Letter from Scholars and Clinicians who Oppose Junk Science about Marijuana

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.

He writes,

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
Thomas Folan MD
Taeko Frost Harm Reduction Coalition
Kathleen Frydl PhD
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
Jessica Gottlieb MSW
Teresa Gowan Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota
Robert Hammel Psychologist
Deborah Harlow Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Research Associate, New York University
Takuya Hayashi MD, PhD
Lucas Hill Clinical Assistant Professor, The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy
Mary Hoffman Clinical Director
Anna Hojnacki Pharm.D.
Julie Holland MD
Kareem Ibrahim JD
Kerwin Kaye Associate Professor, Wesleyan University
Tucker Keatley LMSW
Mary Clare Kennedy MA and PhD student, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia
Ann Kerr LCSW
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
Jill McNamara RN
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
Denise Paone PhD
George Parks President/Compassionate Pragmatism
Amy Piperato MD
Kelsey Priest MPH
Helen Redmond LCSW, New York University Silver School of Social Work
Jeremy Reimers Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology
Craig Reinarman PhD
Nathan Rice Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Kimberly Richman Ph D., University of San Francisco
Susan Robbins Professor, University of Houston
Jill Rosenbaum Professor
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
Kevin Shanks Forensic Toxicologist
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
Janet Vidales LCSW
Adam Viera MPH
Alex Vitale Professor, Brooklyn College
Ingrid Walker Associate Professor, University of Washington, Tacoma
Zach Walsh University of British Columbia
Michelle Weiner DO MPH
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
Office of Academic Engagement
Marijuana Legalization and Regulation