Points Roundtable, Part 3: Brooks Hudson on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the third installment of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceThis post comes from Brooks Hudson, contributing editor and a PhD candidate in history at Southern Illinois University. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence is refreshing in one sense: I know what I’m getting. I know where Berenson stands. Occasionally you find a crop of contrarian pieces in places like The Atlantic, Annie Lowry’s “Invisible Addicts” being one recent example, that hide behind a detached third-person voice, making it impossible to gauge what the writer believes, whether they are engaging in an empty intellectual exercise, adding a manipulative headline to drive traffic, or whether it is sincere. With Berenson, despite the shoddy research, which any number of researchers have already denounced, this doesn’t happen because his hostility to cannabis is reinforced for more than two hundred pages.

A former New York Times reporter, Berenson has received glowing reviews from the more established corners of our media ecosystem, even those whose editorial boards have recently apologized for race-baiting and regurgitating pseudoscientific claims in their pages during the ‘80s and ‘90s. But the op-eds and glowing coverage in the New York TimesMother JonesWall Street Journal and New Yorker suggest that none of these publications has learned anything over the previous decades, and are just as ready to dedicate space to anti-drug hysteria as they have ever been.

The origin story for the book—which definitely happened and isn’t a work of fiction—goes something like this: Berenson’s wife, Jacqueline, is a psychiatrist that works with “mentally ill criminals” for New York State. Then, on “one fine night a couple of years ago, we were talking about a case, the usual horror story, somebody who’d cut up his grandmother or set fire to his apartment—typical bedtime chat in the Berenson house—and she said something like, “Of course he was high, been smoking pot his whole life.” “Of course?” I said. “Yeah, they all smoke.” She then told him about the “major studies” and advised him to read them. And that is how the book reads: a homework assignment, summarizing a narrow slice of “studies” that don’t represent the consensus but happen to align with his thesis. [Question: is this an elaborate BDSM fetish that I don’t know about, spouses doing book reports? Sounds like subplot for a marginal character on Billions, no?]

Tell Your Children doesn’t engage with current policy debates as much as it focuses on scary anecdotes—ax murderers cutting innocent people into pieces, stuff that sounds like a ripped-off less-interesting-version of Michael Myers, whose senseless killing sprees can be traced back to smoking one too many high-THC doobies as a teen—followed by studies that operate based on innuendo, unsubstantiated assertions, and a credulous readership.

Drug reform advocates can, I guess, take solace in that the book signals something good. Despite Berenson’s fear-mongering, stupidity, and cavalier attitude, he says decriminalization is a sensible compromise. And if the debate going forward is legalization versus decriminalization, that’s a partial victory.

Berenson doesn’t engage with legalization arguments, or really any arguments at all that might undermine his. He paints drug policy reformers as deceptive, hiding their real agendas, and implies at various times they are all influenced by money, some bought off by Fox News boogieman George Soros. Temperamentally he describes reformers as utopian, quixotic in their optimism for legalization, and prone to overstating claims when it comes to legalization’s revenue and criminal justice outcomes, as well as marijuana’s health benefits. This is shadowboxing, arguing with the nonexistent. Groups like Drug Policy Alliance, NORML, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy have not only considered the potential risks of legalization, but they’ve also written extensive reports, providing examples from around the world. The GCDP’s “Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs” is granular in its detail, considering the complexities of legalization from a global and regional perspective, and notes how leaders from a developed country might differ for underdeveloped countries.

Berenson isn’t interested in rebutting those things. His central argument is very simple: heavy cannabis use causes schizophrenia, and schizophrenics cause loads of violence and bring lots of death. So, what are the great studies that legalizers are suppressing—the ones that they don’t want you to see? The studies that show conclusive proof of a causal link between cannabis and schizophrenia? Oh wait…those don’t exist. Like Romney had binders full of women, Berenson has binders full of “links,” “associations,” and “risk” between schizophrenia and cannabis use.

You might be asking, are there a lot of people with schizophrenia? Great question. The answer is no. Schizophrenia’s prevalence globally and in the US is under 1%. Do we know what causes it? Not really. There is some consensus regarding factors that make one more or less susceptible to the disorder, including if your family members have it, whether you were malnourished before birth, or if you have been exposed to certain viruses. And it is true that studies have shown that heavy cannabis users with a history of schizophrenia can double their potential risk. But that doesn’t mean a whole lot. There are also studies that show the same associated risk and connection with tobacco too. Even if we are generous and accept Berenson’s arguments on faith and assume half of all people with schizophrenia will manifest symptoms because of cannabis, at best we are talking about maybe 0.3% of the population. If that is the case, which it is, maybe we can find solutions that address this community.

The World Health Organization provides some baseline ideas: providing essential medicines to those with the disorder, training primary health care personnel to respond to it, and providing housing, education and mental health screenings to those affected. At the moment there aren’t many solutions for schizophrenia other than medication, but medication has proven effective. Unfortunately, most people affected by this disorder can’t afford treatment for mental health services or medications. This needs to be addressed.

The opioid crisis and the potential downsides of legalization could be aided, not by more police or prisons, but acknowledging, once and for all, that substance use disorders are a public health issue–really an emergency. I agree with Beth Macy, who writes in her book Dopesick that a single-payer system would be the best method for addressing these problems. At the very least, we should champion what she calls a “New Deal for the Drug Addicted.” That seems like a compromise we can all get behind.

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