I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up my copy of Alex Berenson’s new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence to review for Points. I was following the media coverage of the book’s release with some interest and had some idea of what I might encounter, having already written a bit (here and here) on this forum on Berenson’s propagandistic forebear, Harry Anslinger.
But as I trudged into Dunham Public Library in Whitesboro, NY, on a rainy Thursday morning to get my copy, the focus of my review here today became immediately clear. I’m an ABD adjunct and it’s January. That means I’m between appointments and, more importantly, between paychecks. I wasn’t going to count on the speed of the interlibrary loan at my college library, so I checked out the Mid-York Library System, a cooperative network of 45 public libraries in three counties in central New York.
Having had longstanding access to college/university libraries for most of my adult life, I had to renew my public library card to check out Berenson’s tome. Armed with my renewed card and the Dewey decimal call number (how quaint!), this well-heeled library user went directly to the stacks and couldn’t… find… the book. I scanned the shelves, thinking it may have been put back in the wrong place, and while doing so I took note of the library’s selection of other books on drugs, drug use and drug policy, few of which I was actually familiar with. I subsequently checked the Mid-York catalog and, sure enough, there was nothing from Points co-founder Trysh Travis, nothing from co-founder Joe Spillane. Nothing from the new team of editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.
Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence is refreshing in one sense: I know what I’m getting. I know where Berenson stands. Occasionally you find a crop of contrarian pieces in places like The Atlantic, Annie Lowry’s “Invisible Addicts” being one recent example, that hide behind a detached third-person voice, making it impossible to gauge what the writer believes, whether they are engaging in an empty intellectual exercise, adding a manipulative headline to drive traffic, or whether it is sincere. With Berenson, despite the shoddy research, which any number of researchers have already denounced, this doesn’t happen because his hostility to cannabis is reinforced for more than two hundred pages.
Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the second of four installments of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. This post comes from Isaac Campos, history professor at the University of Cincinnati and good friend of Points. He discusses Berenson’s use of his research, as well as issues Campos has with Berenson’s larger argument.
First, we’ll run an interview with Campos, followed by an unpublished working paper that Campos first presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference in Scotland last April. This paper, titled “Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra and Marijuana’s Great Historical Disjuncture,” elucidates on the ideas that Berenson used in Tell Your Children, but gives much greater historical context for Campos’s claims.
Points: First of all, did you know that Berenson was going to cite your work in Tell Your Children?
Isaac Campos: I had no idea. I’d never heard of him until a journalist wrote to me asking about his treatment of my research.
What was your reaction to the book?
I find it kind of depressing, actually. And I’m not talking about his argument. It’s the approach and the response that I find depressing. He looks at an exceedingly complex issue, finds a lot of conflicting evidence, only uses the evidence that supports his thesis, then writes a really sensationalistic account that get lots of attention in a media landscape that rewards sensationalism and shock value. A lot of very serious and ethical scholars have been carefully studying these questions for many years. There are significant disagreements about what’s going on, but serious scholars are looking at this stuff carefully and meticulously, all the while keeping in mind that real people are affected by what we publish, so we need to respect the data.
And then you get this former journalist and fiction writer who comes in, writes a sensationalistic book without a single footnote, but he says that the research is at this point clear, that “everything you’re about to read is true,” and characterizes those who don’t agree with him as the “cannabis lobby.” And he’s rewarded with a bunch of media coverage and book sales. So, yeah, I find it a little depressing. It’s also frustrating because I do think it’s important to take the potential risks of cannabis very seriously, as the paper we’re posting here demonstrates. But those risks need to be assessed within the whole complex of issues related to drugs, drug policy, and harm. Historically, a lot more harm has been done by bad drug policy and the propaganda used to justify it than by the drugs themselves. This book is closer to propaganda than a useful contribution to the discourse.
Editor’s Note: A new book about marijuana was released earlier this month. Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violencehas been met with vocal critiques and admiration, and we here at Points wanted to respond. Over the next two weeks, we’re going to run a roundtable on Berenson’s book, starting with my response and then featuring Points writers and friends Isaac Campos, Brooks Hudson, and Bob Beach. Feel free to participate in our roundtable by commenting below or engaging with us on Twitter.
Emily Dufton: Ever since I had my first book published in December 2017, I’ve been interested in the path that books, especially non-fiction books, take as they journey from an idea in an author’s mind to a finished project available on the shelves. After all, as anyone who has gone through the publishing process knows, crafting a book requires two things: time (generally at least a year or two), and other people’s support. From agents to editors to copyeditors to designers to marketers to publishers, there are a lot of individuals involved in the creation of a book, and a lot of people who need to sign off along the way.
