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Losing a son to reefer madness – or just puberty? New York Times review misses a scandal behind book
Maia Szalavitz, August 31, 2009

Julie Myerson’s memoir “The Lost Child” purports to be about losing her son to highly potent marijuana, and the Times’ reviewer described the book as an important public policy guide to the problem of drug addiction. There’s just one problem – Myerson’s son describes the book as an “obscene” distortion.

Under the presumably ironic (and so clichéd it should be banned by now) headline “Reefer Madness,” the Sunday New York Times Book Review publishes a review of Julie Myerson’s The Lost Child by journalist and author Dominique Browning, who recommends the book "for anyone interested in public policy relating to drugs."

"Why would we choose not to see what’s happening all around us?" says Browning, clearly troubled by what she has read. "Books like these signal the beginning of awareness. And the beginning of hope that we can do right by our children." But Browning seems to be unaware of the controversy surrounding the book.

“The Lost Child” purports to tell the story of a mother struggling with her son’s harrowing marijuana addiction; but — and readers of the review aren’t made aware of this – the son has claimed that his mother’s story is false. His revelations have stirred furious debate in Britain and considerable criticism for the author, a noted novelist and journalist, who has been accused of being addicted to using her own family for copy.

As t he antagonist in the story, Myerson's son, Jake, told the Daily Mail:

“I was just a very confused, unhappy teenager who was too young to know who he was and the cannabis all became tied in with normal teenage rebellion... My mother talks about losing her little boy, but what mother doesn't lose her baby at some point? It's called puberty.”

He went on:

“I wasn't doing anything that most other teenagers do, but such was their naive terror of drugs they were acting like six-year-olds… I have survived on my own for three years, found a place to live, got myself through two university courses, played at numerous musical events: so how can I be a drug addict with no motivation and lost in life? It just doesn't add up.”

In an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Jake dilated on being the unwitting subject of his mother's writing:

“What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene. I was only 17, I was a confused teenager, I was too young really to know who I was or what was happening. What she describes in her book are a series of incidents, it's not who I am and I find it very sad that she feels the need to tar me with the 'drug addict' brush. She's been writing about me since I was two, and, quite frankly, I'm not surprised by anything she does any more. She's a writer and like a lot of writers she is wrapped up in her own world - even if the worlds they are creating aren't quite true, they become true to them anyway, and I wasn't prepared to let her world colour mine any more.”

He also told the paper that when his mother, whom he periodically saw for lunch after being thrown out of the house, showed him the manuscript for the book, he sought advice from a lawyer. He was told there was nothing he could do. He did manage to have a passage removed in which his mother said he sold drugs to his 12-year old younger brother, something he told the paper was one of her “fantasies.”

He said the combination of the book and other events in his life pushed him towards a breakdown. In the ensuing controversy in the U.K., it emerged that his mother had been writing about all her children for years in an anonymous column – “Living with Teenagers” – for the Guardian (Jake said his schoolmates were on to the ruse, which led to acute embarrassment when his mother wrote about him acquiring pubic hair; Julie said “the aim of the column was to offer an honest picture of family life," and that "some incidents were partly fictionalised, some details carefully rearranged and some characters composites, to conceal the identity of our children.”). It also emerged that his mother, too, had smoked pot in college.

Surely a review of the book should have at least noted his protest—and perhaps, the fact that he has now changed his name as a result of the book, and that his mother came in for widespread oppobrium in the British media, both from critics and people posting comments on the news articles? And surely this controversy should have raised some element of caution in seeing Jake's story as a policy prescription for teenage drug addiction?

Indeed, the question of accuracy extends to the book and the review's clinical and scientific description of Jake's addiction. Myerson claims her son became addicted to a much more powerful strain of marijuana, known as "skunk." As Browning reports in her review:

“I had never heard of skunk either, but a quick search online led me to a souk of seeds for the home farmer, advertising up to a toxic 22 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in some strains. My shopping cart remained empty as I browsed in disbelief. Even as stronger varieties are being bred and marketed, medical research is linking cannabis use to behavioral and cognitive changes reminiscent of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. And yet we find ourselves arguing about whether pot is addictive or a gateway drug or should be legalized. We are collectively losing our minds.”

While "skunk" does appear to be more common than it once was, there is, however, considerable debate over the issue of a broad increase in marijuana's potency. Sampling methods appear to be inconsistent from year to year, with the earliest samples having potencies so low that it would have been impossible for baby boomers to get high at all. There is also evidence that current users have adapted to such changes by smoking smaller joints.

Browning is also unaware that the new research linking marijuana to behavioral and cognitive changes only refers to short term changes: In other words, marijuana can make you spacey and paranoid while you are high. This is hardly news. Long term cognitive changes appear to be reversible with abstinence, according to reviews of the research.

And while heavy marijuana use has indeed been linked with increased risk of psychotic disorders, there is no consensus suggesting that this is causal. People prone to psychosis may seek to medicate themselves with marijuana but if marijuana use were causing psychosis, we should have seen an increase in psychosis paralleling the massive worldwide rise of marijuana use since the 1960’s. Over that time, however, psychotic disorders have actually been stable or may have even declined. As a recent review of the data noted:

“Only a very small proportion of the general population exposed to cannabinoids develop a psychotic illness. It is likely that cannabis exposure is a ‘component cause’ that interacts with other factors to ‘cause’ schizophrenia or a psychotic disorder, but is neither necessary nor sufficient to do so alone”

In terms of the research on major depression, Dr. Myrna Weissman, a psychiatrist and leading epidemiologist of depression at Columbia University does not believe that marijuana is a major causal factor. In fact, there is some evidence that in low doses it produces an anti-depressant effect. Research on the other conditions is ongoing.


Update: Today's Times' Arts Section does cover the Myerson controversy, and while it doesn't reference the Sunday review, it continues in the same alarmist vein, calling the skunk smoked by her son "a potent, addictive form of marijuana that experts say can cause paranoia and psychosis." 

There's no evidence that skunk is more addictive than other forms of marijuana and as noted above, the idea of a causal link between psychosis and marijuana is widely disputed. If researchers truly believed that cannabis could cause irreversible psychosis, however, a recent study touted by the press as proving this link would have been considered unethical to conduct. Particularly since the scientists injected subjects with the active ingredient in marijuana -
something that even the most hardened street users rarely, if ever, do!



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