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).