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Tell Your Children:
The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence

by alex berenson
free press, 272 pages, $26

The smoking of marijuana, with its careful preparation of the elements and the solemn passing around of the shared joint, was the unholy communion of the counterculture in the late 1960s, when our present elite formed its opinions. Many of them allowed their children to follow their bad examples, and resent that this exposes their young to a (tiny) risk of persecution and career damage. As a result, those who still disapprove of marijuana are much disliked. The book I wrote on the subject six years ago, The War We Never Fought, received a chilly reception and remains so obscure that I don’t think Alex ­Berenson, whose book has received much friendlier coverage, even knows it exists. As a writer who naturally covets readers and sales, I find this mildly infuriating.

But let me say through clenched teeth that it is of course very good news that a fashionable young metropolitan person such as Mr. ­Berenson is at last prepared to say openly that marijuana is a dangerous drug whose use should be severely discouraged. For, as ­Berenson candidly admits, he was until recently one of the great complacent mass of bourgeois bohemians who are pretty relaxed about it. He confesses in the most important passage in the book that he once believed what most of such people believed. He encapsulates this near-universal fantasy thus:

Marijuana is safe. Way safer than alcohol. Barack Obama smoked it. Bill Clinton smoked it too, even if he didn’t inhale. Might as well say it causes presidencies. I’ve smoked it myself, I liked it fine. Maybe I got a little paranoid, but it didn’t last. Nobody ever died from smoking too much pot.

These words are a more or less perfect summary of the lazy, ignorant, self-serving beliefs of highly educated, rather stupid middle-class metropolitans all over the Western world in such places as, let’s just say for example, the editorial offices of the New York Times. Thirty years from now (when it’s too late), they will look as crass and irresponsible as those magazine advertisements from the 1950s in which pink-faced doctors wearing white coats recommended certain brands of cigarettes. But just now, we are in that foggy zone of consciousness where the truth is known to almost nobody except those with a certain kind of direct experience, and can be ignored by everyone else.

One of the experienced ones, thank heaven, is Alex ­Berenson’s wife Jacqueline. She is a psychiatrist who specializes in evaluating mentally ill criminals. One evening, the Berensons were discussing one of her cases, a patient who had committed a terrible, violent act. Casually, Jacqueline remarked, “Of course he was high, been smoking pot his whole life.” Alex doubtfully interjected, “Of course?,” and she replied, “Yeah, they all smoke.” (She didn’t mean tobacco.) And she is right. They all do. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to know this. You just have to be able to do simple Internet searches.

Most violent crime is scantily reported, since local newspapers lack the resources they once had. The exceptions are rampage mass killings by terrorists (generally in Europe) and non-political crazies (more common in the United States). These crimes are intensively reported, to such an extent that news media find things out they were not even looking for, such as the fact that the perpetrator is almost always a long-term marijuana user. Where he isn’t (and it is almost always a he), some other legal or illegal psychotropic, such as steroids or “antidepressants,” is ­usually in evidence. But you do have to look, and most people don’t. Then you have to see a pattern, one that a lot of important, influential people specifically do not want to see.

That husband-and-wife conversation in the Berenson apartment is the whole book in a nutshell, the epiphany of a former apostle of complacency from the college-­educated classes who suddenly discovers what has been going on around him for years. What he repeats over and over again is very simple: Marijuana can make you permanently crazy. (This is a long-term cumulative effect, not the effect of immediate intoxication.) And once it has made you crazy, it can make you violent, too.

You’ll only find out if you’re susceptible by taking it. It is not soft. It is not safe. It is one of the most dangerous drugs there is, and we are on the verge of allowing it to be advertised and put on open sale. Berenson has gotten into predictable trouble for asserting that the connection is pretty much proved. Alas, this is not quite so. But the correlation is hugely powerful. The chance that it is meaningful is great. Who would be surprised if a drug with powerful psychotropic effects turned out to be the cause of mental illness in its users? Correlation is not causation, but it is one of the main tools of ­epidemiology. Causation, ­especially in matters of the brain, is extraordinarily difficult to prove, and so we may have to base our actions, or our refusals to take action, on something short of total certainty.

Tell Your Children is filled with persuasive, appalling individual case histories of wild violence, including the abuse of small children. It also lists and explains the significance of powerful, large-scale surveys of Swedish soldiers and New Zealand students, which connect the drug to mental illness and lowered school performance. Berenson provides facts and statistics about violent crime in places where marijuana is widely available, and anecdotes so repetitive that they cease to be anecdotes. The puzzle remains as to why it is necessary to say all this repeatedly when a sensible person would listen the first time. Perhaps it is because of the large, and very well-funded, campaigns for marijuana legalization described by Berenson. People who drink fair-trade coffee and eat vegan, who loathe other greed lobbies—such as pharmaceuticals, tobacco, fast food, or sugary drinks—smile on this campaign to make money from the misery of others.

