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First, we’ll run an interview with Campos, followed by an unpublished working paper that Campos first presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference in Scotland last April.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: On April 25, 1953, Howard S. Becker, a graduate of the University of Chicago’s famed School of Sociology, presented a paper at the meeting of the Midwest Sociological Association to a room of about a dozen people. It was based on fifty interviews with marijuana smokers and his “irregular and unplanned observation” of their habits, all of this taking place in his “social laboratory” of Chicago. If the confused questions he received afterward were any indication, what Becker sought to explain was stunningly avant-garde: at the core of his paper was a new conception of how and why marijuana smokers got high. As he explains in the new preface to his 1953 book Becoming a Marihuana User, “I liked the idea of understanding the characteristic ‘getting high’ experience not as an unmediated pharmacologically induced event, but rather as the result of users’ interpretations of those effects.” This emphasis on ideas that few, if any, sociologists were discussing at the time – personal experience with drug use and individual users’ interpretations of its effects – meant that Becker was talking about things like peer influence and “set and setting” over a decade before Timothy Leary discussed the concept in reference to LSD.
Marijuana was a quiet drug in 1953. It was smoked, and by “many people,” as Becker wrote, but it wasn’t “a Social Evil which deserved a place in the ‘Social Problems’ course every sociology department taught.” Instead, “relatively few people used marijuana and they didn’t make a lot of trouble, so despite the efforts of some authorities, no public was crying out to get rid of the practice.”
So how did the young graduate, who landed a research position on the staff of the Chicago Narcotics Survey, come to write an essay that shaped much of the drug scholarship to come? Mostly by hanging out in jazz clubs as a teen.
As Nancy Campbell, the first scholar to participate in our new, six-part roundtable discussing the rerelease of Becker’s 1953 text, will show, it was Becker’s early experiences playing piano in jazz and strip clubs in World War II-era Chicago that exposed him to the world of “deviants” and outsiders who became the primary research subjects of his long and influential career. Better known for his 1963 study Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Becker’s first book is finding renewed relevance and acclaim today, as the University of Chicago rereleases it with a smart new cover and streamlined design. Praising the prescience of his “wise words,” Andrew Weil said that Becker’s work long ago “pointed the way toward a more enlightened, rational view of cannabis.”
Becker argued that most marijuana smokers were students of the drug long before they became “social deviants” or consistent smokers. They had to be brought into the community by other, seasoned drug users, who showed them how consumption was done. The first session was invariably a disappointment: smokers didn’t feel any effect because, as Becker put it, “you had to learn to be high.” That meant piecing together a narrative to understand the experience, and then wanting to experience that sensation time and again. After talking with fifty regular smokers, Becker identified the three steps that needed to be taken in order to become a marijuana user:
1.) Learn how to smoke in a way that produces real effects
2.) Recognize the effects and connect them back to the drug’s use
3.) Learn to enjoy these effects, and actively seek out recreating them
From teacher to student, marijuana spread across the country in the 1960s, and Becker saw this kind of shared knowledge creating a legitimate “drug culture,” with experienced smokers bringing new users into the fold. With more people learning how to “properly” use the drug, Becker watched the incidence of unpleasant drug experiences diminish, as remedies were proposed for experiences that remained unsound, and as fears of police intervention were minimized. (Well, for some; several of our panelists will discuss this idea later on).
In a celebration of his work, Points has gathered together five of the most prominent voices in the field of drug studies to comment on this rerelease and the lasting importance of Becker’s work. Ranging from examinations of the book through the lenses of race relations to modern policy recommendations, our five contributors – Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart – have each written a short essay on what Becker’s six-decade-old paper means to them, and where they see its applications today. Their contributions will be run every Tuesday from now through October, with the final contribution coming from Howard Becker himself. We are thrilled and grateful to host such a conversation.
In our first contribution, Nancy Campbell, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, remembers an interview she conducted with Becker in 2005, along with her current thoughts on the lasting importance of his work.
Editor’s Note: Today three of our contributing editors – Michelle McClellan, Adam Rathge and Sarah Siff – present their thoughts on the recent international conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, which was held from June 18 to 21 at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. This year’s theme was “Borders, Boundaries and Contexts: Defining Spaces in the History of Alcohol & Drugs.” Enjoy!