EPISODE 4 - Reefer Madness
Guest: Amanda Chicago Lewis
Sandy chats with reporter and Rolling Stone cannabis columnist Amanda Chicago Lewis about Reefer Madness — the 1936 propaganda film, the newer spoof movie musical, a recent scientifically spurious but appallingly popular book, and the idea that reefer causes madness. Racism, Nixon, legalization efforts, and the true scourges of 1930s America (jazz and marijuana!) are all discussed. A transcript of the episode can be found below.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Amanda Chicago Lewis (she/her/hers) mostly reports on the marijuana industry and the war on drugs. She's written for Rolling Stone, GQ, WIRED, and the Wall Street Journal.
SOME SUGGESTED RESOURCES FROM SANDY
Read Amanda Chicago Lewis’ piece on THAT TROLL
Here’s some of her previous reporting on consumer safety and illegal cannabis
On the terrifying safety situation regarding hash oil (Sandy edited this one!)
Here are two recent essays about her brain injury and its aftermath:
For more of her work: https://www.amandachicagolewis.com/
Sandy uses the Aaptiv app for yoga (and prefer’s Jade Alexis’ classes)
AMANDA CHICAGO LEWIS: Reefer Madness is sort of a short-hand for all kinds of distorted and exaggerated claims about marijuana overall: that it makes you crazy, that it makes you violent, you know, that it leads to huge societal problems. And I feel like the reason why people are so interested in that, and the reason why it’s been such a focal point for satire and, like, I don’t know, derision, is that almost everyone knows that that’s not true, because marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the world. Millions of people use it every day. Everyone knows someone who uses cannabis. And it’s extremely rare to see cannabis turn people into crazier or more violent versions of themselves. In fact it really usually does the opposite.
[LIGHTER FLICK, INHALE]
[SLOWED DOWN MAD CHAT THEME MUSIC]
SANDY ALLEN: This is Mad Chat, a podcast where we unpack what our pop culture is telling us about madness and mental health. I'm your host, Sandy Allen. Today I’m very excited to be discussing a really bad movie that was made in 1936 and still has an impressive hold on our cultural imagination about both insanity and cannabis: Reefer Madness.
[CLIP FROM REEFER MADNESS (1936)]
DR. CARROLL: Recently a huge supply of heroin was taken. The deadly drug was burned in the incinerator of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. And more vicious, more deadly, even, than these soul-destroying drugs, is the menace of marijuana.
SANDY: I’m very excited that here to talk with me about Reefer Madness is my dear friend and honestly favorite person on earth to discuss all things cannabis: reporter, writer Amanda Chicago Lewis. Amanda, welcome to Mad Chat!
AMANDA: Hey, Sandy! Happy to be here.
SANDY: I wondered, when I asked you, you know, if you’d — if you’d talk about Reefer Madness, had you seen it before?
AMANDA: I’ve seen pieces of it. (Sighs) I don’t remember it in great detail. I know I was at a celebration of legalization maybe a year and a half ago where they were projecting clips from Reefer Madness on the wall while everyone got super stoned (BOTH laugh).
SANDY: It’s like around. So just for the listeners who aren’t already aware of you and your work, do you mind telling a bit about, you know, what you write about and — and — and what you focus on in your reporting career?
AMANDA: Sure, yeah. For the last five or six years I’ve been very focused on cannabis from pretty much every point of view you could look at weed — so from the scientific standpoint, the political policy standpoint, business practices and undue influence of special interests over legalization, you know, social and cultural implications. So weirdly, you know, I cover cannabis from the perspective of someone who’s been using it since I was a teenager with the idea that, you know, if your average pothead was really involved and informed on what was going on with legalization, what they might be interested in and care about. Because, you know, I guess I’m sort of the average pothead over here.
SANDY: (Laughs) You’re much more informed than the average pothead, I gotta say.
AMANDA: Well now I am. But in 2012 I was not.
SANDY: Sure. And so you’ve written for all sorts of outlets, including BuzzFeed News, where I was your editor years ago, and GQ, and you’re now a columnist for Rolling Stone.
AMANDA: Yes, yes, yes. So many — so many outlets, so little time (laughs). But yes, I — I try to really be like the bridge between the cannabis world and the mainstream world, and sort of walk back and forth between those worlds and explain what’s going on to the people.
SANDY: Which is often racism, right? Like, it’s often, like —
AMANDA: Oh gosh.
SANDY: — agh, it’s — it’s racism. We’ve got — oh, it’s another case of racism, okay.
AMANDA: There’s a lot of racism, there’s a lot of capitalism. That’s sort of what it all comes down to.
SANDY: Oooh, wondering if capitalism might be bad. Okay. Really quick, let’s say what we’re talking about, Reefer Madness. So, it was a movie from [5:00] 1936 that was like this anti-marijuana propaganda film, and it also had a couple other titles, including Tell Your Children, and also The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth, and also Love Madness, which, you know, they — I — I think Reefer Madness is clearly the strongest title, so strong, in fact, it’s been the title of all sorts of other things, including the Eric Schlosser book from 2003. And the 1936 Reefer Madness was also adapted into a movie musical in the early aughts starring Kristen Bell and Alan Cumming and Ana Gasteyer, and I just watched it today, and it is horrifically bad.
[CLIP FROM REEFER MADNESS (2005)]
LECTURER: (sung) Reefer madness / reefer madness.
ENSEMBLE: (sung) Reefer madness / reefer madness.
LECTURER: (sung) Oh so mad!
AMANDA: That’s a great cast for how disappointing it sounds like it came out.
SANDY: I am so fucking disappointed in this movie. I really — I was, like — I was literally throwing my hands on my cheeks in shock, that’s how shocked I was by how bad the movie was. I was like, oh, that just happened involuntarily, like I’m touching my face.
