Marijuana Legalization: Misgivings and Hopes
Marijuana legalization is in motion: step by step, state by state. Counting Washington, where I live, twelve states have already passed recreational marijuana legislation. At least seven more states, including New York and Minnesota, both traditionally liberal states, are slated for similar legalization in 2019.
While stopping the weed train is unlikely (there are profits to be made in this new frontier), ensuring that its brakes and safety protocols are in working order is imperative. Protections for our most vulnerable populations — adolescents, young adults, and people with mental illness issues — ought to be mandatory.
I work in an outpatient mental health program adjacent to an acute psychiatric hospital. A major portion of our patient population wrangles with substance use issues. Patients tend to use marijuana to relax, to dampen the pain of loss, or to escape from emotional intensity entirely. There are patients who use marijuana to sleep, and patients who use it for adventure or relief from boredom. Some patients have made recent suicide attempts or serious self-harm gestures. Other patients have intrusive negative thoughts that make life seem untenable.
Marijuana can worsen these symptoms. Marijuana with high THC content, for example, can exacerbate suicidal ideation or psychosis in people who have bipolar disorder. I worry about the vulnerability of these patients when it comes to marijuana. I worry about teenagers using it without understanding the impact it has on their brain development and future mental health. I want to steer vulnerable patients toward a cautionary approach to marijuana or towards avoiding it entirely.
While I’m an advocate for caution around marijuana use, I do not believe that legalization will produce the catastrophic results portrayed by Alex Berenson in Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Health and Violence. Berenson is a mystery writer who has in this case written his second nonfiction book in fifteen years — and it shows.
In it, he portrays people with mental illness, particularly those diagnosed with schizophrenia, as violent and dangerous — even more so with legal access to marijuana. To do this, he relies on media portrayals that engender fear and amplify stigmatization of mental illness with all the subtlety of an evangelical pamphlet illustrated with images of marijuana-crazed schizophrenic zombies.
The public’s primitive fear of madness — which likely protects us from getting too close to our own vulnerability — is fueled by negative associations fed by negative media stereotypes. Portrayals of people with mental health challenges as being “other,” that is, outside the shelter of society, are destructive. This “othering” induces shame, remorse, and hopelessness in people who are already tasked with the difficulty of establishing a new version of a self.
In Tell Your Children, Berenson focuses only on the behavioral extremes of schizophrenia mixed with marijuana, skewing his statistics in order to make his argument against legalization stronger. He sometimes includes other forms of psychosis (in addition to schizophrenia) in his numbers without explaining crucial differences, randomly adding bipolar patients and patients with other mental health issues to his numbers. Often, such patients are more at risk of doing damage to themselves — exhausting their primary relationships, destabilizing their own financial well-being, engaging in various forms of self-harm — than to others.