Berenson shows how mental illness has grown in our midst without being noticed in public statistics. A comparable growth in, say, measles or tuberculosis would have shown up. But deteriorating mental health does not, thanks to privacy concerns, and to the fact that mental illness is not easily classified. It is also a sad truth that rich, advanced Western societies nowadays begrudge money for the mental hospitals needed to house and protect those who have overthrown their own minds. They are reluctant to record the existence and prevalence of the very real suffering that ought to be treated in the hospitals they have sold off, demolished, or never built.

Berenson also witheringly describes the propaganda devised by those who want to legalize the drug, from the mind-expanding zealots who view drug use as liberating to the hard-headed entrepreneurs and political professionals. Argue against them at your peril. Your audience may learn something, but your opponents will not. Willful ignorance is the most powerful barrier to communication. It seals the human mind up like a fortress. You might as well read the works of Jean-Paul Sartre to a hungry walrus as try to debate with such people. I have attempted it. They don’t hear a word you say, but they hate you for getting in their way.

Berenson gives a fairly thorough account of the “medical marijuana” campaign, an almost comically absurd attempt to portray a poison as a medicine. This campaign is so bogus that it will vanish from the earth within days of full legalization, because in truth there is very little evidence that marijuana-based medicines are of much use. Berenson quotes one refreshingly candid marijuana defender as admitting, “Six percent of all marijuana users use it for medical purposes. Medical marijuana is a way of protecting a subset of society from arrest.”

In the U.S., legalizers are poised to win the modern civil war over the legalization of marijuana which has been dividing the country for half a century. It looks now as if marijuana will soon be legalized, on general sale, advertised and marketed and taxed. This worrying process has already begun in Canada. The United States has approached the issue sideways, conceding states’ rights in a way that would have delighted the Confederates. The United Kingdom has taken a similar route: It pretends to maintain the law and, when asked, insists it has no plans to change it. But the police and the courts have gradually ceased to enforce it, so that it is now impossible to stroll through central London without nosing the reek of marijuana. Europe has gone the same way, with minor variations. Among the free law-governed nations, only Japan and South Korea still actively and effectively enforce their drug possession laws, and benefit greatly from it. But how long can they hold out?

The legalization campaigners are working like termites to undo the 1961 U.N. Convention that is the basis of most national laws against narcotics, using all the money and dishonesty at their command. They have plenty of both. So, besides the two disastrous, irrevocably legal poisons of alcohol and tobacco, we shall before long have a third—and probably a fourth and fifth not long afterward. If marijuana is legal, how will we keep cocaine and ecstasy illegal for long? Next will come heroin and LSD.

One reason for the default in favor of legalization and non-enforcement is the false association made by so many between marijuana and liberty. The belief that a dangerous, stupefying drug is an element of human liberty has taken hold of two, perhaps three generations. They should know better. Aldous Huxley warned in his much-cited but infrequently read dystopian novel Brave New World that modern men, appalled by the disasters of war and social conflict, would embrace a world where thinking and knowledge were obsolete and pleasure and contentment were the aims of a short life begun in a test-tube and ended by euthanasia. He predicted that they would drug themselves and one another to banish the pains of real life, and—worst of all—come to love their own servitude. In one terrible scene, the authorities spray protesting low-caste workers with the pleasure drug soma, and the workers end up hugging one another and smiling vaguely before returning to their drudgery. (Soma, unlike its real-life modern equivalents, is described as harmless, something easier to achieve in fiction than in reality.) What ruler of a squalid, wasteful, unfair, and ugly society such as ours would not prefer a stupefied, flaccid population to an angry one? Yet somehow, the freedom to stupefy oneself is held up quite seriously by educated people as the equal of the freedoms of thought, speech, and assembly. This is the way the world ends, with a joint, a bong, and a simper.

Whatever was wrong with my intense little segment of the 1960s revolutionary generation (and plenty was wrong with it), we believed that when we saw injustice we should fight it, not dope ourselves into a state of mind where it no longer mattered. But my tiny strand of puritan Bolsheviks was long ago absorbed into a giggling mass of cultural revolutionaries, who scrawled “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” on their banners instead of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” or even “Workers of All Lands, Unite!”

While Berenson’s facts are devastating, his own response to the crisis is feeble. He opposes marijuana legalization—and what intelligent person does not? He babbles of education and warning our children. But he declares that “decriminalization is a reasonable compromise.” Actually, it is not. It cannot be sustained. If matters are left as they are, legalization—first de facto and then de jure—will follow, because there will be no impetus to resist it. Unless the law decisively disapproves of and discourages the actual use of the drug, it is neither morally consistent nor practically effective. The global drug trade would be nowhere without the dollars handed over to it by millions of individuals who are the end-users. We search for Mr. Big and never catch him. But we ignore or even indulge Mr. Small, regarding him as a victim, when in truth he keeps the whole thing going. In the end, the logic leads relentlessly to the stern prosecution and deterrent punishment of individual users. It is because I recognize this grim necessity that I remain a pariah. It is because he doesn’t that Alex Berenson is still just about acceptable in the part of the Western world that believes marijuana is a torch of ­freedom. 

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday.

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