A retort to the writer who claims that social media are not effective tools for activism.
Have you ever wondered why there are so many kinds of mustard but only one kind of ketchup? Or what Cezanne did before painting his first significant works in his 50s? Have you hungered for the story behind the Veg-O-Matic, star of the frenetic late-night TV ads? Or wanted to know where Led Zeppelin got the riff in “Whole Lotta Love”? Neither had I, until I began this collection by the indefatigably curious journalist Malcolm Gladwell.
Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,406 words (21 minutes)
When I was a teenager I read James Thurber’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I fell in love with this story of a meek, middle-aged Connecticut man whose daydreams afford him temporary escape from a dreary shopping trip with his overbearing wife. Maybe it was because I was an incorrigible daydreamer too. Or maybe I read in his fantasies of being a fearless Navy commander, a world-famous surgeon, or a brandy-swilling bomber pilot a sense of my own opportunities in life, at that point still wide open if you left my gender out of it. Unlike Walter Mitty, I could still learn anything, be anyone.
With time I found a calling, studied for a doctorate in medieval literature, published a book only a handful of people would read, and gained a longed-for professorship. But new desires arose. I discovered I want to write books for more than five readers, and that doing so is remarkably hard. I started to feel afraid of being trapped in one role for the rest of my life. That sense of endless possibility I once had was slipping away.
One day, when MasterClass sends its millionth paid ad into my Facebook feed, I decide this is the answer to the Walter Mitty lurking inside me. MasterClass seems to offer everything: from writing seminars with over a dozen famous authors to celebrity-driven inspiration to take my hobbies further. Clearly, all I was missing were the right teachers, filmed professionally and beamed into my living room. I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?
It’s always 420 somewhere, especially here in Portland, Oregon, where a cannabis dispensary seems to stand on every other corner. I smell weed while biking with my daughter through quiet residential neighborhoods. I smell weed while driving with my windows closed. I smell it at the food carts and on the clothes of college students whose papers I used to help revise at Portland State University. Last year I was skating a park around 8 am one morning, and I smelled weed. No one was walking a dog. No one was playing Frisbee golf. I swear the squirrels must have been blazing in the trees. It’s easy to feel like I’m part of a small minority of Portlanders who don’t get stoned. But legal cannabis is more than easy stoner jokes and giggly good times. Legalization is decriminalization, and that’s a very important distinction in a nation that both disproportionately incarcerates people of color for minor offences and clings to an ineffective, military battle approach to the social and health challenge of addiction. Weed is far less harmful than heroin and alcohol, but it can still be harmful when habitual. And arrests have ended too many lives.
In 2016, to celebrate Pennsylvania becoming the 24th US state to legalize medical marijuana, Longreads editor Cheri Lucas Rowlands compiled a marijuana reading list, called Weed Reeds. This list is an extension of that, featuring stories that have come out since other states decriminalized recreational and medical cannabis, and since advocates have started reframing marijuana as cannabis. Still, as serious as legalization is, people still puff, puff, puff on porches, pass the pipe at picnics, and drop tincture in their beers to lighten backyard parties. Legal weed ain’t all science and medicine. It’s a huge lucrative industry, and that makes for dramatic stories, personalities, and trouble.
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“Grow Industry” (Nicholas Hune-Brown, The Walrus, March 12, 2013)
In 2013, when two U.S. states had legalized recreational marijuana, there were signs that Canada would end its nine-decade-long marijuana prohibition. People were wondering how to capitalize on this historic opportunity, to become, as The Walrus put it, ”the Seagrams of weed.”
There are certainly parallels. Like the marijuana ban today, the prohibition against alcohol—much stricter in the US than in Canada—did not eliminate the drug. It just created a grey market with shortcuts and loopholes, easily exploited if you were someone like Samuel Bronfman, a canny Canadian businessman who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The Bronfmans were hustlers, Russian Jewish immigrants who set up a string of “boozariums” along the Saskatchewan–North Dakota border, ferried alcohol across the Detroit River, and shipped it into the US aboard schooners. In 1928, they expanded their empire by purchasing Seagrams, the Montreal-based maker of such popular brands as Seven Crown. When Prohibition ended, they were in the perfect position to solidify their hold on the market, and Seagrams became the largest distilling business in the world.