AMANDA: Well it’s all so ridiculous, and I love how, like, campy they must have been trying for. But I feel like it was too early to be making any kind of salient social point in the sense that cannabis was still so prohibited, especially like pre-2006. I mean 2006 is really where it started to pop up in California. So the idea that they were mocking this thing while it was still the predominant way people were thinking about cannabis is —
SANDY: Right. Right. As a dangerous —
AMANDA: — it was just, like, not the right moment for that.
SANDY: Yeah. Well, and I mean my main thing is like it’s — it was like billed as a satire but literally not funny. Like I was like, whoa, there is an astonishing lack of actual comedy in this thing, it’s just Kristen Bell singing a musical. Anyway, so it’s — it’s all these things, and I think Reefer Madness, too, I would say it’s also kind of just the construct — like the meme, even — of like cannabis equals insanity equals homicidal violence, right?
SANDY: That’s kind of the — the rough equation here. And so this — this — this idea is nonetheless really popular. We’ve got this most recent book that came out this year by this former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson called Tell Your Children, i.e., one of the other original Reefer Madness alt titles, which you wrote about in your Rolling Stone column, and which was written up by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, like really fawningly, science be damned. And I wondered first if we could talk about, like, the original Reefer Madness, which comes out in the 30s. What’s going on in American culture in terms of marijuana and its prohibition, etcetera, when this movie is made?
AMANDA: Right. So the 1930s was a crucial turning point in the sense that it’s when Harry Anslinger, who’s running the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, decided that he was going to demonize cannabis — associate it with people of color, associate it with violence — and lead this huge charge to make it illegal. And he had a huge influence. And so the 30s was really the beginning of this four-decade retraction of cannabis from being a commonly available medical herb or, you know, something that was sort of brought up from Mexico and smoked recreationally among very small — you know, it wasn’t really that common at that time, but people were certainly doing it — sort of this transition from that to this totally demonized drug that politicians repeatedly exaggerated the effects of (laughs). So yeah.
SANDY: So, it was — it was successful, right, ultimately, this effort to — to demonize, you know. I mean in — in the original Reefer Madness they call it a narcotic a bunch of times, like “the narcotic marijuana” like over and over. But like this is the prohibition that we still have, right?
AMANDA: Right. And we forget, you know, drugs in general — what we sense to be a medicine, what we sense to be an intoxicant — these things are really culturally determined, and they’re very much determined by social attitudes, by racism, by classism. So drugs [10:00] that were being used by people of color, drugs that were being used by poor people were seen as bad; drugs that were used by people in power were seen as acceptable. You know, and cannabis also weirdly in the nineteenth century, you know — we see this like divergence between opioids and cannabinoids. So in the nineteenth century when western medicine was a lot less developed and you’d have these sketchy surgeries or, you know, these uneducated doctors who were just doing their best, but we didn’t really know much about, I don’t know, washing your hands before you went in and dealt with a patient’s insides — you wanted opioids, you know? You wanted the stronger medicine. Cannabis was available, but because it wasn’t as powerful, you know, it didn’t get used quite as much. But people were already noticing then, you know, opioids are much stronger but much more addictive and ultimately more harmful to the body. There are medical papers from the 1840s, 1850s talking about this, you know? Anecdotal, not the, you know, perfect, peer-review research that, like, exists today, but like certainly the same effects were observed then. And so — anyway, yeah, so I mean this was a medicine, it was a more mild form of medicine than opioids, you know. In the end of the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, like, understanding of what drugs — what was a drug, what was a medicine, what was quote unquote good for you, what wasn’t good for you, what was potentially a menace (BOTH laugh) —
SANDY: A scourge! (Laughs)
AMANDA: — and what was not — all these things got determined kind of outside of science. These — these are social, cultural, socioeconomic attitudes toward substances.
SANDY: Right. So in the original Reefer Madness, it is framed around a PTA meeting where this, like, kind of scary, bespectacled dude named Dr. Carroll is giving this presentation: Tell Your Children About the Scourge of Marijuana.
[CLIP FROM REEFER MADNESS (1936)]
DR. CARROLL: You and all the school-parent groups about the country. And you must stand united on this, and stamp out this frightful assassin of our youth! Because it is only through enlightenment that this scourge can be wiped out.
SANDY: And it’s kind of this moral tale that he’s telling about these, like, young people who are lured into a reefer den, and who, you know, become basically involved in all this, you know, murder and violence and sex and, you know, etcetera, because of reefer. Where do you want to start? Like, do we want to start with cannabis and insanity? Like, we — we’ve got, you know — we’ve got this — this depiction, right, in — in Reefer Madness of these young people’s descent. And, you know, one of the characters in particular is often, like, kind of quaking as he’s like really sucking down his like reefer stick, or whatever they call it.
AMANDA: Good god.
SANDY: So what is — what is the relationship that like — what does the science show us, like what do we know anecdotally about the relationship between the use of cannabis and psychosis, or insanity, or whatever term we want to put here — schizophrenia diagnosis, perhaps, particularly.
AMANDA: So I think any time a substance alters your mind — and of course we have lots and lots of mind-altering substances, and many of them are legal, and many of them are available through prescription — you know, people need to have that sort of couched within some sense of what is okay and what is not okay, right? So we think, oh, like, peyote, like, that’s really bad. Or like meth — don’t do meth. But then we think, you know, maybe fentanyl that you might get after surgery or, you know, really powerful antipsychotic drugs, you know, things like that really mess with your brain chemistry and — and might intoxicate you. I mean certainly I’ve had Percocet after major surgery, and that was very intoxicating. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t focus on anything, sort of just like half-watching television all the time. I mean, like, isn’t that the scary image that we’re told of, like, this is your brain on drugs, or this is what you’re actually doing when you’re on drugs, like kind of drooling and watching TV. And I think that violence and insanity get brought out there because they are I guess some of society’s greatest fears, you know? Like when you’re on a substance, when your mind is altered, you might lose control. And if you lose control, like, what could those consequences be? Or, oh my god, what are the worst consequences — the worst consequences are violence or insanity. Or, you know, [15:00] depending on your point of view, perhaps sex with a black man (laughs). You know, like, there was always, like, what is the scariest thing a person could imagine? That is what weed is gonna make you do. So, okay, in terms of the actual science, cannabis is generally very safe. One of the few things we do know, however, is that there is some association between using cannabis and schizophrenia. Is that a causal association? Really difficult to say.
