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Legalizing Pot Was Premature

A Review of Alex Berenson’s book, Tell Your Children.

We should have convinced the public to slam the brakes on pot legalization.

This past November, my state legalized recreational pot.  The state I grew up in is also considering legalizing recreational pot.  God knows what the federal government is going to do. 

In college, I studied criminology, sociology, law, policy, and history.  Before reading Alex Berenson’s book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, I knew that legalizing pot was going to come with some unwanted consequences. I wrote about it several times (here, here, here, and here).

The results of legalizing pot seemed patently obvious.  It is intuitive to think that new regulatory regimes will not work, that crime will persist, that accidents will increase, and that the populace will be dumber for it.

What I didn’t know was that legalizing pot was not only premature, but it is inherently dangerous.  It is a violation of public trust for one’s own government to permit this drug to exist in legality.

Going in, my only complaint is that Berenson’s book did not contain endnotes or footnotes.  But then again, the book would have been three times its current size if they were there.

Tell Your Children begins with a discussion of other cultures and their experience with marijuana.  Berenson is quick to dispel the notion that the war on marijuana is a uniquely American phenomenon, motivated by the hysteria from Reefer Madness.  It turns out that both India and Mexico dealt with marijuana far earlier than it ever became a problem in the United States.  Their experience from over a century ago shows what studies are just now showing in the West.  Namely, that marijuana is linked to psychotic violence. 

Berenson examines the claims of the pro-pot movement.  He examines the ways in which pot has changed over the years and how these changes confound some of the claims put forth by the pro-pot movement.  He addresses some considerations regarding medical marijuana.  In short, marijuana is as much of a medicine as alcohol is.  That is not to say the medicines cannot be derived from some strains of pot.  The pro-pot movement plays fast and loose with facts and terms.

The bulk of Berenson’s work involves synthesizing studies from around the world.  These studies have largely gone unnoticed.  Some of them weren’t even designed to measure pot usage and one’s physical or mental well-being. Yet a disturbing patterned emerged.

His diligence in seeking out the professional opinion of statisticians, physicians, and psychologists paid off.  Berenson was able to show that an assortment of studies across the world, across various periods of time, demonstrate a clear link between marijuana usage and psychosis.

He made sure to discuss how these studies controlled for lurking variables and to my surprise, such controls revealed few changes to the underlying conclusion.

  • Marijuana increases the likelihood of psychotic breaks (schizophrenia related mental illness, hallucinations, delusions, and their associated violent outbursts) in otherwise healthy individuals.
  • Marijuana increases the likelihood of psychotic breaks at other stages in life (outside the traditional age range for those with schizophrenia not linked to drug use).
  • Marijuana increases the likelihood of psychotic breaks in those who are already predisposed to the condition.

In addition to these studies, Berenson looks at the data regarding the opioid epidemic and crime in states that have legalized pot.  Research is showing that, contrary to popular belief, pot cannot stem the tide in opioid abuse because they do different things to the brain.  Pot’s mechanisms, like alcohol, make risky behavior more likely.  Pot should still be considered a gateway drug.  Pot usage also confounds successful treatment of other mental illnesses.  Those who seek treatment make their recovery worse by smoking, they may even relapse into more severe psychosis by smoking.

As he moves from the discussion of crime rates, specifically murder and assault, we see that states and supporters are overstating the public benefit of legalizing pot.  Not only are accidents, hospital admissions, murders, and assaults up in states that have legalized, but regulatory regimes are wholly incapable of enforcing marijuana policy.  Tax revenue is being undercut by a black market driven by unenforceable standards in the law.  Prices continue to drop, making the business less profitable and sustainable for dispensaries approved by the state.

Berenson notes that the last segment of his book is driven by anecdote.  His reasoning is excellent here.  He spent two thirds of his book exploring the issue objectively, citing studies, stats, and the professional assessment of those who deal with drug users and the mentally ill.  In order to get you to warn your children, the issue must be personalized.  We live in an age where stats are notoriously unpersuasive.  You’ve got to hit home, hit hard, and shock the reader with individual details not conveyed by the statistics.

To that point, there are accounts of homicidal spouses and familicide.  There are accounts of frustrated parents and family members.  There are accounts of celebrities whose public image includes bouts of mental instability. 

His book ends with a plea.  The dangers of marijuana do not end with what has been described in his book.  The data is just now emerging regarding pot with higher concentrations of THC.  We haven’t even had a decade worth of legalized recreational pot in any state.   As a result, there is little data.

Data will be forthcoming as more states legalize and as time goes on.  If Berenson is correct, and I think he is, these states will regret it, but by then it will be too late.

Overall, I appreciate Berenson’s tone throughout the entirety of the book.  He could have been political.  I certainly would have, ripping into the idiotic claims of libertarians.  He was careful to address some racial issues in a sensitive manner.  Other than that, his goal of warning others was largely above the partisan fray.

As I was finishing this article, I decided to look into some criticism he has received for this book.  Most of it is patronizing lectures regarding correlation and causation.  Look, we get it.  Just because Nicolas Cage appears in more movies when there are more shark attacks, doesn’t mean that Nicolas Cage movies cause shark attacks.

Discussions of likelihood are going to involve using words like “cause.”  It’s easier to say that smoking causes lung cancer even though technically and statistically speaking, causation is out of bounds.  Likewise, Berenson never hides the degree to which marijuana contributes to certain behaviors or conditions.  He does not claim that marijuana will, 100% of the time, lead to psychosis.  He acknowledges this.  It’s like saying that alcoholism causes cirrhosis of the liver.  It can cause it, but alcoholism does not always result in cirrhosis.

Despite that criticism and despite whatever amount may be warranted, I don’t think it detracts from the greater point. 

Marijuana is linked to psychosis in a marked way, regardless of the degree and whatever technicalities people may want to argue with. Because of that, the topic needs more research.  And since that research is lacking at this moment, legalizing recreational pot was premature.

Last year, I said this:

“I’m opposed to drug usage on religious grounds, but if we are going to legalize something I’d prefer that it is done after full consideration of all the facts and implications by the legislature. Not on a whim of public opinion.”

Berenson’s book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, shows that we never did consider the facts and implications.  We let the wave of public opinion, via ballot initiative, wash over all of our sensibilities.  And we have no idea what it’s going to do to the social fabric, the legal system, or the general health of our states or the nation as a whole.

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