Which makes me wonder exactly what the publishers at Simon and Schuster were thinking when they purchased the rights to Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, which was released earlier this month, on January 8.
Tell Your Children is a relatively short book that ties the increased use of increasingly potent marijuana to a variety of negative conditions, including, as the title suggests, mental illness and violence. Berenson cites evidence, like a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, that relates marijuana use to different forms of psychosis, including depression, social anxiety, and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, schizophrenia. He also shows connections between marijuana and violent crime, suggesting that heavy pot users are hardly the couch-surfing stoners we’ve come to believe. Instead, Berenson argues, heavy marijuana users engage in violent acts (including, among his many horrific stories, ax murders, child abuse and corpse mutilation) at higher-than-average rates — often while experiencing the psychotic episodes that the marijuana originally caused. This could easily become a mounting problem, Berenson warns, as more states legalize recreational and medical use, often without putting any limitations on the strength of the cannabis available. “The higher the use, the greater the risk,” he writes in his introduction. “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.”
Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, “What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. First up is Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (2014). Her piece critiques the sloppy and often simply false way “knowledge” about drugs is presented from “authoritative” sources, particularly the D.E.A. museum in Washington, D.C. Contact the author at Miriam.Kingsberg@colorado.edu.
What Historians Wish the DEA Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Museum in Pentagon City, Washington, D.C. depicts the history of the narcotics market and U.S. government efforts to counteract it. The exhibition currently on display was created under the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009) yet reflects the view of the new Trump administration: that mind-altering substances are (and have always been) a “foreign” problem and threat to an imagined ideal of “Americanness.”
The opening placard reads:
During the 18th century, the Chinese began smoking first a mixture of tobacco and opium, and then pure opium. The British, who had a huge trade imbalance with China, were delighted to finally find a highly popular commodity. But when the Chinese emperor realized that opium was incapacitating the upper sectors of society, he outlawed further trade. This sparked the Opium Wars of 1840 and 1860. Britain won both and forced China to make opium legal. Addiction became widespread in the Celestial Kingdom and sparked resentment among the Chinese. This began the modern pleasure drug culture.Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: In this, our last installment of the Points roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User, we are thrilled to welcome the author himself. Here, Becker responds to our previous contributors and offers some insights of his own.
We’d also like to take this opportunity to once again thank Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart for their intriguing, thought-provoking and entertaining contributions. We are honored to count you as members of the Points family.
I have never been a “marijuana expert,” certainly never claimed to be such a thing. But I was, for quite a while, the only sociologist who had ever actually published anything about it. So, when it did become a legitimate topic of study and big shots and politicians convoked meetings to decide on scientific matters related to the subject, the attendees mostly consisted of physiologists and pharmacologists and psychologists. But, just to avoid troubles, the organizers of these events always thought they should have a social scientist and for quite a while I was the only one who had the slightest claim to be there. Eventually, of course, plenty of others joined me, including people like the anthropologist Mike Agar. Nancy Campbell talked with me about that phase of the thing and she did an excellent of getting me to tell about the politics of that period, which was pretty funny.
As a result of that phase of my “being an expert,” I became more expert than I had been by learning a lot from hanging around between meeting sessions with people like Mike and Andy Weil, who were doing research on the drug. A whole apparatus had been built up out of people who had met at such events and thus come to understand the politics involved at the level of science and research (also covered in my interview with Nancy Campbell). In addition, I was part of the informal information exchange created by Allen Ginsberg, who traveled constantly and kept his eye on who was doing research about what. He would call me when he came through Chicago to ask if I knew about so-and-so who had some interesting findings on this or that and wanting to know if I had anything new to tell him.
Well, I didn’t, not really, because my interests had moved on to other areas of activity, like art. But the basic ideas that I got out of making sense of the marijuana experience stayed with me because they traveled well and turned out to be useful in quite different areas. Most recently I devoted a chapter in What About Mozart? What About Murder?, to a sort of updating and generalizing of what I learned from the work I did fifty years ago, pointing out how it helps make sense out of a lot of other things, not just more recently invented substances but even what happens to people climbing Mt. Everest (where there isn’t a whole lot of oxygen in the air) and other situations where the ordinary inputs to our physical experiences take new values and produce novel feelings.
Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Dr. Carl Hart to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User. Hart is an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University and a visiting research scientist at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. His most recent book, High Price, won the 2014 PEN E.O. Award for literary science writing. You can follow him on twitter or read his work on his personal website, which provides access to facts about illicit drug use to the general public.
