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Alex Berenson: Fact and Fiction

The Information Landscape

Today, a type of hybrid journalism has taken root across the media world including daily news periodicals, 24-hour cable news, traditional television networks and social media websites. It is a melding of news and opinion comprised of both fact and fiction, whether intended or otherwise.

The societal impact of such a voluminous hodgepodge of uncertain content has yet to be fully understood but one thing is certain: the opportunity for audience manipulation is more rampant than ever. Therefore, every consumer of information has a heightened responsibility to vet the subject matter carefully, fact check, and then form their own educated opinions.

Operating in this provocative environment is a multitalented, award-winning writer named Alex Berenson, who for over two decades has been serving various portions of this stew of current news, opinion, fact and especially, fiction. In assessing his impressive writing skills, one might say he is multi-dexterous.

If you haven’t already, let’s meet this fascinating man.

The Facts

Born in 1973 in New York and raised in Englewood NJ, Alex Berenson graduated from Yale in 1994 with degrees in both history and economics. Everything about the man’s extraordinary writing career since has articulated ‘hybrid.’

Post-graduation, he entered the journalism profession writing business-related articles for The Denver Post. In the late 90s, ‘the dot-com boom and bust period,’ he took an entrepreneurial leap to the fledgling market website TheStreet.com before finally landing at The New York Times.

At the Times, he was a hard-working newsman writing on such important topics as the U.S. occupation of Iraq (with two stints as a war correspondent), the growing national opioid crisis, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal and Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects on New Orleans, including its historic flooding.

But as many writers before him, Berenson had an itch he needed to scratch. He was a fiction writer at heart, so why not try to write one novel and see how it goes? If it didn’t work – he always had his day job at the Times to pay the bills. 

The Fiction

Berenson’s fiction writing worked – big time. In 2006, he released his award-winning debut espionage thriller, The Faithful Spy (Edgar Award for Best First Novel), featuring CIA agent, John Wells, as protagonist and oftentimes reluctant hero.

With his insatiable audience craving more, Berenson has released a New York Times best-selling thriller nearly every year since, with agent Wells’ global adventures becoming ever more precarious. As his fiction career took off, Berenson left the Times in 2010 to focus on his novels.

The storylines in his books are once again a melding of fact and fiction, with imaginary plots so realistic that the reader shudders at the real-world possibilities and consequences.

Informed by his post 9-11 experiences writing at the Times and the unfolding events since, the twelve (12) books in the Wells series have dealt with the following topics: the war on terror in the Middle East; al-Qaeda double agents and Islamic and domestic terror cells operating in the US; an impending invasion of Iran to avert the threat of nuclear war; an ‘evil axis’ of China, Russia and Iran working in tandem to destroy the US; and lastly, Russian interference in US elections taken to an audacious level.

Hmmm – am I reading fiction or watching the nightly news?

Says the New York Times Book Review: “Berenson’s strength is his deep understanding of geopolitics and of the shoddy compromises it demands. He clearly has excellent contacts in the world of shadows. Wells is a complex and satisfying protagonist, tackling bad guys across the world’s conflict zones.”

Along with his prodigious production of reality-based fiction, Berenson has written two nonfiction books, the most recent of which is 2019’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence.

This cautionary book on the untold ill effects of cannabis has ignited extensive controversy, supported by many and called alarmist by a large and riled up pro-cannabis constituency. Most importantly, it has courageously opened a timely and essential national discussion.

Cannabis, Mental Illness & Violence – Fact or Fiction?

In the past decade, the legalization of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use has been sweeping across the US and Canada. From state to state, voters are approving the ballot initiatives by large majorities based on the general notion that if used properly, marijuana is safe – safer than alcohol – and it is well past time for the long period of prohibition to end.

Components of the plant, whether psychoactive (THC) or not (CBD), are being touted as a medical miracle and a potential solution to our nation’s widespread opioid addiction crisis. One drug has been approved by the FDA (epilepsy-related seizures) and extensive testing in pharmaceutical labs is underway for a variety of other disorders. On the recreational side, giant food and beverage companies are working assiduously to infuse their snacks and drinks with cannabis.

Meanwhile, Dr Jacqueline Berenson, a forensic psychiatrist who evaluates mentally ill criminals has said, “They all smoke pot and have smoked for years.” She has evaluated numerous insanity cases involving murder and suggested to her husband, novelist Alex, that he read the extensive studies on the long-established connection between cannabis, mental illness and violence.

He took up his wife’s suggestion and began to study the subject intensively, which led to the January 2019 publishing of Tell Your Children.

Tell Your Children

In the book’s introduction, Berenson states that he has indeed read dozens of well-designed studies from around the world linking marijuana to depression, an increased risk of suicide, social anxiety disorder, and even psychosis and schizophrenia.

“There is 150 years of research across the world that no one is paying attention to,” he writes, “and even if it’s a small percentage [of related mental illness cases], much more research needs to be done.”

