Debate on cannabis law reform

Debate on cannabis law reform continues to crank up.

Bob McCoskrie (Family First) has been prominent in opposing liberalisation.

But that has been quickly addressed:

German Lopez (Vox): What Alex Berenson’s new book gets wrong about marijuana, psychosis, and violence

The result is the book in which that conversation is now being retold — a book that’s gotten widespread favorable coverage in CNBC, the New YorkerMother Jones, and the Marshall Project, and landed op-eds from Berenson about his findings in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

His central argument is best summarized in a few brief lines later in the book: “Marijuana causes psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence.”

I could have found this argument persuasive. I’ve become increasingly skeptical of drug legalization over the years, as I’ve reported on the opioid epidemic (caused by legal opioid painkillers), alcohol, and tobacco. I’ve written about how there are risks to marijuana that are worth taking seriously, even if one thinks that legalization is ultimately a better policy than prohibition. I’ve stopped using marijuana myself, in part because my husband had multiple experiences in which pot seemed to make his anxiety disorder flare up.

But as I read Berenson’s book, it was impossible to escape that, while a compelling read written by an experienced journalist, it is essentially an exercise in cherry-picking data and presenting correlation as causation. Observations and anecdotes, not rigorous scientific analysis, are at the core of the book’s claim that legal marijuana will cause — and, in fact, is causing — a huge rise in psychosis and violence in America.

Berenson leverages these anecdotes and limited data to argue that heavy marijuana use, spurred by the legalization of pot in several US states, is already leading to a “black tide of psychosis” and “red tide of violence.” He warns that things will only get worse as the legal pot industry grows bigger, with an incentive to stifle heavy regulations on cannabis.

In one example, he cites a recent, massive review of the evidence on marijuana’s benefits and harms from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, claiming the report, on the link between marijuana and psychosis, “declared the issue settled.”

But I read the report and wrote about it for Vox when it came out. Far from declaring this issue “settled,” the National Academies’ report was extremely careful, cautioning that marijuana’s — and marijuana addiction’s — link to psychosis “may be multidirectional and complex.” Marijuana may not cause psychosis; something else may cause both psychosis and pot use. Or the causation could go the other way: Psychotic disorders may lead to marijuana use, perhaps in an attempt to self-medicate.

Berenson’s book, with its sensationalist claims and shoddy analysis of the evidence, doesn’t genuinely address those concerns. Tell Your Childrenclaims to inform its readers of the “truth” about marijuana, but it instead repeatedly misleads them.

Russell Brown has posted Cannabis reform is a serious matter – so be serious about it

The Listener ushered in the new year with an editorial that seemed to lean heavily on Bob McCoskrie’s talking points. What factual claims the editorial makes are both ominous and vague  and it appears that the author has not made any attempt to read source research.

Part of the problem is that there’s so much epidemiological data that it’s easy to cherry-pick in service of a belief. We’re all guilty of motivated reasoning – and I don’t exclude myself. But I think anyone writing a major editorial has a duty to do more than simply copy someone else’s bullet points.

The next contribution doesn’t have that problem – because it doesn’t bother itself with facts at all. It’s by Karl du Fresne on Stuff and it is absolutely fucking execrable. Du Fresne isn’t really writing (let alone thinking) about cannabis reform so much as firing off another of his wearisome dispatches from the culture war.

He witters on, repeatedly confusing legalisation and decriminalisation and objecting to the recent medicinal cannabis bill which which “essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness”, something he says a few lines later can be  ”justified on grounds of common sense or compassion”. Then:

But there should be no doubt that what we’re observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which was why the National Party withdrew its support for the medicinal cannabis bill.

It really isn’t, and it makes no more sense for du Fresne to say so than it did when Simon Bridges said it. As framed, the law offers a statutory defence for people in palliative care who possess cannabis without a prescription, as a transitional measure until the new regulations that give the bill meaning are written over the next year. It doesn’t protect anyone who sells the cannabis, or even acquires it for a dying relative. But it suits du Fresne’s conspiratorial mindset to declare otherwise.