AMANDA: However —
SANDY: And that a big, important point, you know, to just pause there, in terms of the difference between correlation and causation when it comes to looking at stuff like cannabis use and schizophrenia diagnosis.
AMANDA: Right. Actually, this is something I wanted to ask you, because (sighs) — so my sense is when your mind is somehow altered and your brain already might have something in it that was, you know, getting ready to trigger psychosis or some other kind of mental illness, that getting into an altered state will just sort of help you along. And that’s sort of my, you know, unscientific, having talked to a lot of people understanding of what I think might be going on. And I feel like other people have implied to me that there’s similar research around, you know, if you are going to have a psychotic break, if you are schizophrenic and it’s about to manifest at some point in your — usually I think in your 20s, no? — and you definitely know more about this than I do — that, you know, maybe doing LSD could trigger it, that maybe, you know, getting drunk repeatedly could — could trigger it. Is — is that — is that something people talk about? That like the onset of schizophrenia could be, like, further triggered by any kind of mind-altering substance?
SANDY: Well it’s — you know, it’s an interesting question: Does it get talked about, does it get researched, you know, do people look into possible, you know, like — here’s the thing, here’s the thing that causes schizophrenia. Is like that investigated constantly? Sure. You know what I mean? And like, cannabis, LSD, whether a mother was sick during pregnancy, whether it was a difficult birth, whether it was a — a conception in the winter, all these things — the father being older — all these factors that, you know, I think have been associated, you know, with higher schizophrenia diagnosis — living in cities. A good example, though, is like typically the much higher rate of smoking cigarettes, you know? But no one’s walking around saying, like, oh clearly cigarettes cause schizophrenia. And so there is this tendency that we have to wanna make this argument, but it’s not necessarily one that’s like permitted by the actual research. And I think the thing I always end up thinking about is in — in general, and I think if people are interested in this, they should probably read my book — all of the research to do with schizophrenia is like trying to hold sand in your hands, you know what I mean? Like, there is such a problem in the way that we have even begun to think about — this diagnostic category itself is so broad as to almost be meaningless. And there’s often this, you know — there’s just this really large issue, ‘cause it’s like unlike a — a — an actual pathogen-based disorder, you know, if we had something like we’re looking at rates of HIV infection and we can really, you know, this — this is a much more kind of stable thing to study. With schizophrenia, what ends up happening with a lot of psychiatric research — we have over the course of the twentieth century this tremendous influx of pharma money influencing thought, you know, from the academy to the med schools to the books to the, you know, the professionals. Everybody has just been oriented toward thinking about this stuff in terms of really as if it were literal pathogen, you know? Thinking about —
AMANDA: Even though — and so you’re saying, like, there’s no biological marker —
AMANDA: — that indicates someone has schizophrenia. There’s no way to scan your brain that says, oh, you’ve got schizophrenia.
SANDY: And — and — and so much so that, like, they would have found it in the 80s, you know what I mean? Like, why we continue to think about so many psychiatric disorders in terms of disorder versus a normal, why is that the way we still think about all that. I mean I really think a lot of it has to do with the supreme lockdown on thought to do with mental health that pharma has, you know? Like, we really aren’t allowed to have an imagination around this stuff that is free of really, you know, an idea that’s rooted I think still in an idea of, like, good versus bad, you know? And — and Reefer Madness is so much about this, like the corruption of normal, you know? Like there’s this — this good American boy.
AMANDA: Yeah, and it sounds like you’re saying, so, from the schizophrenia side of things not even good versus bad but we have a product to sell, [20:00] so let’s create a problem that that product is going to allegedly help with, right? So like pharma says we’ve got this pill, this is gonna do something to your brain, it seems to help with some people who have the symptoms that we associate with schizophrenia, but there is no, you know, there’s no specific, like you said, a pathogen that’s being eliminated or like some biological clarity on like what’s happening. And so you get these, like, clusters of symptoms that get termed a disease, and then mostly it exists because we have a medicine for it.
SANDY: Yeah. I would go so far as to say we have clusters of experiences which are called symptoms because a pathology metaphor has been literalized at people, right? Like —
AMANDA: Right. Yeah.
SANDY: — and I don’t want to diminish the reality of psychosis or the fact that psychosis or whatever you wanna call it — spiritual emergency — like, that that can be a really scary experience for the individual, for others, etcetera — like, I don’t want to pretend that is not an actual and I think really big issue in our society that we don’t take into account. I mean, here’s the reality about schizophrenia, about psychosis — it could happen to anybody, you know? And — and a lot of individuals with those kinds of histories are super fucking careful about what they ingest, period, you know what I mean? Like people who live with that level of, like, challenge and who’ve had that kind of experience in their life, in my experience at least, tend to be people with a really intense amount of scrutiny also around what they’re ingesting in terms of chemicals, right? Like, they often have a psychiatrist or two or more and a therapist who are like talking to them about what they’re on or not, you know? There’s a lot of — there’s — there’s — there’s a lot of ignorance, I think, in our just day to day life about what life is like for folks who are living with challenges like, you know, that result in stuff like a schizophrenia diagnosis. Like, I think it’s really — it’s really — we — we only have that kind of like image of, like, Ralph, you know, the, like, madman.
AMANDA: Right. No, and I think we’re unpacking the way that this has been flattened, right?
