Points Roundtable, Part 1: Emily Dufton on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: A new book about marijuana was released earlier this month. Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence has been met with vocal critiques and admiration, and we here at Points wanted to respond. Over the next two weeks, we’re going to run a roundtable on Berenson’s book, starting with my response and then featuring Points writers and friends Isaac Campos, Brooks Hudson, and Bob Beach. Feel free to participate in our roundtable by commenting below or engaging with us on Twitter

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00Emily Dufton: Ever since I had my first book published in December 2017, I’ve been interested in the path that books, especially non-fiction books, take as they journey from an idea in an author’s mind to a finished project available on the shelves. After all, as anyone who has gone through the publishing process knows, crafting a book requires two things: time (generally at least a year or two), and other people’s support. From agents to editors to copyeditors to designers to marketers to publishers, there are a lot of individuals involved in the creation of a book, and a lot of people who need to sign off along the way.

Which makes me wonder exactly what the publishers at Simon and Schuster were thinking when they purchased the rights to Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, which was released earlier this month, on January 8.

Tell Your Children is a relatively short book that ties the increased use of increasingly potent marijuana to a variety of negative conditions, including, as the title suggests, mental illness and violence. Berenson cites evidence, like a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, that relates marijuana use to different forms of psychosis, including depression, social anxiety, and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, schizophrenia. He also shows connections between marijuana and violent crime, suggesting that heavy pot users are hardly the couch-surfing stoners we’ve come to believe. Instead, Berenson argues, heavy marijuana users engage in violent acts (including, among his many horrific stories, ax murders, child abuse and corpse mutilation) at higher-than-average rates — often while experiencing the psychotic episodes that the marijuana originally caused. This could easily become a mounting problem, Berenson warns, as more states legalize recreational and medical use, often without putting any limitations on the strength of the cannabis available. “The higher the use, the greater the risk,” he writes in his introduction. “Marijuana in the United States has become increasingly dangerous to mental health in the last fifteen years, as millions more people consume higher-potency cannabis more frequently.”

Berenson admits that he knows his premise sounds wacky — that pot, of all things, makes people go crazy and act violently. And he knows his thoughts aren’t entirely original. It’s clear that Berenson is in on the joke that he’s written an almost-literal new Reefer Madness for the 21st century. Even the title references the 1936 film — Tell Your Children was Reefer Madness’s original name.

But his publishers at Simon and Schuster clearly didn’t mind. While most agents encourage their writers to show potential publishers that they are the unquestioned experts in their fields, Berenson never hides his lack of expertise. Instead, the first real volley in the new anti-legalization campaign was written by a former New York Times reporter who has never covered drug policy before, and who, prior to turning his attention to pot, had spent the past decade writing fiction, mostly mysteries and thrillers.

But Berenson’s “outsider status” to the debate is something he revels in, too. His own “origin story” of how he discovered the not-so-hidden secret that pot isn’t unquestionably good for public health is told in his introduction. Berenson writes that, one night, his wife — an Ivy League-trained forensic psychologist — casually mentioned that the horrific murder she was investigating was caused by someone who, in the words of my hero Dock Ellis, was “high as a Georgia pine.” In fact, she said, most of the people who had caused violent crimes were regular marijuana smokers who had been using the drug for years.

Since, as every married writer knows, a spouse’s vocation clearly influences the quality of our work, this got the wheels turning in Berenson’s head. After reviewing some reports — ones that Berenson claims pro-cannabis activists want to suppress — he felt prepared to write Tell Your Children, exposing the dangerous truth about pot that Big Marijuana doesn’t want us to see: that super-powerful pot is making people go crazy, and that’s the reason violent crimes have actually increased in legalized states.

In the few weeks since its release, Tell Your Children has incited a variety of responses, ranging from anger and hostility over the book’s premise, to a wide-armed embrace of Berenson’s findings. One one side, Sheila Vakharia of the Drug Policy Alliance started a petition against the book’s “junk science,” which you can see here. On the other, major news outlets, including the New Yorker and Mother Jones magazine, have given the book their tacit acceptance. Berenson has also made the most of his moment in the sun: he’s appeared on CNN, his op-ed’s were published in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and he regularly interacts with, and deflects, his trolls on Twitter.

His book is also selling, really really well. As of January 16, just eight days after its release, Tell Your Children was number 438 on Amazon’s best-seller charts. (For comparison, my book Grass Roots was number 201,608.) And, according to Berenson, it’s currently going into its third printing. Yes, third. Enough people were intrigued by Berenson’s premise to purchase several thousand copies, enough to send the book back to the printer two more times.

And that’s when I realized what Simon and Schuster saw in Berenson’s work:

Money. Lots and lots of money.

Pot sells. Scandal sells. Drugs sell. Violence sells. Horrifying stories of people murdering their babies sell. And playing the devil’s advocate against a country that seems to be embracing cannabis legalization with increasingly open arms? That definitely sells. And it’s working out beautifully for Berenson and his publisher.

There’s nothing to fault Berenson or Simon and Schuster here for. The book industry, like all industries, is trying to make money; that’s the point. And lord knows I’d love to get the kind of royalty checks Berenson has most likely already started to receive. When I rib Berenson about this book, I do so from a point of authorial jealousy. We both wrote books about marijuana, but his is selling much better than mine did. (If only I had more stories about people murdering their babies!)

Still, I’m frankly a little surprised by how quickly the “loco weed” argument has caught back on over eighty years since Reefer Madness first brought it to the big screen. As Points will show over the next two weeks, the idea of the “marijuana menace” that causes murder, mayhem and miscegenation is well over a century old. That the American public has re-embraced it so quickly and so willingly was, despite my pronounced sense of fatalism, still a surprise.

