The NY Times trots out some hoary anti-cannabis propaganda, so I now have to spend my weekend responding to it.
In his New York Times Op-Ed piece (to support his new book), Alex Berenson wants every parent to know that the National Academy of Sciences, which conducted an exhaustive review of the medical literature for cannabis, stated that:
“Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk.”
Berenson is right. The National Academy of Sciences does, in fact, state that there is strong evidence in the medical literature to demonstrate that there exists a statistical correlation with early cannabis use and the onset of schizophrenia.
Approximately 1% of the population is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is an illness with a biological basis, of course. One does not give oneself schizophrenia, via cannabis use or by any other vehicle. For those people who have inherited a tendency to develop the disorder, environmental factors can trigger schizophrenic episodes: a viral infection, stress, exposure to toxins, or a psychoactive experience can all be a trigger. Can heavy and chronic cannabis use trigger a schizophrenic episode? Yes. So can the stress from a divorce or from a major test.
Chronic cannabis use might be a risk factor in teens predisposed to mental illness. In fact, chronic cannabis use can produce other adverse effects, too. The plant is not a panacea, nor a cure-all, and it doesn’t work for everyone who tries it. People can misuse cannabis, and some do.
But for Berenson to suggest that “decades long lobbying by marijuana legalization advocates and for-profit cannabis companies…have shrewdly recast marijuana as a medicine rather than an intoxicant” is simply absurd and roundly disingenuous (there is no powerful and well-funded cannabis lobby in Washington—not yet, anyhow. For-profit cannabis companies didn’t even exist in California until 2018, as all cannabis companies in California were required by law to be non-profit. And, if there is an advocacy movement that historically has been more grassroots than the cannabis movement, I’d like to see it).
The exhaustive review of the medical literature by the National Academy of Sciences to which Berenson refers was published in 2017 and is titled, The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. You can read a summary of the report’s conclusions here:
In addition to the mental health conclusions, the report states that there is conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabinoids are effective for treating chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms.
The report states that there exists moderate evidence that cannabinoids are effective for treating sleep disturbance associated with fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis. And, the report states that there exists limited evidence that cannabinoids are effective for treating appetite issues and cachexia associated with HIV/AIDS, Tourette syndrome symptoms, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
That’s a total of eight conditions or disease for which cannabis has demonstrated efficacy in studies validated by the Academy of Sciences.
Do you know of another therapeutic substance with that pedigree? Cannabis advocates don’t need to recast or spin these results. Cannabis is the most studied plant on the planet. It’s safety and efficacy has been confirmed time and again.
Yes, cannabis products now have higher potencies than those from yesteryear. Cannabis is a self-titrating medicine—the higher the potency, the less you need. Instead of smoking an entire joint, patients can now use a single inhalation. Can we put away the pitchforks and torches now? Problem solved.
Taking a chapter from the Jeff Sessions playbook, Berenson suggests that cannabis is contributing to the opioid epidemic, referring to “studies” (he cites one) “that show that people who use cannabis are more likely to start using opioids later.” Here’s a study that demonstrates that cannabis works synergistically with opioids and can help patients reduce their opioid intake. Here's another. And another. And here. And here.
But for all of his clichés and tired propaganda, this is Berenson’s most shameful: “…because marijuana can cause paranoia and psychosis, and those conditions are closely linked to violence—it [cannabis] appears to lead to an increase in violent crime.” He states that, “The first four states to legalize—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington—have seen sharp increases in murders and aggravated assaults since 2014.”
This is the flimsiest of correlations. This trope does, however, have historical precedent. It was one of the first of the popular prohibitionist narratives, coming well before “marijuana causes a-motivational syndrome,” before “marijuana kills your brain cells,” before “marijuana causes men to grow breasts,” and even before “marijuana is part of a communist agenda to make our kids lazy and our nation weak.”