AMANDA: And this all goes back to this book and this scandal, and I want to talk about that. But I think that, like, you’re explaining how it is that the idea of schizophrenia and psychosis has been flattened into this single thing.
AMANDA: And, you know, does it make sense that these — these experiences involve a little bit losing touch with what we would call reality, and that cannabis and other drugs start you along the road of detaching from what we would call reality? I mean, like, yeah it makes sense, like, you start to go down that road and that might release you even farther. But the thing is, like — okay, so here’s the thing with this book. I have tried to not engage with this guy. I didn’t even really want to write the column about the book because it seems so clear to me that he is disingenuous and that he is a troll (SANDY laughs) and that he is trying to sell copies of his book. Because —
SANDY: Yeah, using sensational arguments. Yeah.
AMANDA: Right. And so it’s like, allegedly he’s a real journalist, blah blah blah. Guess what? If you’re a journalist who says that you’re gonna take other people’s research — that really important research that not enough people are paying attention to — and you’re gonna translate it for a wide audience — yo, I understand that. That’s a lot of what I do is trying to, like, translate things that are going on that need, you know, wider attention to a big audience. But if you’re gonna do that, guess what? You need to talk to the researchers before you do that. And if you do that, and all the researchers, or most of the researchers come out and say, “Hey, you’re totally distorting what we said, and, like, that’s not totally accurate,” then, guess what, you’re a troll, you’re doing it wrong. Like, and so, like, I literally — you know, I mean like I didn’t even tweet the column that I wrote about it because I was trying so hard not to engage, and I was genuinely afraid someone was gonna ask me to go on cable news and I was gonna have to say no. But — I mean I know it sounds ridiculous (SANDY laughs), but I just didn’t want to engage. I just like — I was like, I feel too overwhelmed about, like, talking to people who just want to have a conversation that is driven by fear [25:00] and outrage instead of by facts. And so the flattening that we’re talking about on the schizophrenia side, you know, is also happening on the cannabis side. And I think what this guy did was really take one important and small conclusion and — and I do think it’s important, you know. And I do tell people who have a history of schizophrenia, either themselves or in their family, like, yeah, be careful, and don’t use more THC than CBD, and there’s, you know, a lot more details within that. But among the very few, you know, what we’d call like contraindications for cannabis, you know, any kind of history of psychosis is a big one. I have a friend who’s had two psychotic episodes now and I’m obsessive about not letting her smoke cannabis or even be around people who are smoking cannabis. I’ve cornered friends of hers that I know have given her cannabis and said, like, do you understand how serious this is, please do not do this. And when she had her — her first episode, her psychotic break, she had been using cannabis in, you know, the week or two before more than she usually was. And like, there were a lot of other factors, and, you know, that’s one thing, and like I genuinely believe that we would’ve discovered with or without the cannabis that sometimes she maybe has a tendency, you know, her brain chemistry can go there.
SANDY: Well and I think that one of the things I — I do wanna just point out as well, though, it’s like I think that an individual in that position is also gonna be smart to be careful about alcohol, right?
SANDY: Like I think they’re gonna be smart to be careful about a lot of substances that might, as you say, potentially alter, you know, their sort of state of mind, and that that can be scarier for some than others. I know people who also use cannabis to help their psychiatric symptoms of a variety of kinds.
AMANDA: For sure. And it depends on what your symptoms are. Do you have anxiety? Do you have depression? Yeah.
SANDY: Yeah, and I mean I know people who identify as voice-hearers, for example, who use cannabis in order to hear their voices more. I know people who — who use it that way. And so I think that for me it really comes down to in a perfect world I think we would have less stigmatization of all this stuff — the chemicals and the internal experiences. I think we’d have less of the desire to label and pathologize. And we would give people better info and a big prerogative, like, you get to decide — I mean, one of the things that’s very striking about Reefer Madness the, like, old movie is the — the kids are, like, drugged, you know what I mean? Like, they’re both like tricked into smoking reefer. They’re like handed — they’re handed like innocent cigarettes, and then it turns out it’s reefer.
[CLIP FROM REEFER MADNESS (1936)]
BLANCHE: Oh dear, if you want a good smoke, try one of these!
SANDY: And it’s like such a simple but like striking fact. Like, they’re not ingesting this stuff willingly, even, right? It’s being, like — they’re — they’re being drugged by someone else, like it’s being pushed on them. Like, that shit itself is really bad, you know? Like that — that like to me is — is — is so different than an adult making the decision that they want to smoke some pot.
AMANDA: Right. And also the same flattening you were talking — talking about with, like, what is schizophrenia, you could do on the other side with — which is, what is cannabis? You know, and I’ve had someone described it to me somewhat recently as, you know, weed is not a drug, it’s a drug development toolkit. There are all of these different compounds that you can emphasize or deemphasize and produce totally opposite effects, right? So you could get a form of cannabis that makes you very hungry, right — the munchies, we all know about that. There’s also a form of cannabis that, you know, causes you to not be hungry and acts as sort of a — a diet pill-style stimulant that, you know — and I’ve talked to one of the guys who’s making a product like this, and he’s tried it and he was like “I didn’t eat for like a whole week” because he was — he was, you know, smoking this kind of cannabis, right? You see the same thing around, I think, blood pressure. You see the same thing around focus, right? Cannabis can make you totally distracted, it can make you super focused. And it’s all about, like, these compounds within and, like, what you’re doing, what you’re not doing. You know, schizophrenia-wise, cannabis that’s super high in CBD I know has been seen as an antipsychotic and is actually good for people who have schizophrenia. So, you know, is it a good thing to try a really high CBD form of cannabis if you have previously had a psychotic episode? Like, no, probably don’t do that. But, you know, there’s a lot more that we’re learning, and there’s a lot more that’s coming out. And I think the thing that was just really mind-blowing to me with Berenson and this book Tell Your Children, which had this just huge maelstrom of publicity in [30:00] January and February in particular, and, you know, earned this really ridiculous Malcolm Gladwell article that made me very angry —
SANDY: Me, too!
