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A Book Reviewer Succumbs to Reefer Madness


PUBLISHED: September 2, 2009

A letter in this week’s NYTBR contains these fascinating bits: “My 8-year-old niece asks why, when girls are about to catch a baseball in the field, they say ‘I think I got it,’ while boys say ‘I got it’; a 4-year-old boy in one of our studies asks his mother why she smiles when she is sad.” Unfortunately, this issue also features Dominique Browning’s hysterical review of Julie Myerson’s The Lost Child: A Mother’s Story. Myerson’s story is a sad one: her son’s marijuana habit and wild behavior created chaos and violence within the family, causing Myerson to kick him out of the house when he was seventeen. But Browning’s review is laced with exaggerations and unsupported assertions. It has the kind of melodramatic rhetoric that I thought was left behind in the heyday of the disastrous “War on Drugs.”

Here is how Browning researches the slang term “skunk,” the type of marijuana that Myerson’s son uses: “a quick search online led me to a souk of seeds for the home farmer, advertising up to a toxic 22 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in some strains.” It’s a lazy method that doesn’t qualify as research, akin to using spam e-mail to learn about the chemical composition of Viagra. Is that THC level representative of all skunk—is “skunk” even a standardized term?—and what makes that THC level “toxic”? l I did my own quick search and found an article in the British paper the Observer(from 2004) stating that “Skunk normally carries between 7 and 15 per cent THC; samples with levels of THC over 20 per cent are very rare.” The writer’s source? Not a drug dealer but the managing director of a drug analysis company. Nor does Browning bother to consider whether potency is, on its own, the sole indicator of a dangerous drug supply; surely frequency of use is also important, as is the fact that here we are considering a drug that, despite its negative effects on the respiratory system, is impossible to overdose on.

Moving on, Browning launches an appeal to think of the children, writing:

Even as stronger varieties are being bred and marketed, medical research is linking cannabis use to behavioral and cognitive changes reminiscent of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. And yet we find ourselves arguing about whether pot is addictive or a gateway drug or should be legalized. We are collectively losing our minds. “The Lost Child” is a cry for help and a plea for a clear acknowledgment of the toll this drug is taking on our children.

The emphasis is, of course, mine. There is not a single bit of data here, no study or research report cited to back up Browning’s claims. Note the use of the vague, pliable word “reminiscent.” She also writes of “the (sadly) flourishing literature about children and drug abuse,” mentioning only one other book, and asks: “Why would we choose not to see what’s happening all around us? Books like these signal the beginning of awareness.” Can Browning support the notion that books about youth drug abuse are a newly flourishing subset of the market? When I was a child, Go Ask Alice was foisted upon me and my peers. It was supposed to be a warning of the perils of even casual experimentation. We now know that the book is fiction, produced by a writer who has written many fake diaries of children suffering from serious issues: rape, pregnancy, AIDS, gangs, heroin, and parent-teacher relationships.

In seeing “what’s happening all around us,” is Browning referring to increases in youth drug abuse, and if so, can she provide any data to back up her point? Here, I just did another one of those quick searches and found a Department of Justice report about youth drug use. The report finds that the proportion of daily marijuana users among college students has risen from 2.8% in 1996 to 3.5% in 2007 but is down from a recent high of 4.7% in 2003. Among high school students, past-month marijuana use peaked at 37% in 1978—31 years ago!—and in 2008 was 19%; its lowest point was 12% in 1992. The report also contains a link to a December 2008 University of Michigan press release with the following title: “Various stimulant drugs show continuing gradual declines among teens in 2008, most illicit drugs hold steady.”

Devil's HarvestThese data do not support Browning’s assertion that responsible society is somehow losing its mind or that our children are turning into drug-addicted monsters, a perspective that stubbornly renews itself with certain segments of each generation. (Kids these days…) The problems of the largely finished War on Drugs–billions of dollars wasted, corruption, racial profiling, mandatory minimum sentences, empowerment of drug cartels, damaged relations in Latin America–are well known. (Didn’t we learn something from Prohibition?) It is then sadly ironic that Browning’s review has the headline “Reefer Madness,” which can be taken as a reference to her uneducated, anachronistic perspective.

Drug use and abuse are serious issues, and the debate around them should be fueled by good research, solid data, and reasoned perspectives. If Browning wished to educate herself further before writing her review—which is not helped by her highly personal approach to the issue, epitomized by her confession of having “fallen into the trap of Back-seat Parenting” while reading Myerson’s book—she could have learned that in Florida in 2007, legal drugs killed far more people than illegal drugs did, and marijuana was responsible for zero deaths. She could have read how Latin American countries, including Mexico, are experimenting (there’s that fraught word) with drug decriminalization to stem crime and to treat drug abuse as a health issue rather a criminal one. Portugal decriminalized all drugs seven years ago, and its experience, along with that of the Netherlands, has shown that drug decriminalization is actually accompanied by lower usage rates. But if Browning wishes to stay closer to home, she could have read about California, which legalized and regulates medical marijuana because an extensive body of research shows that it has distinct medical benefits for some patients. Perhaps, also, voters felt that people can be trusted to be responsible for their own behavior and don’t need to be treated like children.

As is asserted by the writer of the letter that I used to introduce this post, we too often fail to treat children—much less adults—as thinking, intelligent people, who often “ask fundamental questions that reveal the deep structures of our culture in ways that adults simply do not.” Isn’t this, for example, the secret to the greatness of Pixar films: seeing the beauty and utility of a child’s wisdom? Isn’t this why Levi Johnston, with his unpolished teenage swagger and frankness, is a more interesting interview than Sarah Palin? Go Ask Alice, and the attitude it represents, here crudely taken up by Browning, is a failure because, as a shrill fake, it makes a mockery of this dialectic; it affirms the notion that we don’t need to look beyond our frightened instincts into the inconvenient facts of things.

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Mandy Redig's picture
Mandy Redig · 10 years ago
This is a well-written and pointed critique of a review that was, perhaps, a bit over the top. The issue of drug use and abuse is indeed a complex one, and in the case of marijuana definitely encompasses a broad social, historical, and cultural dynamic. However, when it comes to the ‘inconvenient facts of things’ I cannot help but comment on the fact that the best of our current scientific investigations have shown that marijuana IS linked to psychiatric disease, irrespective of the tone of Browning’s review. A book review might not be the place for extensive documentation–and her line ‘reminiscent of psychiatric disorders’ is inaccurately phrased since cannabis exposure has been shown to lead to higher incidence of schizophrenia in exposed individuals compared to controls–but the evidence does exist and it’s neither inconsequential nor a representation of a single study that was not reproducible. Anyone can access the National Library of Medicine’s extensive database of the biomedical literature, PubMed, by going to www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed and typing in a search query. Without an academic affiliation not all articles will be available for full perusal, but abstracts are always free. ‘Cannabis schizophrenia’ as a search yields 548 results. Furthermore, even ‘mild’ marijuana use, the kind typified by the high-functioning individual who casually smokes a joint has been shown to cause a noted decrease in cognitive function (For one example see Harvey et al, 2007, Drug and Alcohol Rev). And this is without even getting into the fact that marijuana use has also been associated with fertility problems in men as well as an increase in bladder cancer in both men and women. Yet all of that aside and getting back to the psychiatric focus, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and psychiatric disease characterized by periods of psychosis (all of which have been linked to cannabis exposure) are equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking when seen up close. The despair, fear, and anguish experienced by a psychotic patient, often for a lifetime, is rivaled only by the complete disruption in the lives of their loved ones. If marijuana use can contribute to lowering a genetically susceptible individual’s threshold for developing a condition in this spectrum, maybe it’s worth a hysterical book review to plant the seed that this compound is not benign. And yes, I realize that a lot of other substances that are more socially acceptable (and certainly legal), including caffeine and alcohol, are also associated with their own potentially profound neuropsychological changes. The medicinal benefits of marijuana, particularly in the treatment of refractive oncology pain, have also been clearly documented (63 articles on PubMed). Yet shouldn’t the fact that cannabinoids *do* have such significant effects on neuropsychiatric functioning make us question whether or not it is a good idea to flood our brains with the compounds? Much of what modern psychiatry knows about psychosis, and particularly anti-psychotic medications, is extrapolated from data that began with observational studies of drug use….amphetamines, LSD, PCP, and now–potentially leading to exciting breakthroughs in our neurobiological understanding of schizophrenia–marijuana. Maybe the prohibition of marijuana and the legalization of alcohol and tobacco represents racism in legislation. Maybe criminalizing drug use is not the best way to prevent substance abuse. Maybe there are a lot of (even worse) things to which we exposure our minds and bodies without ever thinking twice. But marijuana is a substance that large amounts of objective evidence suggest is not a good thing to introduce into neurological synapses, particularly for the still-developing and thus inherently fragile brains of adolescents and young adults in their early 20’s. And it might be bad writing, but it doesn’t qualify as Reefer Madness to say so.
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