By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist
Depending on your point of view, the new book “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence” is either a welcome cautionary tale about cannabis or a reincarnation of the infamous movie Reefer Madness.
Author Alex Berenson, a novelist and former reporter for The New York Times, is clearly no fan of cannabis legalization and the growing hype over its medical use.
“Marijuana is not medicine. Marijuana and THC-extract products — whether eaten or smoked — are intoxicants and mild pain relievers, like alcohol,” he writes. “Marijuana in the United States has become increasingly dangerous to mental health in the last fifteen years, as millions more people consume higher-potency cannabis more frequently.”
Berenson argues that cannabis causes paranoia and psychosis, with more use leading to greater mental health issues and even violence.
He uses a combination of history and statistics as evidence, often with lurid reporting about cannabis and violent crime in the U.S. and Britain from over a century ago. Berenson describes incidents of psychotic breaks, murderous episodes, and heinous acts of violence that read a bit too much like true crime stories.
“Marijuana causes paranoia and psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence,” he writes, without offering any evidence linking the two.
Berenson then gives a brief history on the promotion of cannabis in the modern era by groups such as NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance and the magazine High Times. He emphasizes that the cannabis of the 1960s and ‘70s was “near beer” compared to the cannabis of today.
Berenson builds his case on the work of Swedish physician Sven Andréasson, who in the 1980s used data from the Swedish military draft to investigate the connection between cannabis and schizophrenia. Andréasson found that the use of cannabis was strongly correlated with schizophrenia and that the risk was dose-related.
To bolster his argument, Berenson draws on the work of Phil Silva in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study; Robin Murray at the Institute of Psychiatry in London; and the 2017 National Academies report on cannabis.
The cannabis-schizophrenia connection has been overlooked, in part because of limited data. In Washington state, for example, where recreational cannabis was legalized in 2014, the state health department doesn’t even keep track of schizophrenia cases.
Berenson says legalizing cannabis for medical use is a cagey strategy to protect recreational users and gain public support for full legalization, because it “encourages voters to think of marijuana as something other than an intoxicant.”
“Medical marijuana is a way of protecting a subset of society from arrest,” he wrote, adding that “marijuana simply wasn’t a strong enough painkiller to be effective for most people who truly needed opiates.”
He even suggests cannabis legalization may be exacerbating the opioid crisis.
“What’s gone unnoticed in the discussion over state-by-state changes is the striking correlation between the opiate epidemic and cannabis use at the national level,” he said. “The direct economic benefits of legalization also appear to be vastly overrated.”
Berenson concludes with an ironic argument for more research: “The government should drop its barriers to researching cannabis for medical purposes. The reason is not that marijuana is likely to prove a miracle cure for cancer — or anything else. It’s precisely the opposite. Let’s put unfounded claims to rest, permanently.”
There are reasons to be skeptical of Berenson’s conclusions. He points to a lack of data on trends in serious mental illness as hiding the impact of cannabis on schizophrenia rates. But the lack of data means we don’t really know what is happening. Trends are further obscured by changes in diagnostic criteria, reporting requirements and treatment availability. All of this needs to be carefully teased out in regard to cannabis as a factor in schizophrenia.
Similarly, Berenson recognizes that no research proves cannabis causes psychosis and violence. He points out that such research is not ethically acceptable. But there are other ways to establish causation, including prospective longitudinal studies and natural social experiments such as Canadian legalization. In other words, Berenson may be able to claim he is right some day, but not yet.
Lastly, Berenson ignores the issue of scale. Even if the psychotic breaks and criminal acts he describes are attributable to cannabis, they are still very rare compared to the scale of cannabis use. He needs to establish a base rate and then show that increasing levels of cannabis use are associated with rising rates of psychosis and violent crime. That work remains to be done.
“Tell Your Children” is useful but could have been better. Berenson overreaches in his conclusions and omits important considerations. But he raises relevant questions about the potential mental health risks and social implications of cannabis. “Tell Your Children” may not be essential reading, but for people who are interested in the possible risks of cannabis, it is certainly worth reading.
Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.