AMANDA: — honestly, that made me even angrier than the book itself, because oh my god, Malcolm Gladwell, why are you the worst all the time?
SANDY: Yeah. And there’s this paragraph in here that has, like, facts about schizophrenia where I was like, where are these things even coming from? I was like, wow, this is all news to me, bro. Like, and this is all I research! (Laughs) Yeah.
AMANDA: Right. And the book is just cherry-picking data, over-emphasizing conclusions to make points that aren’t quite reflective of reality. It’s flattening on the mental illness side, it’s flattening on the cannabis side. And in the end it upset everybody, but this guy made a pile of money and because, you know, the media ecosystem is so, you know, enthusiastic about anything that will create any kind of outrage, you know, he got so much attention. And I think it made professional — people who think and do work around cannabis professionally — very frustrated because Berenson was literally tweeting, like, individual instances of a robbery in — a violent robbery, like, in a city, in a state where they legalized cannabis, and trying to act like that was proof that, you know, legal cannabis was causing people to be violent. And it’s just — it doesn’t work like that. And then I, you know — there’s so much flattening that’s happening. Even the sense that, like, you know, if he would say, like, oh this criminal, this person did something violent in this like one specific crime write-up, and they had cannabis in their system. Okay, let’s just even talk about the fact that just because cannabis is in your system doesn’t mean you’re high because cannabis stays in your system for two weeks to four weeks.
SANDY: Yeah. It’s like, he has a goal, he’s mobilizing science toward that end. And it’s like we — we all need to figure out how to make clear that, you know, often you can, as you say, cherry pick. And mean and also — books aren’t fact-checked. I think that’s always worth repeating. Like, books aren’t fact-checked. I wanted to point just toward one thing you say in your column, which I really hope everyone will check out, even though I know you don’t want to give oxygen to a troll.
AMANDA: (Laughs) Well it’s — it’s okay, now the media kerfuffle has died down, so I’m happy to talk about it.
SANDY: You write, you know, “the most dangerous thing about marijuana is its illegality.” And I wondered if you could explain what you mean. Like, what should we be concerned about when we’re thinking about public health, our safety, if we’re like smoking pot ourselves. Like, what should we be concerned about?
AMANDA: Right. So, I think the thing that made me so angry, and this goes back to what made me so angry about the Malcolm Gladwell article, which essentially advocated: we’re not ready for legalization because we don’t know all this stuff.
SANDY: Yeah (laughs).
AMANDA: Which is the most ridiculous argument. We don’t know all this stuff because it’s illegal, okay? Like, that’s why we can’t do proper clinical trials. That’s why, you know, we are in the dark about, you know, things that could be helping so many people with such a wide variety of physical ailments, you know. Are there some risks? Yeah, there are some risks. Are there for-profit companies, you know, leading legalization in maybe not the best directions? Yes. However, unless we legalize and we do the science, it’s just gonna continue in this grey, you know, unsafe way. Because let’s be real: it’s pretty easy to grow cannabis — I mean, it’s not easy to grow it well, but it’s pretty easy to just grow it. It’s everywhere. It’s already everywhere. Like I said, it’s the most popular illegal drug in the world. We’ve got, you know, something like 13-18 percent of Americans using it on a regular basis. So the demand is there. So once the demand is there, the question then is: how is it going to be produced? For a really long time, that meant the cartels in Mexico. Let’s think about what the American demand for cannabis, you know, caused among the cartels in Mexico: lots and lots of violence and death, okay? Was cannabis itself actually killing anyone who was consuming it? No. Does a very occasional person get so high and then do something potentially stupid that causes them to hurt themselves? Yes. But is it anywhere near the level of public health problem that we see with alcohol, which is legal? That we see with tobacco, which is legal? That we see with opioids, which is legal? No. Nowhere near [35:00] as bad as any of those things. So in the 90s, as we see medical legalization move into California, it starts to fuel this boom, especially in northern California and southern Oregon, toward these, you know, backwoods folks from all over the country sort of like the best drug dealers from all over the country will go to northern California to try and, like, make their fortune in what’s known as the Emerald Triangle and, you know — that — the variety of ways that, you know, cannabis gets grown and talked about up there, it’s like almost an enormous culture to try and even describe. But I would just say, that’s a pretty dangerous place. Like, the — there’s been lots of stuff on this recently, I know there was a Netflix show called, like, Murder Mountain or something, but it’s, you know, a place where, you know, one of the counties that’s in the so-called Emerald Triangle — Trinity County — you know, lots and lots of hills and mountains — it’s the surface area of Texas, and it’s patrolled by, like, fewer than twenty law enforcement folks. So, you know, it’s very dangerous when you make something illegal that there’s, like, this huge demand for, and it’s something that isn’t otherwise causing people real physical harm. It’s not causing people to be mentally ill. It’s not causing people to be violent. It’s mostly just causing people to be chill or maybe paranoid or maybe hungry, you know, intoxicated in the way that — in, like, a rather mild way, compared to some of these other drugs. The real problem occurs along the supply chain and the consequences of the supply chain.
SANDY: Right. I wondered if you could talk a bit about pesticides, as well, and some of the risks that, you know, to the consumer, as a result of us relying on a black market, you know, in the parts of the country where we still rely on a black market, as opposed to the, you know, where you live (laughs).
AMANDA: But no, I mean, the illicit market is huge in Los Angeles, Sandy. Like, the — and that’s partly because the feds have, you know, refused to move forward on allowing cannabis to be legal, and the federal government still classifies marijuana as — as dangerous as heroin, but less dangerous than cocaine?