“Lavish Parties, Greedy Pols and Panic Rooms: How the ‘Apple of Pot’ Collapsed” (Ben Schreckinger and Mona Zhang, Politico, May 24, 2020)
The spectacular explosion of cannabis’ ambitious startup MedMen is a tale for the tech era. The company themselves couldn’t always figure out if they were a tech company or a cannabis company. They just knew they were rushing to capitalize on the lucrative opportunity presented by legal cannabis. They modeled their stores after the Apple Store. They published a glossy culture magazine called Ember that ran articles like “Is CBD the New Tylenol?” In an attempt to reach the masses and normalize cannabis consumption, they ran an expensive ad campaign where they’d cross out the word ‘stoner’ and replace that loaded term with words like ‘Grandmother.’ “One image,” the story says, “featured a uniformed police officer.”
This is the story of how the cannabis industry comes down from its high.
In some cases, vendors, unable to get cash for the product they have supplied to the company, have instead been taking payment in MedMen stock. As of mid-May, its stock price was down more than 95 percent from its late-2018 high, according to data from the Canadian Securities Exchange.
Normally, a business in such dire straits could seek federal bankruptcy protection. Because of weed’s legal status, that option is not open to MedMen.
MedMen was faring worse than most, but the rest of industry was also coming down hard from its high. There were too many entrepreneurs trying to blaze the same path as Bierman, competing for a pool of legal sales that was not growing fast enough, with too much regulatory uncertainty hanging over them. In the year leading up to March 21, the United States Marijuana Index, which tracks top cannabis stocks, fell by more than four-fifths.
”Canada’s Saddest Grow-op: My Humiliating Adventures in Growing Marijuana” (Ian Brown, The Globe and Mail, May 19, 2019)
When one of The Globe and Mail editors suggested writer Ian Brown grow weed as an experiment, Brown borrowed a high tech, automated grow device called a Grobo and set his operation by his office desk. From the dizzying number of varietals to choose from to the sensitive environmental needs of the plants, there are many reasons professional grow cannabis. But could technology like Grobo really democratize and simplify cannabis production?
“I think people will come to love growing,” Mr. Dawson said as we neared the end of our factory tour. “But it’s a much more complex problem than we anticipated.” He was enthusiastic, but wary, because he knew the secret behind the popular misconception that cannabis is a weed anyone can grow anywhere. The truth is, growing good cannabis is way, way harder than it looks.
Eventually, we loaded the Grobo into the hatch of my car. I drove to Toronto and dollied the hulk up to my desk at work. I felt like a revolutionary. There it stood for three weeks while I tried to find something to grow in it.
”Reefer Madness 2.0: What Marijuana Science Says, and Doesn’t Say” (Dave Levitan, Undark, January 21, 2019)
By now, many Americans are at least faintly aware of the comical mid-century progoganda waged against marijuana consumption, which included slogans like “The burning weed with its roots in Hell!“ The rhetoric has cooled, but myth and pseudoscience still shape many Americans’ view of cannabis use, and propoganda takes many forms. In this piece, Levitan takes a look at the untruths, fear-mongering, and logical fallacies that inform the case that the book Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence makes against cannabis. He also indicts New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell for his piece, “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” which, even when justified, is a modern sport in itself. “Combined,” Levitan writes, “these two works offer a master class in statistical malfeasance and a smorgasbord of logical fallacies and data-free fear-mongering that serve only to muddle an issue that, as experts point out, needs far more good-faith research.“ It must also be said that science is still trying to understand the way cannabis works on, and that weed is not harmless, even if it isn’t from HELL.
An important piece of Berenson’s argument is that rates of marijuana use have risen at around the same time as an increase in diagnoses of schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. For example, separate studies from Finland and Denmark show an increase in such diagnoses in recent years. The authors of both studies wrote that the increases could be explained by changes to diagnostic criteria, as well as improved access to early interventions. In both cases, the authors do not rule out an actual change in incidence. But Berenson makes that possibility seem a firm reality, and that the rise in marijuana use is responsible. There is no real evidence that he’s right.
