berenson has overreached, too, by comparing legalization advocates to the pharmaceutical companies that promised opioid painkillers were safe, leading to our epidemic of addiction and overdoses. Surely some are hyperbolic as to the promise of pot, and defensive when you mention the downsides, though with tens of millions of Americans using it, wouldn’t marijuana-driven violence be something we noticed on the ground? Everybody seems to know someone who got hooked on opioids or died from them; I doubt stories of people who committed a felony upon having a cannabis-triggered schizophrenic episode are as common.

I hate to fall into the trap of anecdotal reasoning, but seeing as Berenson’s book begins with his wife, a psychiatrist for mentally ill criminals, remarking that all her patients smoke weed, it may be safe to say that his thesis is not only bad on the merits — it also feels wrong, counter to reality.

Again, I’m not one to say cannabis is a magic bullet for any health issue, and I understand that marijuana psychosis, for example, is no joke: My own grandfather, another psychiatrist, wrote a harrowing case study of the phenomenon in the late 1960s. All told, however, when weighing the few hard facts we have in this field, I keep coming back to my doctor and imagining what else she could have said when I told her I smoke weed. “You should quit, it’s bad for your lungs.” “That can lead to trouble with your memory.” “You might be self-medicating — have you ever been in therapy?” No, the reproach was even milder than these: smoke too much, and I might lose my oomph.

If that’s the worst-case scenario, I believe I’ll take my chances.