Hart is our last guest contributor in this series. Next week, we look forward to welcoming Howard Becker himself, who will offer his response to the rerelease of his book.
An Argument for Drug Literacy
Nearly 30 years after Howard Becker published his seminal paper Becoming a Marihuana User, I smoked my first joint and my experience was similar to those of the research participants described in Becker’s study. It was a balmy Miami night in early fall 1983, when I was just fifteen. Two of my friends—Derrick and Ed —decided that they were going to get me high.
Ed drove us to the spot in Opa-Locka where he bought his weed. Then we parked at the end of some deserted street and smoked a couple of joints, listening to the mellow sounds of the Quiet Storm on 99.1 WEDR.
“Shit, I don’t feel nothin’,” I declared. “This ain’t shit.”
Derrick and Ed looked at me and then at each other. Laughing, someone said, “Yeah, he fucked-up.” I continued to insist I was fine and that I really didn’t feel any different than usual, but both of them just laughed and repeated, “That nigga fuuuucked-up.” Everything I said, every time I laughed or simply looked at one of them only confirmed – in their minds – that I was actually high. Of course, I didn’t think so.
In fact, I didn’t notice anything unusual at all until I got home. My sister Joyce took one look at me and said, “Damn, you must be fucked-up.” I brushed her off, as I had heard that earlier from my friends. In retrospect, I must’ve been acting a bit cautious and tentative, not like my usual bold self. My eyes were probably red or maybe I reeked of weed. I didn’t yet understand how marijuana affects consciousness and behavior.
Things started getting strange when I got to my room. I put on some music and tried to fall asleep but couldn’t. Suddenly, I felt like I was inside the beat. Feeling slightly panicked, I wondered what was happening. The song was surrounding me, throbbing, inescapable. It was a familiar track but I heard unfamiliar instruments. Every sound in the song was acute and intense. That wasn’t the way music was supposed to sound, or so I thought. My heart, too, seemed to have speeded up. I felt as though it was keeping time with the R&B rhythm. Was it unhealthy if it did that? Could it kill me?
This experience was thoroughly disconcerting. I knew I wasn’t usually so conscious of my heartbeat; I knew I didn’t usually find music so intense. I didn’t understand at all that this experience was supposed to be enjoyable. My friends hadn’t briefed me on how to detect marijuana-related pleasurable effects or any other effects. All I knew was that I didn’t like having my senses or consciousness altered; it felt uncomfortably beyond my control. I found it disorienting and even slightly frightening. As a result, I didn’t smoke marijuana again for at least two years. But many more years would pass before I was taught how to detect and experience marijuana-related pleasurable effects. If only I were introduced to Becker’s work much earlier.
Becker’s major proposals are that people become regular marijuana users only when they learn to: (1) smoke the drug in a way which will produce real effects; (2) recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) enjoy the sensations s/he perceives. Perhaps these ideas were controversial in 1953. They aren’t today, as they not only apply to marijuana, but to all recreational drugs. Otherwise, it makes little sense to take a drug if it has no pharmacological effects. And when it does have an effect – whether it is heroin or LSD or cocaine – the user needs to be made aware of the desired effects as well as the negative effects because they often accompany each other. But, with sufficient knowledge, one may be able to minimize less desired effects while enhancing the pleasurable ones.
The key, however, is knowledge. Becker’s emphasis on users gaining a deeper understanding of drug effects, as well as novices using in the presence of more experienced users, increases the likelihood that drug users will remain safe. It’s not difficult to see how these ideas extend beyond marijuana use. Consider, for example, the country’s current focus on opioid overdoses. The likelihood of fatal drug overdoses decreases substantially if there are others present, so that timely medical attention can be received. In my view this is the real contribution of Becker’s work, especially in light of the fact that people will always continue to get high. In fact, each year in the U.S., more than 20 million Americans report regular illegal drug use. The most important concern for me is keeping users safe. The findings from Becker’s research more than 60 years ago go a long way in achieving this goal.
Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Cookie Woolner to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User. Woolner recently completed her Ph.D. in history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and is currently serving as a postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. You can follow her work on her personal website and twitter.
Marijuana, Race, and Music Cultures from Jazz to Hip Hop
Howie Becker’s pioneering study, Becoming a Marihuana User, emerged from the mid-century Chicago jazz scene. The relationship it chronicled between drug use and music subculture is a long one, which has been more dangerous for some than for others. In our current moment, many of the young black men whose lives have been taken too soon by the police are often demonized as weed-smoking, hip hop-loving thugs – that is to say, they brought their deaths upon themselves. The association of marijuana use with African American music and culture may be a stereotype, but it has real effects.
