Points Roundtable, Part 4: Bob Beach on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the fourth installment of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. This post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up my copy of Alex Berenson’s new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence to review for Points. I was following the media coverage of the book’s release with some interest and had some idea of what I might encounter, having already written a bit (here and here) on this forum on Berenson’s propagandistic forebear, Harry Anslinger.

But as I trudged into Dunham Public Library in Whitesboro, NY, on a rainy Thursday morning to get my copy, the focus of my review here today became immediately clear. I’m an ABD adjunct and it’s January. That means I’m between appointments and, more importantly, between paychecks. I wasn’t going to count on the speed of the interlibrary loan at my college library, so I checked out the Mid-York Library System, a cooperative network of 45 public libraries in three counties in central New York.

Having had longstanding access to college/university libraries for most of my adult life, I had to renew my public library card to check out Berenson’s tome. Armed with my renewed card and the Dewey decimal call number (how quaint!), this well-heeled library user went directly to the stacks and couldn’t… find… the book. I scanned the shelves, thinking it may have been put back in the wrong place, and while doing so I took note of the library’s selection of other books on drugs, drug use and drug policy, few of which I was actually familiar with. I subsequently checked the Mid-York catalog and, sure enough, there was nothing from Points co-founder Trysh Travis, nothing from co-founder Joe Spillane. Nothing from the new team of editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

The library was clearly censoring historians.

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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.

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Points Roundtable, Part 2: Isaac Campos on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the second of four installments of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceThis post comes from Isaac Campos, history professor at the University of Cincinnati and good friend of Points. He discusses Berenson’s use of his research, as well as issues Campos has with Berenson’s larger argument.

First, we’ll run an interview with Campos, followed by an unpublished working paper that Campos first presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference in Scotland last April. This paper, titled “Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra and Marijuana’s Great Historical Disjuncture,” elucidates on the ideas that Berenson used in Tell Your Children, but gives much greater historical context for Campos’s claims. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00Points: First of all, did you know that Berenson was going to cite your work in Tell Your Children?

Isaac Campos: I had no idea. I’d never heard of him until a journalist wrote to me asking about his treatment of my research.

What was your reaction to the book?

I find it kind of depressing, actually. And I’m not talking about his argument. It’s the approach and the response that I find depressing. He looks at an exceedingly complex issue, finds a lot of conflicting evidence, only uses the evidence that supports his thesis, then writes a really sensationalistic account that get lots of attention in a media landscape that rewards sensationalism and shock value. A lot of very serious and ethical scholars have been carefully studying these questions for many years. There are significant disagreements about what’s going on, but serious scholars are looking at this stuff carefully and meticulously, all the while keeping in mind that real people are affected by what we publish, so we need to respect the data.  

And then you get this former journalist and fiction writer who comes in, writes a sensationalistic book without a single footnote, but he says that the research is at this point clear, that “everything you’re about to read is true,” and characterizes those who don’t agree with him as the “cannabis lobby.” And he’s rewarded with a bunch of media coverage and book sales. So, yeah, I find it a little depressing. It’s also frustrating because I do think it’s important to take the potential risks of cannabis very seriously, as the paper we’re posting here demonstrates. But those risks need to be assessed within the whole complex of issues related to drugs, drug policy, and harm. Historically, a lot more harm has been done by bad drug policy and the propaganda used to justify it than by the drugs themselves. This book is closer to propaganda than a useful contribution to the discourse.

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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.”

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What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part I: Miriam Kingsberg Kadia

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. First up is Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (2014). Her piece critiques the sloppy and often simply false way “knowledge” about drugs is presented from “authoritative” sources, particularly the D.E.A. museum in Washington, D.C. Contact the author at Miriam.Kingsberg@colorado.edu.

What Historians Wish the DEA Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Museum in Pentagon City, Washington, D.C. depicts the history of the narcotics market and U.S. government efforts to counteract it. The exhibition currently on display was created under the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009) yet reflects the view of the new Trump administration: that mind-altering substances are (and have always been) a “foreign” problem and threat to an imagined ideal of “Americanness.”

The opening placard reads:

During the 18th century, the Chinese began smoking first a mixture of tobacco and opium, and then pure opium. The British, who had a huge trade imbalance with China, were delighted to finally find a highly popular commodity. But when the Chinese emperor realized that opium was incapacitating the upper sectors of society, he outlawed further trade. This sparked the Opium Wars of 1840 and 1860. Britain won both and forced China to make opium legal. Addiction became widespread in the Celestial Kingdom and sparked resentment among the Chinese. This began the modern pleasure drug culture. Continue reading →

Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Howard Becker

Editor’s Note: In this, our last installment of the Points roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User, we are thrilled to welcome the author himself. Here, Becker responds to our previous contributors and offers some insights of his own. 

We’d also like to take this opportunity to once again thank Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart for their intriguing, thought-provoking and entertaining contributions. We are honored to count you as members of the Points family. 

AE-PROFILE-howie-pianoI have never been a “marijuana expert,” certainly never claimed to be such a thing. But I was, for quite a while, the only sociologist who had ever actually published anything about it. So, when it did become a legitimate topic of study and big shots and politicians convoked meetings to decide on scientific matters related to the subject, the attendees mostly consisted of physiologists and pharmacologists and psychologists. But, just to avoid troubles, the organizers of these events always thought they should have a social scientist and for quite a while I was the only one who had the slightest claim to be there. Eventually, of course, plenty of others joined me, including people like the anthropologist Mike Agar. Nancy Campbell talked with me about that phase of the thing and she did an excellent of getting me to tell about the politics of that period, which was pretty funny.