AMANDA: People die of cocaine overdoses; you can’t die of a marijuana overdose. So why is marijuana more dangerous than cocaine? So, you know, the feds sort of putting their heads in the sand and, you know, a lot of government stuff in California where no one really wanted to touch this for a long time means that, you know, I live in Los Angeles, which is the, you know, center for global cannabis commercial activity, and there’s only, like, a hundred seventy or eighty legal marijuana storefronts here, but there’s, like, a thousand illegal storefronts. So all of the consequences when you have this mix between legal and illegal — which really means that consumers consider it to be legal, but the people on the supply chain are often taking really big risks — it means that we’ve seen use of insecticides, fungicides, plant growth, you know, emphasizers, or whatever they’re called, you know, things that really make, like, denser, bigger buds, and things that help you get rid of problems like mites and powdery mildew — these chemicals, you know if you’re growing an illegal drug, you don’t really care about the safety standards of what you’re using as long as it doesn’t immediately kill your customer. And so neurotoxic and carcinogenic chemicals are being put onto illicit cannabis so that it grows better and faster and more. So, you know, if you’re buying — I mean look, if you’re buying weed in New York City, just to be clear, like, almost certainly you’re doing something that — smoking that is like about as carcinogenic — I mean this is, like, not scientific, but like it’s just as carcinogenic I’d say as like a cigarette because it’s got mad chemicals on it (BOTH laugh). You know, and not like — not like, oh the supermarket, you know, has the organic apple and the regular apple, the regular apple has pesticides on it. It’s like, yeah, but those are like approved pesticides. We’re not talking about, like, oh we want you to have the organic, like, nice, special weed. We’re talking about, like, weed that’s, like, fine for you and weed that has genuinely dangerous chemicals on it. So this is a minor issue in the larger context of [40:00], you know, the health benefits that cannabis can provide, but it definitely points to the problems that get created when an industry — a for-profit industry — is growing like crazy without legal protections, so everything sort of gets pushed behind a curtain, if that makes any sense. Like, there — the financial transactions can’t happen in the same way that they might otherwise, and so then you’re dealing with bags of cash, and you’re dealing with, like, just — I mean it’s like inherently by making something illegal, regardless of whether the thing itself is dangerous, if there’s this huge demand for it, you know, and there’s this huge infrastructure of people who are, like, selling it and producing it, it’s so much more dangerous when it’s illegal than when it’s legal.
SANDY: What about the dangers of jazz music? (AMANDA laughs) You know? Have you — have you considered that if you are to smoke reefer, you might listen to jazz music, like, really, really fast.
[CLIP FROM REEFER MADNESS (1936)]
RALPH: Faster! Faster!
RALPH: Play it faster!
SANDY: Like you might listen to the music faster and faster —
AMANDA: Well, here’s the thing about jazz music, Sandy: there isn’t always a chorus. (Laughs)
SANDY: (Laughing) I know, they’re like “Oooh, this music is unstructured and these women are sexually liberated.” I mean, it really — it is striking to me that the original Reefer Madness from the 30s is, you know, white, white — you know, just there’s nothing but white. Like, there’s no explicit racist — like, there’s — there wasn’t, you know — I — I wonder, right, like how explicitly, like, what it was gonna exactly be. But the, like — the more recent spoof musical had a lot more, like, kind of explicit, like, kind of nods towards the racist origins of prohibition. But something that you’ve written about as well is — and — and, you know, this is a big point, but I feel like it’s always worth reiterating, like, what does the prohibition of marijuana, you know, over the last century in this country — who has it incarcerated, who has it penalized the most?
AMANDA: Right. And, you know, this is just racism over and over and over again. And we know this now because, you know, we know that Nixon explicitly said he wanted cannabis to be illegal so that he could use it as an excuse to fuck with Jews, hippies, and black people. And —
SANDY: That guy was so fun, you know? What a fun guy (laughs).
AMANDA: Love Nixon. I’ve been thinking about just getting a big Nixon tattoo on my back. I don’t know if anyone else has done that, though.
SANDY: Oh, Amanda (BOTH laugh). Well and you write in your piece, you know, it is a dog-whistle argument, I think, into the present. Like, there is no way of talking about this stuff that isn’t relying on tropes that are in their guts racist, right? Like, that — these stereotypes are often just inextricable from the continuation of white supremacy. And patriarchy, right? Reefer Madness is a movie about an attempted rape.
AMANDA: Right. And so much of legalization has come back to this — yeah, this sort of idea that people of color are more prone to vice than white people. They’re more prone to criminality, they’re more prone to drug use, they’re more prone to, I don’t know, like, aberrant sexualities. And, you know, cannabis is a big part of that, and, like, those are all just specious myths that are totally unrelated to reality. And the consequences are huge, and it’s just very difficult to change widespread cultural bias because most people don’t even realize the racist assumptions they’re making when they talk about cannabis.
SANDY: You know, it — as we’re in this precarious moment, right, where you live in a place where, you know, cannabis is nominally legal, but you have this robust black market that still exists; federally it’s still illegal; I live in a state where, you know, we’re still pretty much up shit’s creek here, you know. Like, what gives you hope, you know? Like, is there a future that — that seems bright at all? Like, is there anything kind of in these — as you continue to follow, like, the story of the end of prohibition of cannabis in America, like, do you see anything good on the horizon?
