LINCOLN — An author and former New York Times journalist came to Nebraska this week with a warning: Cannabis is not medicine, and allowing it to be legalized to treat such conditions as anxiety and pain is a big mistake.

“It is not good for people with mental illness. It is not good for people with anxiety and depression. ... It is a recreational intoxicant,” Alex Berenson said in a meeting with reporters Monday. “If we’re going to legalize it, we should legalize it on that basis.”

“Let’s be honest about it,” he said. “It’s a drug. People want to get high.”

Berenson was in Lincoln and Omaha at the invitation of a group opposed to a proposed ballot initiative that would allow Nebraskans in 2020 to vote on whether to legalize medical marijuana. He not only met with reporters in Lincoln, but also spoke at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He also spoke at two private events hosted by Gov. Pete Ricketts, an outspoken opponent of legalizing medical cannabis.

His book, “Tell Your Children,” has been cited by many anti-legalization forces as evidence that cannabis shouldn’t be legalized, as medicine or for recreational purposes, for public health reasons. It’s also been lambasted by critics for “cherry-picking” anti-pot studies while ignoring pro-cannabis reports and being unduly alarmist.

One critic called it “Reefer Madness 2.0,” a reference to a 1930s movie that showed people suddenly becoming insane after smoking marijuana.

Berenson didn’t push back on that criticism, telling reporters that his book — which borrowed the original title of the Reefer Madness movie — is based on dozens of studies that say there’s a link between daily marijuana use and the earlier onset of schizophrenia, a worsening of schizophrenia symptoms and temporary, violent psychosis.

“Reefer madness is a real thing,” he said.

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Berenson said there’s some proof that CBD, a non-hallucinogenic compound found in cannabis that is widely available in stores now, can help some maladies. But he said there’s no evidence that THC, the stuff in pot that makes you high, has any medical benefits.

“There may be people who enjoy smoking cannabis and say it relieves pain, but that’s not how we judge a medicine. A drug has to go through a clinical trial, and it has to be shown effective,” he said, which hasn’t happened.

One critic of the book, German Lopez, wrote on the Vox news website that Berenson has misinterpreted the conclusions of a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Rather than calling it “settled” that cannabis sparks psychosis, Lopez said the report was much more cautious, concluding that the link between the two “may be multi-directional and complex.” In other words, mental illness may drive people to use marijuana to self medicate, rather than pot causing psychosis.

State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a co-sponsor of the medical marijuana ballot initiative, said Berenson presents evidence of a correlation between THC and mental illness, but no evidence that one causes the other. There needs to be more study, the senator said, about whether people who are predisposed to schizophrenia or psychosis might be harmed by cannabis.

Wishart said legalizing cannabis for medical use would force such users now getting the drug through the black market for medication to talk to a physician, who could advise them on what is the best treatment for them.

“That seems like the smart approach,” she said.

Berenson, who covered the pharmaceutical industry before leaving the Times in 2010, said he delved into studies about marijuana and mental illness after hearing stories about violent crimes committed by patients under the care of his wife, a forensic psychiatrist in New York State. Almost all the crimes were committed while under the influence of marijuana or some other drug, he said.

He said there are numerous studies that show that cannabis can induce “transient psychosis,” which prompts someone, without warning, to become violent.

Berenson said he can’t “prove” that the legalization of recreational marijuana has been the reason violent crime has risen in Colorado and Washington, but statistics show such crime has increased in those two states after pot was legalized in 2014.

By contrast, one 2017 study said that violent crime dropped in U.S. states near the Mexican border after medical marijuana was approved.

The Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws initiative petition drive was launched this spring after the Nebraska Legislature did not advance a bill to legalize medical marijuana. The petition must gather about 128,000 signatures by July to qualify for the ballot.

Berenson said his visit to Nebraska was arranged by a political consulting firm, Axiom Strategies. That firm is working for SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) Nebraska, a group that is opposing the legalization push. Berenson said he was only accepting reimbursement for his travel expenses.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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