The return of ‘reefer madness’Roundup
tags: drugs, marijuana policy, Tell Your Children
Emily Dufton received her PhD in American studies from George Washington University. She is the author of "Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America."
Lucas Richert is the George Urdang Chair in the history of pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "Strange Trips: Science, Culture, and the Regulation of Drugs."
In January 2019, Alex Berenson, a novelist and former New York Times reporter, released “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.” The book suggested heavy marijuana use could trigger psychosis and increase violent behavior — effects Berenson claimed Big Marijuana didn’t want users to know.
The book marked the return of Reefer Madness, the sensationalistic warning that marijuana use will result in insanity. “Tell Your Children,” a deliberate reference to the original title of the 1936 film “Reefer Madness,” received positive coverage from the New Yorker and Mother Jones for what some called its troubling truths. Yet other outlets, including the Rand Corp., the New Republic and Drug Policy Alliance, argued that Berenson was using junk science. And the book re-energized debate over what many have claimed is cannabis’s inevitable march toward national legalization.
"Tell Your Children” reignites a long-held concern about cannabis’s public safety. But in relying on sensationalism over science, it has become just the latest use of alarmist claims and attention-seeking to upend a serious public policy dialogue. As a result, rather than contributing to a meaningful discussion about pot and its public health consequences, good and bad, “Tell Your Children” provokes emotional outcry rather than a rational debate on the issue.
“Tell Your Children” isn’t alone. Both supporters and opponents of legalization are quick to use sensationalism to prove their points, stunting the pursuit of real research needed to determine cannabis’ social effects.
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