AMANDA: So, look, making cannabis more available and accessible to more people is a good thing from a medical perspective, especially, okay? I think this is gonna change [45:00] how we age, this is gonna change how people manage their illnesses, this is gonna change how people recover from surgeries. I mean there are a lot of really legitimate medical issues that can be solved — or maybe not solved, but certainly alleviated — by cannabis. And I think that even though research is essentially behind usage and now that cannabis has become really more of a consumer product than a medicine, I do think that the benefits to society will be there, you know, in terms of pain relief, in terms of helping people sleep. And the more legal it becomes, you know, the better. There are these situations where, you know, a report came out of Washington state recently that mirrors what we’ve seen in a lot of other places, which is that legalization vastly reduced the number of people who are being arrested, but within the people who are being arrested around cannabis, the racial disparities are higher. So it’s even worse now. However, it’s important to remember: fewer people are being arrested, right? And this goes back to, you know, what you were saying earlier about, like, the harm of it being illegal. How about the harm of hundreds of thousands of people being arrested every year for cannabis and then being caught in this legal, financial wormhole that most other people are able to avoid because they have the money and perhaps the light skin color to get out of even any, you know, actual interactions with law enforcement. I mean I’m sure you have stories, I have stories — we know lots of white people who, you know, talked their way out of some kind of criminal consequence, or within the criminal consequence they got a misdemeanor instead of a felony, or they paid a smaller fine, or they served a shorter sentence. And, you know, that sort of, like, deeply, you know, rooted racism in the criminal justice system — cannabis is just, like, an expression of that, it’s just the most frequent reason why we’re seeing that, and it’s — it’s the loitering of drugs, you know? It’s the, like, who’s getting arrested for loitering? Like, only the people that can’t afford their own spaces are being pushed out of other spaces. So in terms of optimism, I think on the medical front, I feel optimistic about the wide availability of cannabis. And as legalization move forward, certainly fewer consumers are going to experience criminal consequences. However, the way that it’s happening is very messy, and I do really think we’re gonna see parallel cannabis markets — legal and illegal — for quite some time. And, you know, I think that five, ten years from now we’re still gonna be seeing this disproportionate impact on black people in particular, but also on immigrants and other people of color, toward what will still be illegal, even if, you know, the feds legalize. Because — because capitalism, because racism, because, like, those things are so deeply entrenched, and frankly we have so many bigger problems to deal with. Even if, you know — even if, like, magically we got this, like, really progressive administration in place tomorrow, you know, I think, like, are we gonna focus — like, maybe hopefully actually we’d focus on climate change before we’d focus on cannabis (laughs).
SANDY: Yeah, fair, fair, fair.
AMANDA: So — so, you know, it’s sort of, like, well, the best case scenario would involve, you know, really progressive people coming to power and then even if those progressive people came to power, like, would they implement legalization perfectly? Like, no. It’s just like, you can’t just — it’s really, really hard to change attitudes, you know? Like, even if — even if, you know, whoever I thought was the best cannabis activist came to, you know, be president of the United States tomorrow, you know, that person would not be able to change the hearts and minds of law enforcement and of doctors that have been trained for years and years and years to believe certain things are true, even if they are not.
SANDY: Well, and see that’s — that’s so interesting, because it really does make me think about kind of, you know, in this book, part of the story around it — I haven’t actually read the book, I didn’t want to pay this guy any money — but like, you know, his wife works with, like, quote the criminally and mentally ill and that’s kind of where he got the idea, the like, oh, I wonder if cannabis is responsible for schizophrenia, is responsible for violence, and that’s kind of what — what got him down that path. But I — I thought that was a really interesting note, right, that his wife is a psychiatrist working with people who are, you know — forensic psychiatry, like, in a criminal justice lens, mental health provider, which, you know, is itself, like, when we think about that, a doctor who works exclusively with people in a criminal setting I think is a — is — is a kind of profession [50:00] that like we have in America that like isn’t necessarily something that like — it’s a relatively recent, you know, field, right? Like, shrinks who work exclusively behind bars, you know, in — in a great sense. Like, but that aside, like, those attitudes, you know, what doctors believe, whether they believe people who’ve got this label are full people, whether they view those people as irrevocably broken, whether they view those people as secretly evil, right? Like, whether they’re still that kind of old — ‘cause that’s really, you know — that’s the old — the moral idea of, you know, to do with insanity that I think we’ve carried around for centuries, which is, like, old — you know, this — this sense that, like, insanity is a moral failing, that we should judge someone, you know, who — and I — and I do think that that sense that, you know — so, like, a character like Ralph, who in Reefer Madness is, like, kind of the most, I think the, you know, he’s — he’s focused on at kind of like the most insane, like, there’s a lot of emphasis upon, like, his, like, kind of sunken eyes and his laughing and he’s really — he’s, you know, someone who I think we’re — we’re sort of understanding to be kind of, like, very ruined by this drug, specifically because he’s gone insane.
[CLIP FROM REEFER MADNESS (1936)]
PROSECUTOR: Your Honor, in this case the State waives trial of the defendant Ralph Wiley. It is convinced that he is hopelessly and incurably insane.
SANDY: And like how there’s this really annoying, awful, and I would just say straight-up bigoted notion buried in, you know, this Alex Berenson book, and all of it, which is like a schizophrenia diagnosis is the end of your life, you know? That — or an episode of psychosis is the end of your life. Or like, everything is fucked now. And like, I don’t know, you’ve mentioned your friend, you’ve sat with her, you’ve been there. Like, why is that wrong? Like, why is that messed up?
AMANDA: Oh my god. I mean, I feel like if she was here she would be, like, furious at that suggestion and like the idea that, you know, schizophrenia necessarily — automatically makes someone violent, you know? I think — I think drives her crazy, as well.
