Book of the week
Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence
(Free Press, $26)
As marijuana continues its “inevitable march to legalization in all 50 states,” Americans have largely accepted the pot lobby’s claim that the drug is relatively harmless, said Reed Tucker in the New York Post. “But what if it’s not?” Alex Berenson, a former New York Times investigative reporter, has pored through decades of weed research and come up with a powerful case for caution. Tell Your Children makes clear the link between cannabis use and psychotic disorders—one study showed that heavy users have a six times greater chance of developing schizophrenia—and unearths scientific evidence that marijuana can be a gateway drug, leading to opiate or cocaine use. Meanwhile, he finds little proof of weed’s supposed medical value, instead discovering that it might worsen anxiety and PTSD and also raise the risk of testicular cancer.
“It is true that marijuana is not harmless,” said German Lopez in Vox.com. But from that inarguable fact, Berenson unspools what is “essentially an exercise in cherry-picking data and presenting correlation as causation.” Much of the 272-page book hinges on three bluntly stated ideas: “Marijuana causes psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence.” But the author woefully misrepresents the studies that are supposed to support his case. The largest, a 2017 meta-analysis of cannabis’ effects by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, was extremely cautious about its link to psychosis, stressing that marijuana research was still in its infancy. Yet Berenson presses on with hair-raising but scientifically weightless anecdotes about mental patients in colonial-era India and early-20th-century Mexico. “There are real risks to marijuana,” but also ways to discuss them that “capture the nuance and detail they require.”
The uncertainty of weed researchers is “scarcely more reassuring than Berenson’s alarmism,” said Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. Right now, we simply don’t know how damaging marijuana is to its millions of users. Most likely, weed sits somewhere in the middle on the drug continuum: far less benign than coffee, not nearly as pernicious as opioids. And so, as Berenson suggests, we might consider treating marijuana as we do alcohol or nicotine: legalizing it, but also passing laws that, however imperfectly, work to limit its use. For now, “the advice that seasoned potheads sometimes give new users—‘start low and go slow’—is probably good advice for society as a whole, at least until we better understand what we are dealing with.” ■