Ironically, when one digs into the history of marijuana and its connection to the jazz world in the early 20th century, it appears white men were primarily responsible for introducing black musicians and Harlemites to weed (or in the parlance of their day, gage, tea, muggles or reefer, among many other names). Italian-American Leon Roppolo, the clarinetist for the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, was said to have introduced marijuana to the Chicago jazz scene, in particular to Jewish saxophonist Mezz Mezzrow, who later became weed dealer to Louis Armstrong and much of Harlem. “Mezz” became another nickname for pot, according to the saxophonist, who also considered himself an “honorary Negro.”
Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Amanda Reiman to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User. Reiman is the Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, where she works to develop DPA’s marijuana reform work as it relates to litigation, legislative and initiative drafting, campaign strategy, policy advocacy, media relations, fundraising, and public education in the local, state, federal, and international jurisdictions in which DPA is active. You can follow her work on twitter.
Marijuana prohibition is fruitless, because we have already learned to enjoy it.
Howard Becker’s seminal work, Becoming a Marihuana User, lays out the pathway to marijuana use based on the experiences of those who have used the substance. The gist of the piece is that there are three steps to becoming a marijuana user: 1) learning how to correctly ingest it; 2) recognizing the effects; and 3) interpreting the effects as enjoyable. According to Becker, if a person completes the three steps they will continue to use marijuana until they can no longer feel the effects and/or it is no longer enjoyable, at which time they will stop their use.
This theory is supported by the fact that most people who stop using marijuana do so without formal treatment. The term “aging out” is often used to refer to folks who discontinue their marijuana use once they take on the responsibilities of job and family. This makes sense in the context of Becker’s work, because he purports that changes in how marijuana use is viewed in one’s peer group and community can change the ability to derive pleasure from smoking. Indeed, today we see many people age out of marijuana use, and then return to the practice once they no longer have as many daily responsibilities and/or are beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging.
Becker is a sociologist and his work on social learning focuses on interviews with marijuana users, but there is a vital policy implication that can be derived from this work as well. According to Becker, the single driving force behind continued marijuana use is the ability to derive pleasure from it. If this is indeed the case, how could prohibiting marijuana ever be successful at reducing use? Prohibition relies on the theory that punishment influences drug using behavior. When it comes to drugs with a more serious level of dependence potential, we know this is not the case. Those experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms are not necessarily dissuaded from use because of the threat of criminal justice intervention. The data support this, as harder drug use in the United States has remained fairly stable even in light of rising financial support for the war on drugs. But what about marijuana?
Marijuana use among adults has been increasing. As Becker points out, no severe withdrawal syndrome drives use, but rather the presence of pleasure. It seems, then, that prohibitionist policies for marijuana are futile because continued use is about pleasure and shared experience, something that prohibition has been unable to influence. As laws change and marijuana use is no longer dampened by the threat of incarceration, and the market provides a wide variety of products and potencies, the experiences of pleasure will become even more common.
What are the impacts of changing views of marijuana on expectation effects? It is commonly said that in order for drug use to occur, two things must be present: predisposition and availability. Becker is critical of predisposition and likens it to an underlying desire or need to use a substance before initiation even occurs. However, if we have gotten to a place in society where the use of marijuana is perceived as a positive, healthful practice, even prior to initiation, then predisposition might be replaced with expectation. Interestingly, recent research shows that this new expectation of a positive marijuana experience seems to be limited to adults. Approval of marijuana use and use itself among young people is down. This could be attributed to the rejection by young people of what is considered desirable among adults. If this is in fact the case, and youth expectations for pleasure from marijuana are inversely related to those of adults, increased acceptance and positive expectations around marijuana use in the adult population might be the best deterrent for youth use that we have come across.
As Becker rightfully points out, in some ways marijuana itself has changed since this study was first conducted. Advanced cultivation techniques and the threat of arrest have resulted in higher potency strains (think Moonshine during alcohol prohibition). However, in states that now have legal marijuana systems, we are starting to see lower potency strains and products come back into fashion, especially among those who are re-initiating use after aging out. It would be fascinating to replicate Becker’s study today to assess the evolution of becoming a marijuana user.
Editor’s Note: Today’s addition to our ongoing roundtable on Howard Becker’s 1953 book “Becoming a Marihuana User” comes from Mary Jane Gibson, the entertainment editor at High Times magazine. Welcome, Mary Jane!