Nonetheless, despite robust sales, I don’t see Tell Your Children making much of a political impact. More states are going to legalize in 2019 — Bob Beach wrote a great post on New York’s plans to do so last week — because the arguments that have pushed legalization forward since 2012 remain strong. Legislators embrace the idea that legalization can help mitigate racially disparate arrest rates for marijuana possession, and the tax revenues legal cannabis generates are, obviously, a boon. The twin appeals of money and overtures at social justice are still too powerful to be reversed by lurid tales of ax murderers who got high.

But I am upset that the crass sensationalism behind the “MARIJUANA! MADNESS! DEATH!” argument will override the other important discussions that Berenson brings up — serious issues that we should be analyzing right now if we don’t want the legal market to turn into a disaster. Because, behind his hyperbolic arguments about psychosis, Berenson points out a real problem: the crass commercialization of the legal cannabis market, and the growing monopoly of well-connected businessmen who are rapidly taking it over.

Berenson is hardly alone. In an interview with Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, published shortly after Tell Your Children was released, Berenson joins a group of individuals who are not generally associated with the “Reefer Madness” crowd: Keith Humphreys, Stanford psychologist and professor; Mark A.R. Kleiman, NYU public policy guru; and Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

After a long and relatively untethered discussion about marijuana and psychosis, Berenson, Humphreys and Kleiman all voice concern about the growing commercialization of the cannabis market. Kleiman (whom I also interviewed about this a few months ago) said that the market needs strict controls in order to preserve public health: Kleiman wants to see “high prices, extremely strict limits on marketing, and aggressive consumer education about the risks of cannabis and techniques for maintaining moderation.” Humpreys agreed. He said that the new cannabis industry was basically just like the tobacco industry: “an under-regulated, under-taxed, politically connected, white-dominated corporate entity that maintains its profits mainly by addicting lower-income people to a drug.” When I spoke to Kleiman last fall, he recommended that the federal government reschedule cannabis and impose strict limits over the legal market as quickly as possible — similar to what Canada is doing, especially in provinces like Ontario, where the federal government has total control over vices like alcohol, tobacco, and now weed. If not, he warned, for-profit cannabis will quickly spiral out of control.

But Berenson warns that, because of cannabis’s long history in the black market, it might already be too late, especially if legalized states (or countries) allow for personal growing rights. Berenson claims that “any legalized regime that includes expensive licensing requirements, ‘high prices’ (presumably through high taxes), and limits on extracted products will be undercut by home-grown cannabis… And heavy users want THC extracts; the black market will supply those if the legalized market will not.” With high prices in the legal market (appealing, one assumes, to middle-class buyers who don’t want to toy with the threat of arrest), and a black market that has never had any reason to disappear, Berenson warns that even our best ideas for a current legalization regime threaten to include “the worst of all possible worlds”: “a group of for-profit companies that will inevitably promote their product and lobby lawmakers, and a violent black market.” I hate to agree with Berenson because he seems like such a troll, but I don’t think he’s wrong here.

The problem is these incredibly important arguments are buried underneath a lengthy, often tautological and unwinnable discussion of cannabis’s relationship with psychosis and racism — a discussion that I don’t think isn’t worth having, but which I think distracts from the real threat commercial legalized pot poses: that increasingly potent cannabis products will become increasingly available to both high-end consumers with cash to burn ($100 THC-infused chocolate truffles, anyone?), and to those who stay within the black market, which, it bears repeating, has no regulations placed over it, and whose sellers never checks IDs.

We need to discuss the real future we will live with if cannabis legalization continues in this unchecked, unlimited way, and we need to stop the disastrous hyper-commercialization of the industry before these power structures become entrenched. This will be hard for a variety of reasons, ones that would require another Points post to detail at length (including, but not limited to, money’s effect on Washington; the apathy of the American public; and the generally small number of people who actually smoke pot or care about this drug), but one thing Kleiman says in the Marshall Project interview that is worth mentioning is that “we don’t really have a choice about legalization, because prohibition is broken beyond repair.”

Prohibition has been broken for a very long time; Points is going to feature posts on precisely this topic over the next two weeks, as our Tell Your Children roundtable continues. But legalization is just beginning, and if some of the failed experiments I’ve already seen in places like Washington, DC, and, to a certain extent, Colorado are any indication, legalization may already be broken beyond repair too.

This — a dangerous, uncontrolled, for-profit legal cannabis market that produces potent products with zero regard for public health, combined with a continually-powerful and continually-unregulated black market that will pick up wherever the legal market leaves off — is the real problem Berenson (and others) brings up. And it’s a problem that I wish was getting as much attention as his “marijuana equals madness” appeal. After all, you might disagree with Berenson’s rather antiquated and disturbing argument. You might question why, after a century, the American public keeps falling for “reefer madness.” And you might think that Berenson comes off as a little too smug about his findings when he hasn’t exactly spent his career studying drug and alcohol history (the way we here at Points certainly have).

But there is some real shady stuff going on in the world of legalized cannabis — problems that legalization is exacerbating, rather than solving. Despite appeals for cannabis to follow the craft beer and small vineyard model (see, for example, Ryan Stoa’s book Craft Weed), major corporations are getting into the cannabis market, regulations over potency aren’t available in most states, racist arrest rates aren’t dropping, home-grown marijuana is considered by many to be a right, and unknown entities are buying up major pot patents. All of this is happening under our noses, with little of the public fervor “reefer madness” generates. 

That’s what we should be telling our children about, not peddling more theories about psychosis. And we better start paying attention to these things, quick, if we don’t want legalization to follow in prohibition’s problematic path. 

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