Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Sean A. Witters, Ph.D., a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Vermont. His current book project, Using Addict, looks at the evolving language of addiction, tracing the images and stories of drug use and dependency that flow through literature, film, medicine, and culture from the 19th century to the present. In this post, he responds to Alex Berenson’s recent book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, about which Points hosted a roundtable in January.
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
-Toni Morrison, 1993 Nobel Address
I recently found myself linked to a group of researchers cited in The Guardian in Jamiles Lartey’s article on an open letter that criticizes the controversial claims about cannabis, mental health, and violence in Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. Alex Berenson’s response in the article is marked by the same paranoiac construction of truth that shapes his book and its unfortunate impact on the public discussion on drugs, addiction, mental health, incarceration, and harm reduction. Berenson insists, “Physicians know the truth.” Without regard for his own credentials, he rejects the expertise of the signators, privileging medical degrees over doctorates in epidemiology, biochemistry, criminology, sociology, psychology, history, and neuroscience and ignoring the significant role of MDs and dual degree-holders with specialties in public health. When he chooses to rely on the earned expertise of non-MDs, as he does in his first chapter, he claims interpretive pre-eminence. This is most notable in his dispute with historian Isaac Campos who has criticized Berenson’s cherry-picked use of his findings. In his response, Berenson claims that Campos doesn’t understand findings apparently hidden within his own research.