Where There's Smoke: As the marijuana legalization movement races ahead, are we ignoring the drug's real risks?

AuthorMencimer, Stephanie
PositionTell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence - Book review

Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence

by Alex Berenson

Free Press, 272 pp.

In 2014, Maureen Dowd devoted a New York Times column to the story of her own ill fated experiment with edible marijuana in Colorado. After eating a THC-infused candy bar, she wrote, "I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours. I was thirsty but couldn't move to get water. Or even turn off the lights. I was panting and paranoid, sure that when the room-service waiter knocked and I didn't answer, he'd call the police and have me arrested for being unable to handle my candy."

The column made Dowd the subject of national ridicule. A Vice headline blared, "Maureen Dowd Freaked Out on Weed Chocolate Because She's Stupid." By the time of her column, the idea that marijuana is a harmless recreational drug that has been unfairly targeted by hysterical drug warriors had become liberal gospel. But Dowd's story might have raised a more troubling question: Can any drug that causes near-psychotic breaks, hallucinations, or pathological paranoia in a first-time user really be considered harmless?

It's a reasonable question that former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson attempts to answer in a new book, Tell Your Children. Berenson took a hard look at a vast body of scientific research on marijuana, and found that far from being a benign substance, it can cause profound damage to the brain, including psychosis and schizophrenia, and, with those things, violence.

Berenson is an unlikely anti-drug warrior. For the past decade or so, he has devoted most of his time to writing a series of successful spy novels. Berenson tells us that he'd smoked weed a few times and never had particularly strong feelings about legalization one way or another. But one night a couple of years ago, he was talking to his wife, Jacqueline, about a case she'd been working on. A forensic psychologist, she evaluates mentally ill criminals for a living. She mentioned that the perpetrator of a particularly heinous crime--"somebody who'd cut up his grandmother or set fire to his apartment"-was high at the time, and a lifelong cannabis consumer, as were nearly all of her most deranged clients. Berenson was skeptical that marijuana had anything to do with mental illness, much less violent crime. Rather than argue the point, Jacqueline sent him to the scientific literature, a dive down the rabbit hole that resulted in this book.

The title is subtly ironic: Tell Your Children is the original name of Reefer Madness, the 1936 campy cult film that was originally created as propaganda by a church group to educate parents about the dangers of marijuana. Marijuana legalization promoters in the 1970s repurposed the film as unintentional satire and used it as an example of the hysteria that had helped drive the nation's overly punitive drug laws. But, as Berenson documents, the movie was based in part on reality.

The main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC, has long been known to trigger paranoia and psychosis, which is often a precursor to...

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