In his book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, reporter and novelist Alex Berenson attempts to stir up public fear over marijuana legalization. This sort of alarmism has been around since the earliest days of prohibition. Rather than contributing to thoughtful debate, his work is a polemic based on a deeply inaccurate misreading of science.
This letter, signed by scholars and clinicians, refutes some of the specious arguments in Tell Your Children and reiterates their support for an end to marijuana prohibition and for the legal regulation of marijuana for adult use.
Overview of the Problems with the Scientific Claims of the Book:
Attributing cause to mere associations. Berenson irresponsibly and dangerously claims a causal link between marijuana use and increases in rates of psychosis and schizophrenia, which have purportedly led to increases in population-level violence. While associations between marijuana use and mental illness have been established, research suggests that the association is complex and mediated by multiple factors other than marijuana, including genetics. Similarly, associations between individual characteristics and violence are multi-factorial. Thus, establishing marijuana as a causal link to violence at the individual level is both theoretically and empirically problematic. Further weakening his arguments, the vast majority of people who use marijuana do not develop psychosis or schizophrenia, nor do they engage in violence, thus making Berenson’s claims far-reaching and exaggerated.
Berenson cherry-picks data. He misunderstands and incorrectly contextualizes homicide data and its (non-existent) link to marijuana legalization. Quite simply, there is no proof, reasonable or otherwise that meets the criteria needed to scientifically link the legalization of marijuana to increases in homicide at the state level. For a more reliable examination of the relationship between marijuana use and homicide, please see The Incidental Economist here.
Berenson is guilty of selection bias. When he looks to anecdotes provided by his wife, a forensic psychiatrist, he has pre-selected a population that is skewed toward exhibiting the sorts of symptoms and behaviors seen by forensic psychiatrists. These are not random effects and should not elicit warnings and fearmongering directed at the general population.
In addition to his flawed use of science, Berenson’s argument outright ignores most of the harms of prohibition, focusing narrowly on the harms of marijuana use. None would argue that marijuana use is risk-free. However, weighed against the harms of prohibition, including the criminalization of millions of people, overwhelmingly Black and Brown, and the devastating collateral consequences of criminal justice system involvement, legalization is the less harmful approach.
It should be clear that the harms Berenson raises are unlikely to be ameliorated by his proposed “compromise” solution - decriminalization. Decriminalization preserves many of prohibition’s troubling harms, such as the violence associated with drug sales and trafficking, racially-biased enforcement, and lack of information about the quality and content of marijuana and marijuana products.
Hardly harmless. In one of his book’s most disturbing passages, Berenson suggests that one of the reasons that police so disproportionately arrest black people (three times as often as whites) for marijuana use is that marijuana makes young black people mentally ill and violent.
Yes, marijuana arrests disproportionately fall on minorities, especially the black community.
But marijuana’s harms also disproportionately fall on the black community.....
Given marijuana’s connection with mental illness and violence, it is reasonable to wonder whether the drug is partly responsible for those differentials.
Conveniently, Berenson ignores the fact that black and white people use marijuana at the same rates and that the reason for the higher rate of arrests is over-policing of communities of color, based on prohibition. Berenson’s irresponsible and inaccurate statement reeks of the crack baby and super-predator myths of the 90s. And though the scientific evidence clearly refutes both theories, we are still working to roll back draconian policies based on those myths today. Tell Your Children race-baits with its pictures of Black marijuana-fueled aggressors, while simultaneously perpetuating uninformed stigma about schizophrenia.
When research is misrepresented to uphold and perpetuate the worst myths about people of color and people with mental illness, we are required to speak up.
We urge policymakers and the public to rely on scientific evidence, not flawed pop science and ideological polemics, in formulating their opinions about marijuana legalization.