This ambitious book proffers controversial and contrarian conclusions which are endorsed by some, notably author Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker magazine, and debunked by others, such as pro-cannabis lobby groups, Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at N.Y.U., and Rolling Stone magazine.

The critics are especially outraged at the linking of cannabis with psychosis, schizophrenia and violent crimes, calling it completely unfounded.

Discerning Fact from Fiction

Berenson believes much of the pro-marijuana lobby is engaging in more compelling fiction than his best novels, essentially dealing in propaganda. His critics believe he has drawn ill-conceived conclusions with no scientific backing in order to sell books.

In ferreting out fact from fiction, there are a few important points that both sides agree on as fact, which are:

We children of the 60s would find today’s varieties of marijuana shockingly potent in comparison. In many cases, they are said to contain up to 25% THC versus 2% in the earlier versions. Plus, cannabis extracts such as ‘wax’ and ‘shatter’ are nearly 100% THC.

It’s reasonable to assume that whatever was the percentage of ‘stoners’ in the decades before legalization, it will be an exponentially higher number now. Can we count on them to behave with moderation and good sense, such as never over-imbibing and getting behind the wheel of an automobile?

Based on grim alcohol-related statistics, that’s a bet I would be reticent to make. Thus, legalization might only heighten the risk on our highways and further pressure our overworked law enforcement.

It’s crystal clear that no one wants to see even one more death on the highways, and there is no support for underage smoking which can potentially harm a child’s cognitive development or motivational drive.

Both sides of the argument also concur that anyone with a history of mental illness should stay far away from cannabis, alcohol and any other mind-altering substance, legally derived or otherwise.

Finally, it is agreed that much more study needs to be done to reach more definitive conclusions. As the legalization train is rolling forward with accelerating speed, the scientific community had better hop on board with equivalent haste.

Mature Voices

As Berenson says in his book’s introduction, it is fact that a meaningful percentage of people like to get high and intoxicated and will continue this practice. That’s always been part of the social order. It can be fun (I’m told) if done responsibly, with moderation and common sense. But we know from our experiences with alcohol that this is often not the case.

What the cannabis industry needs now is mature voices and leadership who will discuss both the benefits and risks with equal veracity. They need to guide our country, our lawmakers, and especially our youth, as this inevitable legalization transition continues.

We found one earlier in the year in Laurie Wolf, a child of the 60s, culinary expert and ‘Edibles Queen’ of Portland, Oregon. Wolf touts the medicinal benefits of cannabis and is a proponent of responsible usage, beginning with consulting professionals regarding proper dosing.

“Go slow,” she recommends, “start off with a small amount and learn about your tolerance. Never, ever combine cannabis with alcohol. It doesn’t work. When you consume, stay home, be smart and have fun, safely.” All good advice from a mature woman and industry leader.

Berenson ardently believes he and his wife are not engaging in ‘Reefer Madness’ (1936), as has been accused, but rather are trumpeting new societal risks that we are blindly accepting. Whether the science they are relying on is 100% correct, 50% correct, or not at all, it seems to me they are also mature voices who are flashing warning signs that should be heeded.

In the very first section of this article was discussed the hodgepodge of fact and fiction in our daily news feed, and our personal responsibility to choose wisely. Similarly, every user of legal cannabis has a heightened responsibility to vet the subject matter carefully, fact check both sides of the argument, and then form their own educated opinions.

What’s Next for this Multi-Dexterous Writer

The book, Tell Your Children, was released in January 2019 and the controversy it has ignited may have been a little startling to its author. From a glance at his social media sites, Berenson hasn’t backed off his conclusions one iota. Instead, he is spending an inordinate amount of time gathering further information to support his warnings and answer his critics. It will be fascinating to watch as this important conversation continues to develop.

Insofar as continuing his Wells espionage series, my guess is a compelling new storyline is already in the works, such as: CIA agent, John Wells, is called to Langley to investigate a breaking case. It seems a notable, best-selling anti-cannabis author has been kidnapped and spirited away to Central America. There, the drug lords and pro-cannabis scientific community are working in tandem to brainwash him into changing his mind and writing a retraction (using especially potent cannabis, naturally).

The problem is, due to work-related anxiety, agent Wells himself has gotten hooked on weed and would rather just chill at home. Reluctantly, he puts down the pipe and reports. This leads him south of the border and across the globe to get to the roots of the kidnapping and other subterfuge.

Once he delves in, Wells is horrified to uncover the larger nefarious plot. Could it be our foreign enemies have been duping the pro-cannabis lobby with marijuana-related fiction instead of fact? Are they trying to get the entire population of the US so stoned that they’ll forget to vote in the next election? Wells must act fast or this could be the end of our democracy. Hmmm. Stay tuned.

One last guess: Alex Berenson doesn’t need my help in crafting his next, or any other storyline.

We wish he and his family continued good fortune as they move forward. Wherever the career of this prolific, multi-talented writer of fact and fiction goes next, we will be watching and reading with rapt interest.