The cannabis industry wrapped up 2018 in a celebratory mood. Legalization and decriminalization advanced in states across the country. Election outcomes for state, gubernatorial, and Congressional offices mirrored the widespread and growing public support for cannabis. Against this backdrop, the latest attack from critics of cannabis is that much more jarring. Having lost at the voting booth, the opposition has pivoted to take the battle into another public forum: the media.
Author Alex Berenson’s new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence follows a formula first laid down in the 1930s and echoed through the intervening decades. The formula produces an alarmist – and at times, an alarmingly effective – narrative. While the latest iteration is more subtly crafted, at its heart Berenson’s argument follows the same formula as all other prohibitionist screed: marijuana leads to crime, insanity and violence.
The formula calls for a critique voiced by a seemingly credible skeptic, in this case a former New York Times reporter. Berenson’s role as an outsider only serves to strengthen the narrative. He has no public ties to lobbyists, law enforcement, or history with the cannabis industry. We are to believe he is a voice in the wilderness. Berenson embraces the role. In his January 4th New York Times op-ed, Berenson frames his argument by casting “marijuana legalization advocates and for-profit cannabis companies” as schemers who “have shrewdly recast marijuana as a medicine rather than an intoxicant.” Berenson casts himself as a brave truth teller, risking mockery from those who “have squelched discussion of the serious mental health risks of marijuana”. Similar op-eds from Berenson appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the author has received favorable treatment by CNBC, Mother Jones, and elsewhere.
That the arguments Berenson presents don’t hold up to careful scrutiny is not the issue for the cannabis industry. Many others have poked holes in Berenson’s position: presenting correlation for causation, cherry-picking sources, reverting back to anecdotal evidence and other mistakes. There’s no point in reiterating those points here. (For those interested, Vox did a nice job.) That a veteran journalist (turned spy novelist) blunders such basics is hard to fathom. The Rolling Stone put in print what many have no doubt been wondering: is Berenson trolling us? However even if Tell Your Children was written as a brazen cash-grab, it doesn’t matter. Contrarians make for good stories and the subject matter – drugs, insanity, and violence – is perfect for prime time.
Anyone expecting that this story will go away should take note of Malcolm Gladwell’s contribution to the January 14 New Yorker. While Gladwell does little more than parrot Berenson’s argument, attaching his household name to the story just adds more grist to the mill. If anything, Gladwell takes a step or two further, posing leading questions and dangling critical observations only to shift focus in a following paragraph. He closes the piece inviting the reader to lump infused products in with e-cigarettes as a threat to America’s youth, evoking the tired “gateway” scare tactic.
Gladwell has also been debunked in the media. (This post on Boing Boing is a good start.) The counterarguments have appeared in the press this week as well. (The latest, from The Atlantic, can be found here.) However taking Gladwell and Berenson to task in the media only lends legitimacy to an argument that is, in large part, a farce. That won’t prove helpful on the ground to cannabis businesses which will inevitably be faced with responding to these charges in some fashion. With increased awareness will come increased scrutiny but this can be seen as a positive. This presents an opportunity to cannabis businesses. Here is a four-point plan to manage the conversation on a local level:
- Take stock of your assets: your business may have tight ties to local policymakers and government representatives, a strong social media presence, a high-traffic website, a loyal core of customers and patients, and other intangible but critical assets. Assess where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
- Communicate proactively: leverage your strengths to get your message out. For those with a significant footing, social media can highlight your contributions to the community. (Green Thumb Industries offers good examples on both LinkedIn and Facebook.) For customer-facing businesses, email communication – in the form of a concise, tactful message – can help educate readers on what is playing out in the media.
- Make yourself available: bring the community together by organizing and supporting local forums. Doing so creates an environment that fosters constructive discussion. Offer yourself as an accessible resource to the local press, parent groups, and others. Circle back with local stakeholders as well. For cultivators and processors, this might require investing some resources to raise your profile as dispensary operators will naturally have higher visibility.
- Avoid the tit-for-tat: let the industry organizations with the resources to manage the conversation at a national level do so. (And volunteer your support, if possible.) Leaders like DPA, MPP, NORML, and many others will continue to align the industry on a message countering misinformation. Getting dragged into a back and forth with critics on statistics and research findings burns invaluable time and energy. Don’t let this distract from the core message: cannabis businesses are a positive for local caregivers, patients, adult consumers, and the business community.
The opposition has seemingly pivoted to the national press and, at least for the time being, away from the ballot box. In a sense, doing so creates space for cannabis businesses to regroup from the stresses of the 2018 campaign season to focus on the face-to-face relationships on the ground. People in states like Florida, Illinois, and Ohio will care less about how to interpret data coming out of Colorado and Washington State than what broader access to cannabis will mean to local residents. Let detractors like Berenson and Gladwell exhaust the litany of anti-cannabis tropes while we seize the opportunity to reinforce and reengage.