California Forum

Marijuana legalization sparked a return to false link between smokers and violence

Two different strains of cannabis sit on the counter at A Therapeutic Alternative as legal marijuana sales begin in Sacramento on Monday, January 1, 2018 in Sacramento, Calif.
Two different strains of cannabis sit on the counter at A Therapeutic Alternative as legal marijuana sales begin in Sacramento on Monday, January 1, 2018 in Sacramento, Calif.

With marijuana legal in 26 states and a majority of Americans in favor of legalization, pot prohibitionists have repackaged the myth of the violent pot smoker, bolstering it with bunk science and even worse logic.

In his remarkably well-promoted new book, “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence”, former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson offers a bold and footnote-free thesis that attempts to link marijuana with violence and mental illness.

Originally invented by Federal Narcotics Bureau chief Harry Anslinger and disseminated in films like “Reefer Madness,” the idea that marijuana causes violence is as absurd in 2019 as it was in the 1936. When it comes to the relationship between pot and violence, the true subject matter experts are not psychiatrists, university scientists or journalists.

The true experts are the people who kick in the doors of crack houses, get shot at by tweakers, wrestle with naked PCP users and walk the streets when the downtown bars close on Saturday night. Law enforcement attitudes have changed dramatically since Colorado’s Ed Brown, “a veteran two-gun sheriff,” told a reporter in 1936 that “he would rather face a whole saloon full of drunken bad hombres all crying for my scalp than one lone marihuana smoker on the prod.”

A random sampling of present-day police officers show a more nuanced view of the relationship between marijuana and violence. Glen Page worked in San Bernardino as both a uniformed police officer and undercover narcotics detective. Averaging 200-300 arrests a year, Page was involved in two fatal shootings and more fights than he can remember.


“In all of these incidences I cannot remember marijuana ever being the drug of choice to motivate the criminal behavior I faced,” wrote Page. “I can testify that in both deadly force shootings I was involved in, the suspects were under the influence of meth. Every injury I sustained while making arrests, the suspects were either under the influence of meth, PCP, cocaine or alcohol. I cannot remember one incident were I had any trouble arresting a person under the influence of marijuana.”

“I STRONGLY disagree,” wrote Jeff Winn, former head of the New Orleans SWAT team wrote, “In my experience, marijuana smokers are nonviolent and usually VERY hungry (lol!). People on meth, certain processes of fentanyl and phencyclidine (PCP) are the most aggressive and violent. Weed smokers are dangerous to Del Taco!”

Maguire Photo.jpg
Peter Maguire

Legendary DEA agent Jim Conklin worked heroin cases in Harlem and meth cases in San Diego before going on to make some of the biggest marijuana busts in American history.

“I mean, a lot of drug people, you get a lot of dirt bags, these guys [pot smugglers] were all smart,” he said. “They weren’t violent [pot smugglers], I mean, you don’t gotta worry about these guys pulling a gun on you. They’re all pretty nonviolent types.”

Even an anti-pot police sergeant with 20 years of experience (SWAT, narcotics detective, and beat cop) who asked to remain anonymous offered this balanced and intellectually honest view: “Overall, I think it’s less about the drug and more about the individual’s reaction to it. If someone is predisposed to violence then they will get violent when impaired on weed, alcohol, coke, meth. With heroin, they shoot up while driving and pass out, [and] they are the bigger danger.”

He said that the most violent people he encounters are “the young kids doing powder cocaine [who] think they are Superman and want to fight everyone.”

There are problems with the way the legal marijuana industry is developing in America. Big Pharma giant AG Bayer (the first company to sell heroin commercially), big tobacco giant Philip Morris and big alcohol giant Constellation should not be allowed to corner the market.

Powerful edibles should not look like candy. People with pre-existing psychological problems probably should not smoke today’s pot. However, given that more Americans died from drug overdoses than died in the Vietnam War in 2017 (72,000), and that Americans are more likely to die of an opiate overdose than a car accident, we can no longer afford magical moralism.

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” the advocates of a collapsing paradigm “will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.”

This recent spate of anti-pot alarmism represents little more than the death knell of a failing paradigm.

Peter Maguire is a historian and former war crimes investigator whose writings have been published in the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times and The New York Review of Books. His most recent book is “Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers and The Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade.”