Those who follow our publication may be noticing a growing trend in the evolution of HIGH TIMES. It has gone from a countercultural, back-alley, both literally and figuratively “seedy” magazine to a fully budded and blossoming mainstream lifestyle magazine for the mercifully medicalized, sometime decriminalized—and in some places totally legalized—partakers of the holy smoke, deep dab, and altering edible. I cannot, and will not, endeavor to compete with the other illustrious and accomplished panelists commenting here. Instead, I’d like to offer a few words on cannabis culture and HIGH TIMES.
As Howard S. Becker writes in Becoming a Marihuana User, smoking weed in the 1950s was not a Social Evil. Nobody cared much about people who smoked it, nobody studied it, and nobody apart from Becker was writing about it. The hippie culture’s embrace of weed in the 1960s came to symbolize anti-establishment rebellion, freeing the mind from a mainstream way of life that developed into the now all-too-familiar dominant corporate culture. Smoking weed was paired with psychedelics, and the counterculture tuned in, turned on and dropped out. Along came the 1970s—and at that time of civil rights and anti-war movements, when many Americans believed that marijuana should (and would) be legalized, taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in an effort to quash social unrest (i.e., drug use) across the country. The federal government’s War on Drugs began in earnest.
In 1974, 21 years after Howard S. Becker wrote Becoming a Marihuana User, Thomas King Forçade founded HIGH TIMES magazine. Forçade was a leader in the underground press, and a dedicated marijuana smuggler. His vision for HIGH TIMES was simple: to give voice to the freedom to pursue alternative consciousness. Forçade believed that marijuana prohibition had within it the seeds of its own destruction. He brought together a community of marijuana smokers and growers by providing the counterculture with a national forum in the form of a print magazine. HIGH TIMES was an immediate hit—the first issue was reprinted four times to meet the high demand. That community of marijuana smokers and growers, without whom, Becker argues, marijuana use and knowledge would not be disseminated, has stayed strong for 41 years. And HIGH TIMES has, for 41 years, been providing authentic, reliable marijuana-related information, activism, entertainment, and news.
Setting aside marijuana use as religious sacrament, or as medication for war veterans, epilepsy sufferers, cancer patients and thousands—nay, hundreds of thousands—of others, the widespread use of marijuana for pleasure, whether learned or discovered on one’s own, is undeniable. As of this writing, recreational marijuana has been made legal in four states: Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon. High-potency strains of weed (“flowers”), cannabis concentrates (“dabs”) and marijuana edibles are widely available and highly effective. On page xiv of the preface to Becoming a Marihuana User, one man addresses Becker’s assertion that one needs to “learn to be high” from smoking weed: “The effects were just… WHAM!!!… like a hammer at the back of the head… that guy Becker should change his dealer.” First-time users needn’t worry nowadays—if you want to get high, you’ll have no trouble finding strong weed to do the trick.
It can be true, as observed by Becker, that for a first-time user who smokes, dabs or ingests a powerful edible, identifying the resulting high as pleasurable can be… difficult. Columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Timeswrote of her experience after ingesting a medicated candy bar, “I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.” HIGH TIMES staffers now refer to overindulging in edibles to the point of discomfort as “doing a Dowd.” To be clear: Edibles, dabs, and high-potency strains of weed will seriously affect even the first-time user. Just as an inexperienced drinker pounding several shots of whiskey will undoubtedly get uncomfortably smashed and a seasoned imbiber might enjoy knocking back a few martinis without batting an eye, so it is with marijuana. Know your limits. If you’ve never smoked pot, don’t start with a dab or a chocolate bar infused with 1000 milligrams of THC.
Becker writes that smoking weed is a socially acquired taste akin to the acquired taste for “oysters or dry martinis.” That is true for some consumers; however, there are also people who immediately have an affinity for the herb. And when evaluating the effects of smoking pot as opposed to using harder drugs or drinking alcohol, studies show that marijuana is a safer alternative to recreate with. Instead of getting hammered on a bottle of Jack Daniels, take a toke and go to bed. You’ll sleep like a baby, and you’ll wake up without a hangover.
HIGH TIMES provides the ever-growing cannabis industry with a forum for a continuing conversation about marijuana, and offers a vision for all aspects of the cannabis lifestyle. HIGH TIMES is dedicated to continuing the fight for marijuana legalization and campaigning for the release of all those serving prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
Mary Jane Gibson
NB: Mary Jane is my real name. I was named for my great aunt. It’s worked out well for me.