A book published January 8 on the dangers of marijuana—ominously titled Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence—by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson is receiving an incredible press rollout.
The thrust of Berenson’s argument—as laid out in a pre-publication New York Times op-ed—is that there is a causal connection between marijuana and violence. Marijuana is dangerous, he claims, because its use is associated with increased likelihood of developing paranoia and psychosis, and those conditions are closely linked to violence. Thus marijuana use leads to an increase in violent crime.
There are plenty of unjustified assumptions and leaps in his argument. Yet major publications far beyond the New York Times have given platforms to this “reefer madness”-type fear-mongering—with racist illustrations to match.
With headlines like, “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” (the New Yorker), “Alex Berenson Builds a Case Against Marijuana” (the Marshall Project) and “Does Weed Cause Schizophrenia?” (Mother Jones), the media inflate a sensationalized perspective that appears to provocatively challenge the increasingly accepted idea that weed should be legal.
You’d think that after The New York Times recently addressed its discriminatory and dangerous coverage of crack in the 1990s—all without actually apologizing—it might hesitate before pushing a dangerously simplified discourse that demonizes people who use drugs. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
For example, critics have questioned why the author chose to use data from 2014 as the baseline for changes in homicide rates—which happens to best support Berenson’s argument that marijuana use is the culprit for violence. Even though Oregon saw both weed legalization and a homicide uptick in 2014, the state’s homicide rate drastically dropped between 2016 and 2017.
“If one insists on positing a tight causal relationship between pot laws and murder rates,” writes New York Magazine‘s Jesse Singal, “one could just as easily argue that Oregon’s homicide trajectory has been softened by pot legalization in these years, at least relative to national trends, saving a number of Oregonians’ lives.”
But Berenson holds fast to the claim that he is presenting objective research: “As soon as I looked at the numbers, the pattern was clear,” he said. But it’s his moralizing that is clear. Even the book’s title— “Tell Your Children” —draws on fears that have long been used to justify the racist drug war. As pointed out by Jacob Sullum at Reason, “Tell Your Children” was actually the original title of Reefer Madness, which Berenson himself describes as the “notorious 1936 movie that portrays young people descending into insanity and violence after smoking marijuana.”
Berenson is right that “important public-health questions… remain to be answered about the effects of legalization.” But of course, marijuana’s Schedule I status has been the very thing that has long held back research. As is often the case with media coverage of drugs, fear-mongering is being privileged over balanced assessment.
Image via Mother Jones