There’s actually a straightforward and well-founded argument against handing the market to big companies (and especially publicly-held companies, which du Fresne asserts would to the best job): in order to generate profitable growth, such companies need to do two things: recruit new users, and sell hard to problem users. That’s what happens  in the liquor industry, where there’s a classic 80/20 rule and most profit comes from dependent users.

The Drug Foundation goes through this in the model drug policy it released last year, proposing regulation in favour of “small-scale community development” which would help “avoid developing a powerful industry lobby” that could influence future policy choices. I think the idea of having these enterprises distributed among, and bringing revenue into, local communities is worth looking at. It’s also likely to be important to Māori.

I did find one fan of du Fresne’s column. Former Act MP Stephen Franks declared it “sensible” and insisted that the slew of errors in the column were mere “technical” points that a columnist could hardly be expected to recognise.

A couple of days later, Franks was was back recommending a New Yorker article in which, he declared, ”Malcolm Gladwell deftly questions the woke consensus in fashionable support for cannabis legalisation”. Why, one must ask, do these guys have to turn everything into the culture war?

The short New Yorker piece consisted of Gladwell looking at a new book by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence and saying “hey, maybe this guy’s got a point.” Similar promotional pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalMother Jones and elsewhere. A sensible person could certainly be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Berenson’s dire warnings about cannabis should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, as the headline over a frustrated piece on The Stranger put it, East Coast Media Is Grounded From Writing About Weed. The author, Lester Black, writes:

But almost as soon as journalists started jumping on Berenson’s bandwagon, the actual scientists behind the research Berenson cited distanced themselves from his book. Those scientists say he is distorting their research, mistaking correlation for causation, or he is just outright drawing incorrect conclusions.

Black also looks at the increase in homicide rates in Colorado and Washington State that Berenson repeatedly highlights. Here’s the thing. Those rates are below what pre-legalisation trends in both states suggested. Can we say that legal weed reduced the murder rate? Hell no. It’s way too complex an issue for that sort of claim. But we really can’t say that cannabis increased the number of murders.

Black isn’t the only one to take to the internet in frustration at the ready reception of Berenson’s arguments. Jesse Singal in The Intelligencernoted that Berenson’s claim that cannabis has led to higher murder rates in legal states is ”a case study in how to misleadingly use statistics to make oversimplified arguments about human behavior and public policy.”

The most detailed rebuttal I’ve seen comes from the excellent Maia Szalavitz. She cites a lot of data that don’t support various claims by Berenson, from his embrace of the “gateway hypothesis” to assumptions about cananbis potency and international trends in cannabis use and mental illness.

There are real things to focus and and talk about here. By its nature, legalisation is an experiment. But how many of the harms that can reasonably be attributed to cannabis are effectively addressed by criminalising people who use it? Is the world due a better, smarter form of legalisation than it currently has? I think we can do better. But we don’t get there via idle editorialising, blowhard culture wars or misleading use of evidence. If you’re going to declare cannabis reform a serious matter, then for god’s sake be serious about it.

More here:

No doubt this debate will continue through to the referendum (probably later next year alongside the general election).



  1. Corky

     /  January 17, 2019

    Data, books, studies and interviews. Does the ‘man in the street’ personal experience get a say in all of this?

    Maori society pre herb and post herb are two very different stories.

    • “Does the ‘man in the street’ personal experience get a say in all of this?”

      You can do that here.

    • Griff.

       /  January 17, 2019

      Maori society pre herb and post herb are two very different stories

      Here is a small hint.
      You ever heard of Jake the muss?
      It was not cannabis use driving that story .

      • Corky

         /  January 17, 2019

        No, it wasn’t.

      • Corky

         /  January 17, 2019

        ”Too much weights..not enough speed work.” Sage advice from ”The Muss” if anyone’s new year resolution is to become a street fighter.

  2. artcroft

     /  January 17, 2019

    Despite the protests to the contrary, KDF is correct. Many advocates of cannabis reform want legalisation. Wants the problem with admitting that.

