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Sensi Magazine

Cannaphobia

May 23, 2019 01:46PM ● By Leland Rucker
What's a cannabis user to believe? A new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, warns that THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is contributing to mental-health issues, especially among younger users, and that paranoia, depression, violence, suicide, and murder are the real byproducts of legalization. 

I have never advocated for teenage cannabis use (while knowing it does and will occur), and the concept that something that’s been such a positive in my life causes others to commit heinous criminal acts was disturbing enough to make me read the book. On the other hand, while I’m an advocate for responsible use, I’m skeptical that cannabis is the answer to all our problems or that it’s for everybody. We are still learning about this plant, and perhaps the only thing the author and I agree on is that we need to continue to do that.

Written by Alex Berenson, a novelist and former New York Times reporter, Tell Your Children makes a gloomy case that the country is moving too quickly to legalize cannabis while ignoring the downsides. “The evidence that cannabis causes mental illness and violence is becoming stronger,” he writes. If you don’t believe that, he says, you won’t like the book.

What follows is a mostly one-sided diatribe. I expected more. Berenson is seriously contemptuous of the “pro-cannabis lobby,” which he characterizes, for the most part, as greedy capitalists trying to take advantage of consumers in the push to legalize. He accuses them lobbyists, business owners, and groups like the Marijuana Policy Project of ignoring the piles of evidence he presents. But by showing his own bias while bashing the other side, he falls into the same trap. Are there people in the cannabis industry who are unprincipled? Of course, but to cast all advocates as materialistic people trying to cover up the truth is equally unscrupulous.

“The government should drop all barriers to researching cannabis for medical purposes,” he states. So far, so good. “The reason is not that marijuana is likely to prove a miracle cure for cancer or anything else. It’s precisely the opposite. Let’s put unfounded claims to rest permanently.”

Hey, I’m all for that, but when you begin with the supposition that cannabis as medicine is bullshit, I get queasy. It’s the familiar “everybody smokes marijuana just to get high” meme, which is just nonsense. In this argument, all people who use cannabis, whether for pain, sleep, anxiety, or whatever, are deceiving themselves. They’re just doing it to get stoned, man.

Berenson emphasizes examples that he believes prove cannabis has been associated with mayhem and violence throughout history, but he doesn’t mention that there’s also a long history of it being used for medical and spiritual purposes, no matter their efficacy, for centuries.

He makes a substantial case that cannabis causes people to commit horrifying crimes, and he includes plenty of references to his sources, but there’s neither a bibliography nor an index. It felt a lot like the day I spent at Colorado Christian College listening to eight hours of invective about the horrors inflicted by legalization in late 2017.

It’s not that Berenson is a bad reporter. Some chapters, particularly the one on Ethan Nadelman, a weed advocate he admits he likes, and Nadelman’s relationship with philanthropist George Soros, are fascinating and instructive. But his insistence that his is the only “truth” seriously undermines his entire tirade. He leaves out anything that doesn’t adhere to his point of view.

He’s concerned about the higher concentrations of THC in today’s products. Yet instead of reminding us the FDA has restricted research on cannabis’ possible health benefits for decades, Berenson ridicules a University of Colorado scientist for studying the effects of cigarettes rather than cannabis on mental illness, and he seems oblivious to the fact that other CU researchers have been actively seeking funding and product to study the use of concentrates on young users for years.

He brings up the gateway-drug argument the one that says cannabis leads people to try other drugs. I have certainly read studies that suggest that, and others that disagree. Are there people who use cannabis and go on to other drugs? Of course. But I would argue that Berenson’s “truths” are more correlation than actual causation.

I know this fear comes from a legitimate concern for safety. Should we be apprehensive about what we don’t know? Of course. But if cannabis were decriminalized, as Berenson suggests as a “reasonable compromise,” would the dangers go away? Would it be better that the millions of people who use it responsibly or the underaged he’s concerned about continue to buy it on the black market?

Berenson states, accurately, that five years after legalization began in the US, the black market still exists, but nobody I know in the cannabis industry promised or expected it to disappear right away. If what he writes about its dangers are true, this information needs to be out in the open, not hidden somewhere on the far edges of legality.

Perhaps someday we will get a book that seriously examines all sides of cannabis’ potential and limitations. Unfortunately, Tell Your Children isn’t it.

If what Berenson writes about cannabis is true, it needs to be out in the open, not hidden somewhere on the far edges of legality.