The video above is an anti-drug PSA from the early 1970s, in which a slick talking magician offers drugs to children on a playground. "Hey kiddies, gather round, the man with the goodies is here!" he says as he sets up a small performance table and uses magical flourishes to show off his illicit wares. One of the kids in the audience, playing the part of a heckler, challenges the prestidigitating pusher at every turn with spoilers like "They say amphetamines can cause something like schizophreem," "Withdrawals from barbituates can cause convulsions," and "[LSD can cause] bad trips and a chance of chromosome damage."
When I started reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest New Yorker article, Is Smoking Marijuana as Safe as We Think?, I was reminded of this commercial -- specifically, the part where the magician, annoyed by the kid's heckling, makes a marijuana bouquet spontaneously appear in one hand and a joint in the other. He says to the kid, "Grass. Anything wrong with pot?" The kid replies, "They're not sure yet, they just started studying about it." Gladwell starts off his article like this kid (who was correct in 1973), by arguing that we still don't know anything about marijuana's effects. The problem is, it's 2019 and Gladwell's article disingenuously cherry-picks some facts and fails to disclose other facts as part of what seems to be a strong anti-pot agenda.
On Twitter, science journalist Dave Levitan pointed out a number of major problems with Gladwell's piece. For example, Gladwell wrote "smoking pot is widely supposed to diminish the nausea associated with chemotherapy. But, the [National Academy of Medicine] panel pointed out [in a 2017 report titled: The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids] 'there are no good-quality randomized trials investigating this option.'"
Gladwell is correct, the report indeed states that, and it seems to support his argument that "They're not sure yet, they just started studying about it." But Gladwell fails to mention that the panel also wrote, "There is conclusive evidence that oral cannabinoids are effective antiemetics in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting." Imagine if Gladwell had been completely honest and had written: "smoking pot is widely supposed to diminish the nausea associated with chemotherapy. But, the panel pointed out 'there are no good-quality randomized trials investigating this option.' However, the panel also stated 'There is conclusive evidence that oral cannabinoids are effective antiemetics in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.'" That would have made it hard for Gladwell to write the rest of his article, which depends on the fact that he has convinced his readers that "They're not sure yet, they just started studying about it."
Hey sure, I’ll join the pile-on as I read Gladwell’s big pot story (https://t.co/0101wWYd5q). I’m two paragraphs in and I already went to the report he’s citing and found some bullshit.
Here’s what he writes versus one thing the report says: pic.twitter.com/D2DvwKZi9H
— Dave Levitan (@davelevitan) January 8, 2019
Many other parts of Gladwell's article are flawed, too. He confuses correlation with causation:
"[Alex] Berenson [author of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence], looks, too, at the early results from the state of Washington, which, in 2014, became the first U.S. jurisdiction to legalize recreational marijuana. Between 2013 and 2017, the state’s murder and aggravated-assault rates rose forty per cent -- twice the national homicide increase and four times the national aggravated-assault increase. We don’t know that an increase in cannabis use was responsible for that surge in violence. Berenson, though, finds it strange that, at a time when Washington may have exposed its population to higher levels of what is widely assumed to be a calming substance, its citizens began turning on one another with increased aggression."
In other words, "We don't know if weed turns people into killers, but after Washington legalized weed, people turned into killers. I'm just saying."
If Gladwell needs more stories like this, I have a source for him:
Just reading the responses to my @NewYorker piece on the unknowns about marijuana. I’m puzzled why pot advocates would be hostile to the idea of learning more about the consequences of their habit. Haven’t we been through this w the climate deniers?
— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) January 8, 2019