    • NOEL

       /  January 17, 2019

      Agree Artcroft . That’s why there has to be two questions.
      Decriminalisation or legalisation?

      • Griff.

         /  January 17, 2019

        We already have de facto decriminalization.
        Most police dont think it is worth the effort and time wasted to charge someone for a joint.
        Decimalization does not address the income from cannabis use funding criminals.
        It also fails to restrict the purchase and use by minors or offset the cost of misuse by taxing the cannabis industry to pay for health services.
        Legalize, tax, regulate and educate.

        • Duker

           /  January 17, 2019

          Legalize, tax, regulate and educate.?

          This is NZ , we have far lower Police to public ratios than Australia , let alone US.

          Tax ? IRD is getting out of the policing individual taxpayers role, cannabis will continue as a cash business in the black economy.
          Educate ? With what . Theres a shortage of teachers as it is

          We can see what the big problems are because advocates have only buzzwords , designed to to toss the problems over the fence – Treatment comes into that category.

          • seer

             /  January 18, 2019

            Advocates of a decrim/legalisation (s not z) question are probably hoping the pro-reform vote gets split, making the anti-reform vote the largest.

  3. An interesting title.. ‘Tell your Children’ was the original title of the ‘DocuDRAMA’ widely released as ‘REEFER MADNESS’ in 1936 USA :

    sounds like McCoskrie & Co. are still pushing this, as ‘DRUG HARM TRUTH’ Most who live in the REAL world, know its just plain FEAR-mongering.
    Evidence shows that only a small percentage of people who use Cannabis (aka MARIJUANA) actually develop a negative mental condition; many are likely already predisposed to it.. prior to using the drug. This is not a reason to go with the ZERO-tolerance B-S that many on the Prohibition side still seem to advocate.

    Also; the ‘Gateway theory’ (aka Stepping Stone) was introduced about the same time. It claimed that EVERYONE who used ‘Marijuana’ would progress ‘through the gateway’ to HARD DRUGS ! Again this is total misinfo. Whilst it maybe true that many Heroin/Meth users have used Cannabis/MJ.. many also drink booze & smoke ciggies too.

    I think Bob & Co. need to get a ‘reality-check’ & cut out this CRAP !!

    • … TELL YOUR CHILDREN.. the TRUTH about MARIJUANA, Mental Illness & VIOLENCE..

      OR perhaps: just spread more B-S rather than the Truth.

      Im not saying “Its Harmless” BUT beware this kind of Nonsense folks.. instead keep an open mind & look at both sides of the debate.. ‘critical analysis’ :/

      • PartisanZ

         /  January 17, 2019

        And think about how much Berenson’s ‘advance’ [payment] might have been … and where it might have come from?

        McCoskrie’s brand of zealous, fundamentalist, Far Right-Wing Christian Conservatism is a much more difficult form of ‘psychosis’ to treat …

        In ‘reality’ it’s probably incurable.

        • Corky

           /  January 17, 2019

          Not something you should really comment on, Parti. Especially the ”zealous, fundamentalist” bit.

          • PartisanZ

             /  January 17, 2019

            And I’m a zealous, fundamentalist ‘what’ Corky?


            I want “freedom of choice” … with responsibility … I’m a Loony Lefty!

            McCoskrie wants to curtail my freedom of choice. These guys are the modern-day equivalent of the Inquisition … which is now recognized as being a bunch of sociopaths leading a contagion of psychotic behaviour …

        • I hear you PZ

          Much of the ‘research’ that was done in the ‘early days’ of Cannabis prohibition was funded by ‘Big Alcohol’/tobacco/pharma etc. It was reportedly, not to ‘tell the truth’ about ‘Marijuana’ but to ‘PROVE it was Harmful’

          In 1944 a report was published by the then Mayor of NY (Fiorelli LeGuardia) that stated that most of the ‘Reefer madness’ stuff was misinformation, but it was dumped by the Drug Administration & LaGuardia was chastised for saying this.
          Interestingly they named the NY airport after this man… for ALL his great work !

