Critics Respond To Malcolm Gladwell's Controversial Cannabis Article

By Paul Gaita 01/23/19

In a recent New Yorker feature Gladwell makes the case that marijuana is not as "safe as we think."

Malcolm Gladwell

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell's recent feature in The New Yorker about the possible connections between marijuana use and paranoid/psychotic behavior has drawn fierce critical responses from both cannabis consumers and fellow writers alike.

A new editorial in The Atlantic crystallizes the core issues that opponents have voiced about the story: In citing former Los Angeles Times reporter Alex Berenson's book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, both Gladwell and Berenson appear to be making broad assumptions about the potential for marijuana use to incite paranoia, schizophrenia and violent behavior based on research and anecdotes that do not reach the conclusions that the authors state.

As James Hamblin, who wrote the Atlantic piece, noted, Gladwell and Berenson's assertions are the "public-intellectual equivalent of just sayin'."

In the New Yorker story, Gladwell sought to make the case that marijuana is not as safe a drug as proponents claim it to be. His primary source for this assertion is Berenson's book, which cites statistics from the state of Washington, which at first blush, seem to indicate that murder and aggravated-assault rates rose by 40% between 2013 and 2017 — the period immediately before and after the state legalized recreational marijuana.

Berenson also cited a 2017 report on the health effects of cannabis by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), which found "substantial evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia or other psychoses."

But as Hamblin and others note, Gladwell appears to focus less on the wealth of inconclusive or conflicting results found in both sources, as well as the many other factors that contribute to mental illness and violent behavior.

Gladwell writes, "We don't know that an increase in cannabis use was responsible for that surge in violence" in Washington State. Nor do Gladwell or Berenson appear to mention that the NAM research also found statistical evidence of a link between "cannabis use and better cognitive performance among individuals with psychotic disorders," as well as "moderate evidence of no statistical association between cannabis use and worsening of negative symptoms of schizophrenia."

As Hamblin and science writer Dave Levitan both noted, there are two issues at hand with Gladwell and Berenson's assertions. One is a cherry-picking of data to prove a point: In regard to the statistics about Washington, Levitan noted that while the state did experience an increase in murders between 2013 and 2017, the rate actually fell between 2015 and 2016. Additionally, the murder rate from 2012 to 2017 actually only increased by 3%. So, as Levitan wrote, "Which murder rate do you use?"

Both authors also noted that Gladwell and Berenson continually confuse correlation with causation. As Hamblin writes, "Berenson argues that if marijuana can cause psychotic breaks from reality, and psychotic people are more inclined to violence, marijuana is a cause of violence." Levitan breaks it down even further: "Crime tends to spike in the summer; so does ice cream consumption. Did all that ice cream cause the crime?"

Ultimately, what emerges from Gladwell and Berenson's narratives is the undeniable fact that more research into cannabis is necessary. But linking its use to mental illness and violence will actually make such efforts more difficult. Hamblin cited Yasmin Hurd, director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who said, "Many people who are making the decisions about funding going to the [National Institute of Health] and other organizations will now say that we should have a moratorium on a drug that increases murder. Why would we want to do that and put people's lives at risk?"

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.