As a result of that phase of my “being an expert,” I became more expert than I had been by learning a lot from hanging around between meeting sessions with people like Mike and Andy Weil, who were doing research on the drug. A whole apparatus had been built up out of people who had met at such events and thus come to understand the politics involved at the level of science and research (also covered in my interview with Nancy Campbell). In addition, I was part of the informal information exchange created by Allen Ginsberg, who traveled constantly and kept his eye on who was doing research about what. He would call me when he came through Chicago to ask if I knew about so-and-so who had some interesting findings on this or that and wanting to know if I had anything new to tell him.

Well, I didn’t, not really, because my interests had moved on to other areas of activity, like art. But the basic ideas that I got out of making sense of the marijuana experience stayed with me because they traveled well and turned out to be useful in quite different areas. Most recently I devoted a chapter in What About Mozart? What About Murder?, to a sort of updating and generalizing of what I learned from the work I did fifty years ago, pointing out how it helps make sense out of a lot of other things, not just more recently invented substances but even what happens to people climbing Mt. Everest (where there isn’t a whole lot of oxygen in the air) and other situations where the ordinary inputs to our physical experiences take new values and produce novel feelings.

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Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Carl Hart

Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Dr. Carl Hart to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana UserHart is an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University and a visiting research scientist at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. His most recent book, High Price, won the 2014 PEN E.O. Award for literary science writing. You can follow him on twitter or read his work on his personal website, which provides access to facts about illicit drug use to the general public. 

Hart is our last guest contributor in this series. Next week, we look forward to welcoming Howard Becker himself, who will offer his response to the rerelease of his book. 

Carl HartAn Argument for Drug Literacy

Nearly 30 years after Howard Becker published his seminal paper Becoming a Marihuana User, I smoked my first joint and my experience was similar to those of the research participants described in Becker’s study. It was a balmy Miami night in early fall 1983, when I was just fifteen. Two of my friends—Derrick and Ed —decided that they were going to get me high.

Ed drove us to the spot in Opa-Locka where he bought his weed. Then we parked at the end of some deserted street and smoked a couple of joints, listening to the mellow sounds of the Quiet Storm on 99.1 WEDR.

“Shit, I don’t feel nothin’,” I declared. “This ain’t shit.”

Derrick and Ed looked at me and then at each other. Laughing, someone said, “Yeah, he fucked-up.” I continued to insist I was fine and that I really didn’t feel any different than usual, but both of them just laughed and repeated, “That nigga fuuuucked-up.” Everything I said, every time I laughed or simply looked at one of them only confirmed – in their minds – that I was actually high. Of course, I didn’t think so.

In fact, I didn’t notice anything unusual at all until I got home. My sister Joyce took one look at me and said, “Damn, you must be fucked-up.” I brushed her off, as I had heard that earlier from my friends. In retrospect, I must’ve been acting a bit cautious and tentative, not like my usual bold self. My eyes were probably red or maybe I reeked of weed. I didn’t yet understand how marijuana affects consciousness and behavior.

Things started getting strange when I got to my room. I put on some music and tried to fall asleep but couldn’t. Suddenly, I felt like I was inside the beat. Feeling slightly panicked, I wondered what was happening. The song was surrounding me, throbbing, inescapable. It was a familiar track but I heard unfamiliar instruments. Every sound in the song was acute and intense. That wasn’t the way music was supposed to sound, or so I thought. My heart, too, seemed to have speeded up. I felt as though it was keeping time with the R&B rhythm. Was it unhealthy if it did that? Could it kill me?

This experience was thoroughly disconcerting. I knew I wasn’t usually so conscious of my heartbeat; I knew I didn’t usually find music so intense. I didn’t understand at all that this experience was supposed to be enjoyable. My friends hadn’t briefed me on how to detect marijuana-related pleasurable effects or any other effects. All I knew was that I didn’t like having my senses or consciousness altered; it felt uncomfortably beyond my control. I found it disorienting and even slightly frightening. As a result, I didn’t smoke marijuana again for at least two years. But many more years would pass before I was taught how to detect and experience marijuana-related pleasurable effects. If only I were introduced to Becker’s work much earlier.

Becker’s major proposals are that people become regular marijuana users only when they learn to: (1) smoke the drug in a way which will produce real effects; (2) recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) enjoy the sensations s/he perceives. Perhaps these ideas were controversial in 1953. They aren’t today, as they not only apply to marijuana, but to all recreational drugs. Otherwise, it makes little sense to take a drug if it has no pharmacological effects. And when it does have an effect – whether it is heroin or LSD or cocaine – the user needs to be made aware of the desired effects as well as the negative effects because they often accompany each other. But, with sufficient knowledge, one may be able to minimize less desired effects while enhancing the pleasurable ones.

The key, however, is knowledge. Becker’s emphasis on users gaining a deeper understanding of drug effects, as well as novices using in the presence of more experienced users, increases the likelihood that drug users will remain safe. It’s not difficult to see how these ideas extend beyond marijuana use. Consider, for example, the country’s current focus on opioid overdoses. The likelihood of fatal drug overdoses decreases substantially if there are others present, so that timely medical attention can be received. In my view this is the real contribution of Becker’s work, especially in light of the fact that people will always continue to get high. In fact, each year in the U.S., more than 20 million Americans report regular illegal drug use. The most important concern for me is keeping users safe. The findings from Becker’s research more than 60 years ago go a long way in achieving this goal.