          in 1972 another report by commissioned by Pres. Nixon (Shaffer Comm) to again promote his WAR on Drugs, with ‘marijuana’ branded ‘public enemy #1’. it too said that Cannabis/MJ use, should not be a criminal offence. Nixon reportedly had all the report copies shredded/burned.

          google it & see.. if you dont believe me !? :/

      • Pickled Possum

         /  January 17, 2019

        zedd its way less harmless than oxycodone and its derivatives.
        I have seen a man with chronic pain go from a functioning male to a non-functioning one on oxycodone in a matter of weeks. hooked and now trying to escape the fog of chemical pain killers. It looks like a big long fight, a bit like trying to give up cigarettes without a patch.

        • I see & read all kinds of things on ‘DRUGS’ too.. one thing is clear (IMHO): Prohibition/ Zero-tolerance is not the answer. All it does is creates an unregulated Black-market/Gangsters/corruption.. just as it did with Alcohol in the ‘roaring 20s USA’ that was dumped as unworkable in 1933. Interestingly; most of the demonisation of Cannabis/MARIJUANA.. started soon afterwards, led by Harry Anslinger (an ex-Alcohol Prohibition police chief) some say, because about 30% of his officers faced redundancy ?!

          We all need to stop listening to this nonsense & take the blinkers off. Its 2018 not 1936 (Reefer madness) it should be dealt with as a health issue 🙂

  4. NOEL

     /  January 17, 2019

    Griff strawman!

    • Griff.

       /  January 17, 2019

      Always makes me laugh when a righties try logic
      Noel fail.

      Piss violence and wastrel life styles predate cannabis use by a century or so.

      Cannabis drives a lack of motivation …Maori culture has far bigger social problems and has done so from before excessive cannabis use became an issue . Alcohol drives violence, crime and dysfunction.

      • PartisanZ

         /  January 17, 2019

        Yes, in fact to rephrase Corky’s original statement –

        “Maori society pre-White Man and post-Pakeha are two very different stories.”

        – IMHO a statement designed to derail the conversation before the locomotive even left the platform. If I’m a PartisanZ, Corky is a Saboteur …

        • Corky

           /  January 17, 2019

          Geez. Formal debate v opinion. Even if my opinion is based on 40 years of tragedy and personal experience.

          Hence my comment:

          ”Data, books, studies and interviews. Does the ‘man in the street’ personal experience get a say in all of this?”


          • Griff.

             /  January 17, 2019

            Anecdotal evidence (also proof by selected instances, or, more pejoratively, anecdata) is use of one or more anecdotes (specific instances of an event; stories) to either support or refute a claim. The use of anecdotal evidence to draw a conclusion is like using the NBA all-star teams to estimate the average height of Americans.

            Whereas anecdotal evidence is sometimes the starting point of a proper scientific investigation, it is all too often the ending point and every point of a pseudoscientific investigation. In the world of pseudoscience, an anecdote is the equivalent of a peer-reviewed, double-blind, repeatable scientific experiment with consistent results.

            Anecdotal evidence is often used in politics, journalism, blogs and many other contexts to make or imply generalisations based on very limited and cherry-picked examples, rather than reliable statistical studies. A classic instance was Ronald Reagan’s story of a “welfare queen” who was abusing the system, who Reagan attempted to portray as indicative of the average welfare recipient. It turned out she didn’t even exist when some reporters finally decided to look for her.

            Anecdotal evidence is especially vulnerable to confabulation or outright deceit.

            Remember: the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”

          • Corky

             /  January 17, 2019

            You have a problem with paragraph one if you are going to apply that across the board.

            When I face issues like this, I always go to my personal experience ( if I have any) rather than Google.

            Of course my personal experience in the scheme of things means nothing. But it starts to mean something when others have had similar experiences. And so on.
            It allows me to form an OPINION without referring to authority.

            Its a little like the time I tried to tell two mechanics who turned up to load our 3 tonne forklift onto what I ”guessed” was a a 2 tonne load capacity light commercial truck.