In fact, we have to go back to 1925, when the same New York Times reported that a 27-year-old Mexican man, Escrado Valle, “crazed from smoking marihuana,” “ran amuck today in a local hospital and killed six persons before he could be subdued.”
That same year, the Times claimed that the Mexican government had banned marijuana “To Stamp Out Drug Plant Which Crazes Its Addicts.” In 1927, the Times printed a story that read “a [Mexican] widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana plant.” The article lamented that doctors, “say that there is no hope of saving the children’s lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life,” (according to the story, the family accidentally ate fresh cannabis plants, which, of course, are not psychoactive).
Now, apparently, the NY Times has another publisher to which to pass this shameful baton—Mother Jones, of all publications. In the article praising Berenson’s book, the Mother Jones author notes that Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona in 2011 was (you guessed it) a pothead. Jeffrey Clark, a neo-Nazi who was stockpiling weapons and making threats after the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting? Yep—pothead.
Airtight case, yes? Unless you consider that there might be other factors that contribute murder and aggravated assaults. Like guns.
In Colorado, gun sales went from about 23,000 in January 2014 to nearly 52,000 in December of 2015. In Alaska, there are nearly 50 gun shops for every 1,000 businesses — the most of any state—and somebody is killed with a gun in Alaska every three days.
In fact, according to the FBI, 2015 saw more Americans buying guns than ever before, with background checks growing to 23.1 million—the largest number since the bureau began keeping statistics in 1998.
But hey. It must be the weed.
What’s especially galling is Berenson’s contention that “the advocacy community has sharply overstated the level of marijuana-related incarceration.” The number of people arrested for cannabis in 2017 alone was 659,700, with 599,282 arrested for possession only (http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-war-statistics). The racial disparities of those arrests cannot be overstated. These arrests mean losing financial aid, public housing, professional licenses, jobs, children, and yes, it can mean incarceration, too (to support his assertion, Berenson quotes low incarceration rates from California, where cannabis use has been decriminalized for 20 years).
Lest he seem out of touch, Berenson states that he favors decriminalization, yet his work promotes exactly the type of unhinged mania that fostered and supported the legal framework of cannabis prohibition, a framework that has caused so much misery and produced such little good, a framework rooted in the fear that the dark men are coming to rape the white women and steal the children because they’re insanely hopped up on marijuana.
There have been decades of studies sanctioned and paid by NIDA and the DEA to find something—anything—dangerous about cannabis. Yes, I’m confident that there have been crimes committed by people who were cannabis users and I concede that there exist people who have suffered adverse effects from cannabis misuse. But I’ll wager that 599,282 is a number much, much higher than the number of people who develop the onset of schizophrenia from cannabis use or commit violent crimes while under its influence.
Alex Berenson has a book to sell. Fear is a good marketing tool. I’ll save you the twenty bucks: yes, cannabis has side effects. For most people, they are mild, dose dependent, and far more tolerable than the adverse effects of alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, and most other pharmaceuticals.
Do these side effects warrant this amount of ink, anxiety, handwringing, and hyperbole? I don’t think so.
 One NY Times reader—JR, from Seattle—responded with this comment: “Correlation between marijuana legalization and increased murder rates is absurd. If you look broadly at the list of U.S. states by homicide rate according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, you’ll see there’s been significant increases in homicide rates across the country between 2014 and 2017. With only 4 of those states having legalized marijuana during that time period, how do you account for the national trend? Are the greatest increases in those 4 states? No. Are those 4 states outliers? No. Does the FBI Uniform Crime Reports have any data in it correlating those homicide rates to marijuana use? No. Have you used data to manipulate opinions? Yes.”
 Dr. Charles Schuster, NIDA director during Ronald Reagan’s second term, stated that he was under considerable pressure to “find something wrong with marijuana.” NIDA spent most of its budget looking for negative effects of cannabis, and the federal budget for cannabis research increased nearly tenfold in the 1980s. Schuster stated, “For many years, we tried to determine whether marijuana produced brain damage. We didn’t.” – Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals, 2012, page 169.