• March 1, 2021

Anti-cannabis author accused of a ‘deeply inaccurate misreading of science’

 Anti-cannabis author accused of a ‘deeply inaccurate misreading of science’

Alex Berenson, left, is the author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.” He sits with Vince Bzdek, the editor of The Gazette, at a forum at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo. on March 19, 2019.

The author of a book that concludes that cannabis causes psychosis says researchers who dismiss his claim are blinded by ideology. 

It is a stunning assertion from novelist Alex Berenson, who was assailed by at least 100 scholars and researchers for mischaracterizing their studies to fit a tailored “reefer madness” agenda. The researchers are scholars from schools such as Harvard Medical School, as well as drug policy organizations.

Berenson, a former New York Timesreporter turned fiction writer, attempted to take a dive back into journalism with his book, “Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.” The book has been criticized as fear-mongering propaganda in a dangerous age that blurs journalism with rhetoric. 

During a book tour stop at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo. on March 19, Berenson acknowledged that he was motivated to write the book based on ideology passed along from his wife. His wife, a forensic psychiatrist, said she saw people who committed “terrible crimes,” of which she claimed a link to marijuana. Moved by the premature conclusion, Berenson began his book project.

“People have been sold a series of lies … unfortunately, to a certain extent, I think we’ve deceived ourselves,” Berenson told his audience in Centennial, largely consisting of marijuana legalization critics. 

Berenson’s accusation that “people have been sold a series of lies” is the exact criticism he is receiving from dozens of researchers and scholars who appeared appalled by his conclusion that marijuana can cause psychosis. In letters and social media posts, the researchers say Berenson cherry-picked data from their studies to fit his narrative, something that would be tantamount to deceiving the public.  

Scientific Community Fights Back

Despite his own personal conflict stemming from his wife, Berenson said of scholars who disagree with his conclusion: “There’s a really interesting thing that happens with some of these researchers, which is that the research is good, but then their ideological bent is so strong that they can’t see what they’re saying.”

Berenson, who holds bachelor’s degrees in history and economics, brushed off the criticism from the very researchers and experts whose studies he cites in “Tell Your Children.” Those researchers said that Berenson “irresponsibly and dangerously claims a causal link between marijuana use and increases in rates of psychosis and schizophrenia.” Despite not conducting peer-reviewed research of his own, Berenson said the scholars who conducted and analyzed the research don’t understand their own findings.    

This came off as problematic for Isaac Campos, an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. Campos said that Berenson“pretty badly misrepresented” his argument, and that it’s not at all clear that marijuana use causes violent outbreaks.  

What’s particularly concerning to researchers is that Berenson, who is white, completely “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.”

During remarks at Arapahoe High School, Berenson doubled down, claiming that cannabis-related arrests are inconsequential, and that “white, upper-class (cannabis legalization advocates) reached across to the black community to get African Americans, who historically are not in favor of legalization.”

The 100 researchers who criticized Berenson’s book said, “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.” 

Cherry-Picking the Data

The overall theme from researchers is that Berenson cherry-picked data to fit a specific theme. During remarks, Berenson was clear that studies that show a positive impact from marijuana are wrong, while those that show a negative impact from legalization are correct. This is the definition of cherry-picking data, offering weight to the concerns presented by the research community. 

For example, Berenson said, “cannabis is not medicine,” despite numerous studies showing positive medicinal impacts, ranging from treating nausea to significantly controlling seizures. He said the research is light and should not be taken seriously. Perhaps the most controversial claim made by Berenson on the efficacy of medical cannabis is that the cannabis industry is exploiting the opioid epidemic to end prohibition.

“There is a clear overlap between the people who are encouraging the use of cannabis and the people who encourage the use of opioids,” Berenson said. 

When presented with numerous studies that show a decline in opioid use in legal marijuana states and by people who use medical cannabis, Berenson dismissed the research as insignificant; another sign of cherry-picking data to fit a tailored narrative. 

The reality is that there have now been numerous studies showing a positive impact in curbing the opioid epidemic as a result of legalization. In fact, legislation in Congress that would make it legal for military veterans to use medical cannabis includes a findings section that states, “States with medical cannabis laws have a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with States without medical cannabis laws.” 

States that are exploring using cannabis as an alternative to opioids have been moved by evidence, including that states with medical cannabis laws saw 2.21 million fewer daily dosesof opioids. Legal marijuana states saw a nearly 6 percent dropin opioid prescriptions. In Minnesota, 63 percent reportedreduced or eliminated opioid usage after six months of being in the medical marijuana program, according to state health officials. 

Berenson brushed off the research, claiming, “The reason the drug policy community hates the book so much is that if you read it with an open mind, you cannot come away with less than, at least, this guy did a lot of work, this is a very serious issue.”

But what Berenson failed to acknowledge is that it’s not the “drug policy community” that is outraged; it’s the research community, which is frustrated that Berenson twisted their research and conclusions to meet his own agenda by presenting correlation as causation. 

“This sort of alarmism has been around since the earliest days of prohibition,” the researchers write. “Rather than contributing to thoughtful debate, his work is a polemic based on a deeply inaccurate misreading of science.” 

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus served as the Senior Statehouse Reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette where he co-launched ColoradoPolitics.com, covering politics, the governor’s office, the Colorado Legislature, Congress, and federal, state and local governments. He joined in November 2016 from The Durango Herald. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the top state-based political and legislative reporters in the nation. He also has won over a dozen awards from the Colorado Press Association. In prior positions, Marcus worked for the Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly, and The Denver Daily News, a former free daily newspaper in Denver, where he covered City Hall, politics, and had an entertainment column. Before that, Marcus worked for the Longmont Times-Call. An Ithaca College graduate, Marcus studied journalism and creative writing, before moving to Colorado from New York in 2004.

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