Why Are So Many Journalists Writing Lazy Anti-Cannabis Op-Eds?

Pot sure does cause a lot of paranoia — especially among influential people who should know better.

The ongoing legalization of cannabis can’t seem to shake the misconception that it’s all about getting high. While attitude adjustments regarding the government’s interest in forbidding adult citizens from experiencing pleasure are most welcome, one fact remains indisputable: America is radically rethinking its racist and extraordinarily punitive criminal-justice system, and cannabis is a big part of that.

That means a program of restorative justice for hundreds of thousands of Americans — most of them Black and Latino — who’ve served prison time for nonviolent, pot-related offenses. Admirable efforts to make sure marginalized communities share in the windfall — also known as equity programs — are another element of the transition from prohibition to big business. We’re getting there.

Still, cannabis is a Schedule I substance at the federal level — which means the U.S. government’s official position is that the plant has no medicinal potential. This is not merely absurd, but highly consequential; people effectively go to prison because of Uncle Sam’s refusal to accept established science. Ordinary Americans might be coming around, but the last six weeks have seen a rash of hysterical and illogical anti-cannabis articles, some from otherwise intelligent people who ought to know better.

To promote his new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, pharmaceutical-journalist-turned-novelist Alex Berenson wrote a pair of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, one of them titled “What Advocates of Legalizing Pot Don’t Want You to Know.” That tabloid headline is objectionable enough, implying that legalization advocates are not merely incorrect, but devious operatives hellbent on smothering inconvenient truths. He argues that research demonstrates links between cannabis and schizophrenia diagnoses, casting doubt on the idea of safe cannabis use. To get there, he relies on dubious statistical correlations that tie violent crime rates with cannabis use (something he elsewhere mocks as a reliance on “reefer madness”).

Berenson even updates the hoary gateway-drug argument, connecting cannabis to the opioid epidemic. Of course, that tragic “disease of despair” is more closely linked to heroin than weed, and far more prevalent in anti-pot states like West Virginia and Ohio than pro-cannabis places like Oregon or Colorado.

The fear-mongering isn’t even logically consistent. At one point, Berenson talks up a (nonexistent) “scientific consensus” on the dangers of marijuana, only to admit four paragraphs later that “scientists must do much more research to understand how cannabis can cause psychosis, and the strength of the link.” So which is it, doubt or certitude? The story also bursts with enough weasel words to make a Wikipedia editor blanch. He decries “for-profit” cannabis companies, as if pharmaceutical corporations such as OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma were benevolent nonprofit entities dedicated to the commonweal. And he writes that cannabis advocates have “shrewdly recast marijuana as a medicine rather than an intoxicant.” (So have doctors, by the way.)

At bottom, the entire argument is a straw man. From margaritas to Scuba diving to chemotherapy, nothing is completely without risk. Rather, advocates believe that marijuana has legitimate medical applications and that the penal system required to maintain its prohibition is racist and cruel. But because marijuana isn’t 100-percent harmless, Berenson believes that anyone wishing to legalize it must be either malevolent or foolish. By his logic, we might also ban dihydrogen oxide, a household chemical that is corrosive at high temperatures, deadly in sufficient quantities, and popularly referred to under its street name, “water.”

As laughable as Berenson’s fears are, they pale beside The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, whose epistemological heart attack is even sneakier. In “Is Marijuana As Safe As We Think?” he goes full-on doubt merchant, choosing to undermine the concept of medical knowledge itself rather than merely toss out a few scary factoids. “What do we, like, really even know, man?” is the thesis here, as if it would be journalistically irresponsible not to idly speculate. Citing Berenson’s book several times, Gladwell oscillates between uncertainty (at claims that marijuana is medically useful) and credulousness (at Berenson’s pot-makes-people-violent-sociopaths philosophy).

Meanwhile, as a highly entertaining Twitter thread illustrated, Gladwell once wrote a book called Outliers, in which he vouches for the merits of statistical anomalies, as well as a so-contrarian-it-hurts article for the Washington Post in 1996 headlined “Not Smoking Could Be Hazardous to Pension System.” In light of that, Gladwell’s opposition to the devil’s lettuce doesn’t seem entirely sincere.

Both he and Berenson note that today’s cannabis strains have much more THC in them than grandpa’s nickel bag did. Oh boy, are they ever right about that — although neither seems to realize that methods of cannabis consumption have adjusted accordingly. Many adults inhale metered quantities from vape pens or ingest low-potency edibles, while far fewer take monster rips off a bong every evening. Can non-sociopaths take the edge off a long day with a hit or two, then clock in without incident in the morning? Amid all the worst-case scenarios, the idea of responsible marijuana consumption doesn’t seem to have occurred to either writer.

Then there are the warmed-over night terrors from the 1990s tough-on-crime set. William Bratton, former chief of both the NYPD and LAPD, told conservative radio host John Catsimatidis that he opposed recreational pot and hopes New York doesn’t permit it, which the New York Post happily re-reported. Calling marijuana as “addictive as any other drug,” Bratton laments the high population of “vagrants” (ahem) in cities like Boulder, where dispensaries outnumber Starbucks. In essence, he seems to believe that New York is playing with fire while trying to remedy a historic injustice. For his part, Catsimatidis is a billionaire who lost the 2013 New York mayoral race to the pro-cannabis Bill de Blasio, so he’s hardly a neutral player in that debate.

And debate, as long as it’s conducted in good faith, should always be welcome. Thought experiments that reinforce outdated taboos when thousands of people languish behind bars? Those are just glib and fundamentally unjust. It’s also important to note that America is in an awkward middle period between outright prohibition and full legalization. Understandably, the change alarms some people. It will take time for a medical consensus, the law, and social attitudes to align. But 85 years after the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol remains a well-regulated substance with recognized drawbacks that require vigilance. Once America emerges from this transitional phase, it seems likely that cannabis will occupy a similar place in the culture: highly regulated but legal, too.

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