            ‘Nah, mate, she’s sweet,’ they said. A while later the trucks front tyres were 4 foot in the air..and our forklift half on the deck.

            ‘The boss put us crook,’ said one.

      • NOEL

         /  January 17, 2019

        nah remains strawman

    • Griff.

       /  January 17, 2019


      A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be “attacking a straw man.”

      Corkys argument.

      Maori society pre herb and post herb are two very different stories.

      My reply.
      A dysfunctional life style sitting around drinking quarts of beer bashing those around you and treating woman like objects predates smoking pot by a long time. Maori stories were dysfunctional well before cannabis use became an issue.
      As illustrated by NZ’s cultural story tellers such as Barry Crump or Alan Duff.
      Correlation is not causation.
      One could go a lot deeper into why (some) Maori abuse drugs but that is outside of both my interest and this thread
      Which is about what drugs we use in our society and how we treat them.

  5. NOEL

     /  January 17, 2019

    Debate on cannabis law reform

  6. PartisanZ

     /  January 17, 2019

    Exaggeration for effect –

    Neoliberalism promised me personal freedom of choice. I want these c*&ts who eviscerated the soul of my nation – and their descendants – to honour their fucken promises!

    They got ‘freedom’ to sell liquor to 18 year olds – effectively lowering the drinking age to 13 or 14 – all hours of the day and night and in supermarkets and corner dairies … and an endless list of other freedoms from selling sweatshop-made clothes to cheap hi-performance cars … to everything ‘youth culture’ you can imagine … Grand Theft Auto … $2 Shop trinkets & baubles …

    Was it youth who did that?

    Douglas’s ‘spawn’ taught these boy’s father and these boys that freedom comes without responsibility.

    In a sense I agree with Corky’s “ordinary man in the street’s personal experience” comment. We might go on ‘debating’ cannabis law reform for ever and a fucken day …

    Where’s my individual freedom!? You Rightie arseholes promised it to me.

    • PartisanZ

       /  January 17, 2019

      “these boy’s father and these boys” obviously refers to the Christchurch crash victims …

      Sure, there’s a great degree of personal responsibility, but if you live in a society that ‘models’ freedom without responsibility … well … like the quote I posted the other day about “succeeding in business” … society’s default position … and men can become accustomed to anything accepted by everyone around them …

      Insomuch as law making is remotely democratic nowadays, we’ve agreed as a society on the ‘regulation’ of alcohol. To do anything less for cannabis – a very much less harmful substance – is the ultimate in hypocrisy … Made all the worse by an ideology based on the tenet of “Freedom of Choice” …

  7. Duker

     /  January 17, 2019

    The Medical professionals involved in cannabis research say there is only limited evidence beyond a small number of terminal illnesses that there is any medical benefit.
    There is strong evidence ‘smoking ‘ cannabis has adverse health effects.

    You couldnt sell shampoo that had even some of the medical side effects of cannabis, let alone the severe ones.
    Why would you make it a legal product and try to pretend you are dealing with those problems

    • Griff.

       /  January 17, 2019

      Tell you what Duker
      You drink a 750ml bottle of whisky in an hour and I will smoke pot continuously while you do so.
      We both bet $500 bucks on the health outcome.
      Held by a third party of course because there is a very good chance you will not be around to pay up.
      The ld50 for alcohol is about 14 standard drinks.
      For cannabis there is no known lethal dose and no recorded case of someone directly dying from using it.

    • PartisanZ

       /  January 17, 2019

      Because is isn’t only up to medical professionals. If it was alcohol would probably be banned. If it was, the highway speed limit might be 60kph rather than 100. If it was, menacing and dangerous dog breeds might all be rounded-up and put down …

      Because – used medicinally, therapeutically or so-called recreationally – by comparison to other substances, notably alcohol, cocaine, heroine and meth, and quite possibly some shampoos, cannabis does almost no harm …

      • PartisanZ

         /  January 17, 2019

        My last paragraph is to make no mention of Opioids and numerous other ‘licit’ drugs, many of them so-called ‘medicines’ …

  1. Debate on cannabis law reform — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition