That’s also the straw man in the room: the assumption that most people believe marijuana just makes you laugh and gives you munchies. Berenson goes as far as writing, “No one disputes that occasional use of marijuana by people over 25 is generally safe.” In fact, the U.S. government still treats cannabis as extremely dangerous, among the most dangerous drugs. It is one of only a few Schedule I substances—the most forbidden category, along with heroin and LSD, “for which there is no accepted medical use.” Meanwhile, cocaine, Dilaudid, and methamphetamine are down in Schedule II.
The punishment for possession has long reflected this idea of danger, in which the criminal-justice system has treated marijuana similarly to carrying a bomb. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are still arrested every year for marijuana possession, and the penalty can mean a loss of livelihood, housing, and basic freedom. This is not yet a substance that society takes lightly, despite state-level moves toward decriminalization and legalization.
The feeling of being lashed back and forth by this book and the outcry over the Gladwell piece reminds me that science and medicine are rarely well served by writing in argument form. To do so well is compelling, and reading contrarianism is addictive. But an argument’s job is to undermine, downplay, or ignore contradicting evidence. Gladwell and Berenson offer no stories of anyone who has a positive relationship to the drug. By the end, I found myself questioning even my own experiences, in which I’ve mostly just laughed with friends about nothing. Though there was one night in Colorado when I ate a brownie and went back to my hotel room and became convinced that someone had followed me and was hovering just outside my door. I kept the lights out, and I sat on the floor next to the bed, and I ate an entire jar of almond butter.
I wasn’t deeply scared; some part of me knew it wasn’t real. If I had been another person, though—one who was more given to paranoia, who hadn’t been raised in a safe home by loving parents, and who was in possession of many firearms and had many sworn enemies, would I have opened fire through the door? I suppose it’s possible.
If there is anything on which there is unanimous agreement about marijuana, it is that we need to study it more. This did not happen for decades because it was regarded by regulatory agencies as an irrefutable evil, a dangerous vice that, if you were found possessing it, should ruin your career and rob you of your freedom. One stitch in time (on him) will usually save nine on you. This is the narrative that such articles and books feed.
The pendulum has been swinging away from that, and even Berenson believes decriminalization is the way to go. But whether it is legalized or decriminalized, if it’s going to be used medically, as a drug, it should go through the same process of clinical trials as other drugs: looking for side effects and attempting to discern proper dosages and delivery mechanisms, populations in which it is most likely to be effective and most likely to have drawbacks, and so forth. All this information is severely limited by the fact that studying marijuana has been illegal for most researchers and remains heavily restricted.
The fear-and-loathing narrative conflating marijuana and murder, Hurd worries, does nothing to stem abuse. Nor is it good for promoting further research. “It makes a huge difference,” she says. “Many people who are making the decisions about funding going to NIH and other organizations will now say 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?”