|Robert||Ashford||Recovery Scientist, Substance Use Disorders Institute, USciences|
|Dallas||Augustine||Researcher, University of California, Irvine|
|John||Barry||Executive Director Southern Tier AIDS Program|
|Christopher||Beasley||PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Washington Tacoma|
|Scott||Bernstein||Senior Policy Analyst, Simon Fraser University|
|Alexander||Betsos||International Rep: CSSDP/ Research Masters Social Science: University of Amsterdam|
|Jay||Borchert||Researcher & Quantitative Analyst, Drug Policy Alliance|
|Kelley||Butler||MPH and Medical Student, UC Irvine School of Medicine|
|Isaac||Campos||Associate Professor of History, University of Cincinnati|
|Christopher||Canning||Director, Programs and Priorities, Mental Health Commission of Canada|
|Greg||Carter||MD and President of the Board of Directors, American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine|
|Nicholas||Carveth||M.S.W., R.S.W. / PhD Candidate McMaster University|
|Wendy||Chapkis||Professor of Sociology, University of Southern Maine|
|Dan||Ciccarone||University of California San Franciso|
|Joseph||Ciccolo||Assistant Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University|
|Marcus||Day||Director, Caribbean Drug and Alcohol Research Institute|
|William||Dolphin||Lecturer, University of Redlands|
|Patrick||Doyle||Family Opioid Coach|
|Ernest||Drucker||New York University, College of Global Public Health|
|Mitchell||Earleywine||Professor of Psychology, University at Albany- State University of New York|
|Mark||Eisenberg||Harvard Medical School|
|Nicolas||Eyle, J. D.||Eyle Consulting LLC.|
|Rory||Fleming||Board Member, Families for Sensible Drug Policy|
|Taeko||Frost||Harm Reduction Coalition|
|Gregory||Gerdeman||PhD and Chief Scientific Officer, 3 Boys Farm|
|Alex||Gertner||University of North Carolina|
|Jonathan||Giftos, MD||Albert Einstein College of Medicine|
|Emily||Goldmann||Clinical Assistant Professor, New York University College of Global Public Health|
|Jesse||Goldshear||MPH and Doctoral Student, USC Keck, Preventive Medicine|
|Teresa||Gowan||Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota|
|Deborah||Harlow||Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Research Associate, New York University|
|Lucas||Hill||Clinical Assistant Professor, The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy|
|Kerwin||Kaye||Associate Professor, Wesleyan University|
|Mary Clare||Kennedy||MA and PhD student, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia|
|Sunil||Kumar Aggarwal||MD PhD|
|Sofia||Laguna||Researcher, University of California, Irvine|
|Alexane||Langevin||Chargée de projet, Groupe de Recherche et d'Intervention Psychosociale|
|Jamie||Lavender||Instructor, City College of San Francisco|
|Beth||Linas||Infectious disease epidemiologist|
|Jeannie||Little||LCSW and Executive Director, Harm Reduction Therapy Center|
|Caleb||LoSchiavo||MPH and Doctoral Student, Rutgers School of Public Health|
|Yuji||Masataka||Doctor, Kumamoto University Hospital|
|Frank||McLaughlin||SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus|
|Ian||Mitchell||Associate Professor Emergency Medicine, University of British Columbia|
|Donna||Murch||Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University New Brunswick|
|Vilmarie||Narloch||Psy D, Drug Education Manager/ Students for Sensible Drug Policy|
|David||Nathan||Founder and Board President, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation|
|Jules||Netherland||Director, Office of Academic Engagement, Drug Policy Alliance|
|Michelle||Newhart||PhD sociology, author The Medicalization of Marijuana|
|Danielle||Ompad||Associate Professor of Epidemiology, New York University College of Global Public Health|
|Helen||Redmond||LCSW, New York University Silver School of Social Work|
|Jeremy||Reimers||Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology|
|Nathan||Rice||Licensed Clinical Social Worker|
|Kimberly||Richman||Ph D., University of San Francisco|
|Susan||Robbins||Professor, University of Houston|
|Benita||Roth||Professor of Sociology, Binghamton University|
|Aaron||Roussell||Assistant Professor, Portland State University|
|Sergio||Rueda||Scientist, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health|
|Rebecca||Saah||Assistant Professor, University of Calgary|
|Keith||Saunders||PhD, NORML Board of Directors|
|Ayden||Scheim||Associate Scientist, The Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation|
|Valery||Shuman||LCPC and Senior Director/Heartland Alliance Health Midwest Harm Reduction Institute|
|Christopher||Smith||Assistant Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN)|
|Erin||Stringfellow||MSW and Phd candidate, Washington University in St. Louis|
|Kimberly||Sue||MD and PhD, Medical Director, Harm Reduction Coalition|
|Elizabeth||Sweeney||MA and PhD Candidate/University of Cincinnati|
|Winifred||Tate||PhD, Assistant Professor, Colby College|
|Jordan||Tishler||MD and President, Association of Cannabis Specialists|
|Sheila||Vakharia||Research Manager, Drug Policy Alliance|
|Jenna||Valleriani||Post Doctoral Fellow, British Columbia Centre on Substance Use|
|Alex||Vitale||Professor, Brooklyn College|
|Ingrid||Walker||Associate Professor, University of Washington, Tacoma|
|Zach||Walsh||University of British Columbia|
|Dan||Werb||Executive Director, The Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation|
|Liliane||Windsor||Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign|
|Sean||Witters||Senior Lecturer, Univ. of Vermont|
|Brett||Wolfson-Stofko||New York University|
|Tanaka||Yuichiro||Professor, University of California San Francisco|
|Organization 1:||National Advocates for Pregnant Women|
|Organization 2:||Doctors for Cannabis Regulation|