SANDY: Yeah. It’s a really — it’s a really pernicious stereotype. It’s like, it’s just old-school prejudice. Like, there’s nothing other than that when we’re sort of, like — when we’re attempting to mobilize research in favor of an argument that presumes that people with severe mental illness diagnoses are, like, more violent than the normals — the — the — the rest, you know, like —
AMANDA: Yeah, no, I mean she was absolutely not violent both of the times I cared for her when she was psychotic, and, you know, though she did have sort of, like, wild, maybe like near-violent impulses or, like, thoughts in her head, you know, she was also somewhat aware of those. I mean, it’s obviously really complex and it’s like — it’s like when someone has a serious illness, their life doesn’t end. I mean, like, lots of people find medication that works for them or a system that works for them, and they move forward with their lives. I mean, like, she’s leading a totally productive and, like, amazing life where she’s accomplishing a lot. And like, that’s, you know, like, lots of people have some kind of disability or mental illness or, you know, I have several friends that are on, like, SSRIs or like other kind of antidepressants, you know? And you can struggle with these things and still live your life and certainly the idea that anyone who’s experimenting with drugs or it’s gonna lead them down a path of violence and mental illness, it’s — it’s very scary because it’s sort of threatening the things that you hold dear, which is, like, your stability and, like, your rational mind and your ability to feel control over yourself and, you know, your physical safety and the safety of your loved ones. And you know it’s — the — the terrible things that are wrought by people who are seriously addicted to drugs are also, you know, a serious thing, and I think, like, lots of people have family members who struggled with serious drug addictions and have, you know, know people who’ve struggled with mental illness and, like, it’s very scary, and I think if it threatens, like, who we are at our core and, you know, when you see someone seem to like drift away from reality, you worry about your own tenuous hold on reality, right? And so I think it’s very scary and it doesn’t mean that these aren’t, like, serious, huge public health issues. But like absolutely to imply [55:00] legalization and cannabis use is causing, you know, more mental illness than it would have otherwise, which is in turn causing more violence and more crime, is utterly wrong and conflates and flattens and overgeneralizes in so many different ways, and even though it seems to be articulating everybody’s greatest fear, like, we don’t always need to push everybody’s greatest fear out to be the top headline.
SANDY: Our last segment on Mad Chat is called what’s helping today. And yeah, we’re just gonna share something that, you know, is — is helping us today. It doesn’t need to be, like, here’s the answer to how I, you know — I — I’m — I’m good always. But like, what’s helping today?
AMANDA: Sure. Also super I mean relevant to this entire conversation that I have not mentioned is just over a year ago I was in a car accident and I’ve been recovering from a pretty serious traumatic brain injury since then, which has been all kinds of disaster for my brain and my ability to process the world and, you know, what’s really me and what are the emotions that I’m — I’m suddenly being, you know — are being thrust on me by my brain that I, like, wasn’t expecting, and my ability to make decisions and, you know, all kinds of things. So, certainly have experienced more of what I would describe as, like, literal mental illness in the past year than I ever have before. Would say what’s helping me today — I just want to give a real shoutout to something that I always thought was extremely silly but has been, like, pretty crucial in my life, which is bone broth. So, Sandy, (SANDY laughs) all the different ways that I’ve become the sort of, like, Malibu Barbie that I never thought I would grow up to be in the sense that I live in Los Angeles and I, like, love pilates and I, like, love bone broth. I mean, what a ridiculous —
SANDY: You know Barbie with her bone broth. You’ve — you have —
AMANDA: Well, you know what I mean.
SANDY: — you’ve given me bone broth, when I was at your house last time you fed me bone broth —
AMANDA: Or like a Malibu wife.
SANDY: — and I really appreciated it. But, yeah. Bone broth, you know?
AMANDA: Bone broth literally — so, actually the friend who’s experienced psychosis was over last week and I was feeling really sick because essentially if I get too much stimulation my brain gets all messed up and I get pretty sick and I was, like, okay, yeah, you can come over but only for like thirty minutes ‘cause otherwise it’s gonna, you know, make me worse. And I was, like, pretty much in a bad place, and I made some bone broth while she was here, and, you know, started drinking it, and, like, halfway through the glass became, you know, much more animated and clear and she just goes, “Um, wait, does bone broth hit you like right away?” And I was like “Oh yeah, can — I’m like feeling a lot better already, can you tell?” And she was like “Yeah, your whole demeanor changed from, like, five minutes ago.” So, you know, in the world of not a lot of great medicines, something about bone broth, turns out, really, really helps.
SANDY: That’s great. I’m gonna say what’s helping today — I guess this is also me being somewhat Malibu Barbie — but yoga. I have been, like — I started yoga years and years ago kind of in class settings and, like, kind of learned the basics, but I was never terribly into or great at it. And then only in the last really maybe six months I’ve been doing yoga here at home by myself like with an app, and lately I’ve been doing it almost every day. And fuck, it just helps. I just feel the sort of — it feels like the sort of place where I rest, like my just kind of, like, resting place of, like, how I’m doing has kind of just — it’s just — it’s just lifted a little. Like it’s like that threshold —
AMANDA: I’m so happy to hear that.
SANDY: Yeah, it’s nice, you know? I’ll have these moments where I’m like, oh, it’s kinda good that I did yoga today, ‘cause I can feel that —
AMANDA: Sandy, the interplay between the physical and the psychological is so real.
SANDY: It’s almost like our brains are inside our bodies. (BOTH laugh) Amanda, thank you so much for being my guest on Mad Chat today.
SANDY: Where can our listeners read your work and find out more about you?
AMANDA: Yeah. I’m on Twitter @msamandalewis. My website is amandachicagolewis.com. I’m mostly found at Rolling Stone and, you know, various other places around the internet.
SANDY: Awesome. Thank you so much, Amanda.
AMANDA: Such a pleasure to be here.
[MAD CHAT CREDITS MUSIC]
SANDY: Mad Chat is produced by the incredible Lee Mengistu. Theme music by Lee Mengistu [1:00:00] and her sister Ruthie Williams. Our Social Media and Community Manager is Annie Mok. Logo design by Chris Ritter. Episode transcriptions by Alex Cornacchia; find those at our website, madchatshow.com, where you can also find my recommendations of things to read and other resources related to this episode. Hey, continue the chat online with us. Tell us what you thought of this episode. Tell us what you’d like to hear discussed in the future. And tag something that’s helping you today, #whatshelpingtoday, and our own Annie Mok might illustrate it, how cool is that? I’m Sandy Allen. More about me at hellosandyallen.com, and more about my book, A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia, at akomp.info. This is Mad Chat. Chat with you again in three weeks.
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