There’s a new wave of anti-cannabis sentiment going around in America—it’s scaring the living shit out of me and it should be scaring you, too.
If you’ve been paying attention to major newspapers, and local or cable news networks over the past few months, I’m sure you’ve noticed it. Every week there is a new story or segment that proposes a connection between cannabis and psychosis, violent crime, hospitalizations, and more. The underlying data is either anecdotal, heavily stretched to fit a narrative, old, or all of the above, and the stories rarely offer context about the tens of millions of cannabis users in the country, but these stories keep on popping up, and now they’re gaining traction.
How did we go from a decade-plus of incredibly successful state-specific legalization initiatives, billion-dollar taxed and regulated industries emerging from the shadows, and a reduction of the plant’s stigma to its lowest point in over a century, to a situation where pundits are comfortable blaming mass shootings on weed?
This new-millennium era of reefer madness first hit the mainstream in 2019 with the book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, by Alex Berenson, a one-time journalist who was temporarily banned from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Full of misleading statistics and anecdotes about wacky tobaccy turning regular Americans into crazed killers, Berenson paints cannabis as a societal scourge unraveling the nation’s social fabric one hit at a time. At the time of its release, Tell Your Children received a long and validating review in The New Yorker by popular author Malcolm Gladwell titled “Is Marijuana As Safe As We Think?”
That framing is important. Berenson’s book is clear about his own personal feelings: “Marijuana causes psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence.” But Gladwell posed his review as a question. Gladwell isn’t sure if Berenson’s hypothesis is right, but he finds the question compelling enough to repeat from his giant megaphone, even though critical readers found plenty of good reasons not to do the same.
Thankfully, Barenson’s book was largely panned by critics as “an exercise in cherry-picking data and presenting correlation as causation.” But a few years later, it seems Gladwell’s naive repetition was just as influential.
In late June, The New York Times published an article titled “Psychosis, Addiction, Chronic Vomiting: As Weed Becomes More Potent, Teens Are Getting Sick.” Like Berenson’s work before it, and Gladwell’s review, the story questions the success of the cannabis legalization movement and, relying heavily on anecdotal evidence about struggling teenagers using cannabis and selective data to fit the narrative that high-powered weed products developed in the post-legalization landscape are new, dangerous, and corrupting your kids. It begs the same big question once again: What if weed is more dangerous than we thought?
What the article doesn’t note, of course, is that some of these questions already have answers. For example, there is no mention of the centuries of global hashish consumption (concentrated cannabis is anything but new) or the fact that the unregulated vape cartridges that teenagers typically have access to described and maligned in the story’s anecdotes routinely test with THC numbers closer to 40%, and not 90+% as the story suggests. In asking you to consider whether or not weed is dangerous, the Times article also misses the tens of millions of American adults and, yes, teenagers, who use cannabis daily without issue—and dare I say even some benefits.
The Times story also does not mention that its most frequently cited study clearly states a lack of comprehensive research on the subject and readily admits that “Studies on this topic define high potency cannabis as products with 10% or more THC. There are no published studies investigating the association between products available in the U.S. legal market (60%-90% THC) and the onset of first-episode psychosis or on increases of symptoms in those who have a psychotic disorder.”
In other words, there is no data about the specific questions being asked about this supposedly new high-potency cannabis, psychosis, and violence and there will never be answers without more research—research that is not possible if cannabis is still restricted to Schedule I status by the federal government. But in the face of far more positive research and anecdotal evidence about pot than negative, why are these studies, stories, and pundits making conclusive statements about the dangers of “new weed” if the data don’t even exist?
Like Gladwell’s book review in 2019, the recent New York Times story did include minor caveats about the need for more research and one pro-cannabis viewpoint, but this time, the headline question has quickly found its way to the right-wing outrage cycle, where, in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas and again on July 4th in Highland Park, Illinois, Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingram ranted about a connection between cannabis use and at least four mass shootings, drawing a direct causal connection without any supporting evidence.
These tactics are not new or isolated to cannabis. Across the country, you can watch people make foundationless leaps and adopt the language and attitudes of right-wing extremists under the guise of supposedly well-meaning inquires. It is eerily similar to the playbook currently being used to attack, dehumanize, and criminalize trans people in every corner of society, to cast gay school teachers as “groomers” or to create a boogeyman out of critical race theory. It is scary how quickly fascist lies take hold and turn fringe ideas into legislation like bathroom bills and book bannings, and to think that cannabis is exempt from those forces, or that weed won’t be used as a tool to further persecute minority groups is ahistorical and naive.
Instead of investigating the slew of interconnected factors making life in America more stressful, depressing, dangerous, and financially precarious for most of us, the Ingrams and Carlsons of the world are happy to single out the other as the root of all evil, no matter how far-fetched the reasoning.
Still think legalization has come too far and that the same forces behind the country’s openly antagonistic embrace of public racism, homophobia, and transphobia can’t possibly make their way back to cannabis? Look no further than the tragic situation of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner. Despite obvious political motivations behind her arrest and sentencing in Russia, and even with the U.S. government clear about her status as a wrongfully detained prisoner, America’s right-wing has sided with Putin. From Twitter trolls to cable news pundits and even the 45th president, the right-wing narrative is to blame Griner for her arrest, painting the never-proven allegations of possessing two half-gram vape cartridges as a personal moral failure deserving of the outlandish punishment. In a radio interview, Trump passionately blamed Griner for her imprisonment, asserting that she was “loaded up with drugs” in the same week that he praised the idea of swiftly executing drug dealers.
In a country where cannabis is still illegal at the federal level and research remains heavily restricted, using stories about depressed teenagers who happen to have vape-cart habits to drum up fears about super weed altering the brains of the nation’s youth won’t inspire research or lead to nuanced conversations about THC percentages in legal products; it will simply further criminalization.
As we saw during the first 85 years of prohibition, fearmongering doesn’t stop anyone from using cannabis; it punishes them for it. And with a majority of U.S. public schools now keeping at least one police officer on campus at all times and America still being, well, America, heightened enforcement of youth cannabis use will no doubt mean further criminalization of Black and brown teenagers.
Despite progress made by state-specific legalization, cannabis-induced psychosis and violence rhetoric is already influencing politicians. Laughed out of the room just a few years ago, Alex Berenson is now back riding the bolstered wave of reefer madness and was recently called as a witness before the United States Senate during the legislature’s hearing on federal cannabis legalization, during which he cited the recent Times article as a direct example of the changing attitudes towards anti-cannabis sentiments, using anecdotes from that specific story to lobby legislators against federal cannabis legalization.
“I was not surprised when advocates and industry executives harshly criticized and tried to discredit Tell Your Children,” Berenson testified. “Now, however – only three-and-a-half years later – the truth about the connection between cannabis and psychosis appears to be becoming so obvious that even outlets that have been staunchly pro-legalization cannot ignore them. Since 2014, The New York Times has called for cannabis legalization. Last month, however, the Times published a long article headlined ‘Psychosis, Addiction, Chronic Vomiting: As Weed Becomes More Potent, Teens Are Getting Sick.’ The Times is correct that cannabis has become far, far more potent.”
In every recent national poll about cannabis legalization, nearly 70% of all Americans say they are ready to finally flip the switch on prohibition. Democrats, Republicans, black, white, young, old—huge numbers of Americans of all demographics support cannabis legalization. But at the end of the day, this is still America, and there’s no automatic connection between the policies we want and what happens—just look at health care. If thoughtful people don’t start speaking up clearly and loudly about the damage being done by the current wave of reefer madness, the consequences could significantly fuck up the progress we have made over the past decades. That would be far more dangerous than any new strain of super weed.