Berenson’s connection of marijuana to violence seems even more tenuous. He writes that violence has increased dramatically in four states that legalized marijuana in recent years: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. He notes that the number of violent crimes in those states has increased faster than the rest of the country between the years 2013 and 2017. On its face, he’s not wrong, but this is a great example of the liberties one can take with numbers.
”Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, January 7, 2019)
”Medicaid, Marijuana And Me: An Ex-Opioid Addict’s Take On American Drug Denial” (Janet Burns, Forbes, February 18, 2018)
A journalist shares what her experience with prescription painkillers taught her about the value of decriminalization.
Current federal leaders have said repeatedly that cannabis is not a medicinal substance at all, just as members of many administrations did before them. In doing so, it seems, they chose to reject the clear definitions and determinations that have been agreed upon by a majority of medical experts and regular citizens in the U.S. and a growing number of nations around the world.
At the same time, the U.S. assigns more favorable legal status to around 50 different opioids than it does to cannabis or psilocybin mushrooms, all but a handful of which are manufactured prescription drugs (think “opium poppy straw”; heroin, originally a prescription drug, has been retired). As of last year, the U.S.was also producing more opioid prescriptions than it has residents. And according to recent statistics, another American dies from opioid abuse every 10 minutes.
“Glass, Pie, Candle, Gun” (Sean Howe, Longreads, May 13, 2019)
Before he founded High Times, Tom Forcade was a renegade journalist willing to throw a pie — or a lawsuit — in the face of anyone restricting his constitutional freedoms.
Much as the underground press provided a forum for the New Left and counterculture of the 1960s, High Times served as the national message center for the 1970s movement to bring marijuana to the mainstream. During Forcade’s four years publishing the magazine and funding the marijuana lobby, possession of small amounts of cannabis was decriminalized in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon. The first Americans began receiving marijuana for a medical condition. High Times editorials from those days seem almost prophetic now: warning against the corporate interests that would descend upon legalized weed, and noting the ways in which international drug wars could serve as cover for imperialist adventures. (Forcade’s own extralegal activities have a legacy as well, but that information has mostly lurked in government agency records, in the memories of tight-lipped collaborators, and in the research files of my forthcoming book about him)
“We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.” —Virginia Woolf, The Waves
We had just celebrated my father’s eighty-fifth birthday. Louis Gakumba and I were driving back up to Jackson Hole. My husband Brooke texted me, “I love you. Pull over to the side of the road. Call me.” I knew it was Dan. I had been thinking of him as I was mesmerized by the immense cumulus clouds building in the west.
“Is Dan dead?”
Fear-mongering through data (or a lack thereof): on Alex Berenson, Malcolm Gladwell, and “what happens when tidy narratives outrun the science.”
It’s been just over a day since the internet exploded with analyses, memes, and hashtags on Melania Trump’s liberal use of phrases from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. The awkwardness of this particular case of (alleged) plagiarism will soon be drowned out by other stories. But debates around plagiarism never quite disappear: they touch on originality, authenticity, and property, concepts that are deeply linked to our modern sense of humanness.
Here are six meaty reads on plagiarism: from deep dives into infamous recent cases to essays that question the very possibility of writing that isn’t, to some extent, an act of unattributed borrowing.
1. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” (Jonathan Lethem, Harper’s, February 2007)
By now a postmodern classic, Lethem’s piece is a passionate, erudite defense of plagiarism — composed almost entirely of passages he himself lifted from other works.
“‘We thought we were the best in Hamburg and Liverpool—it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on. We were the best fucking group in the goddamn world … and believing that is what made us what we were.’”
-John Lennon, in a 1980 interview. Lennon is quoted in Andrew Romano’s 2013 story for The Daily Beast, which aims to debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in Outliers that the Beatles made their success through thousands of hours of playing in Hamburg.
Andrew Romano sets out to debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in Outliers that the Beatles made their success through the “10,000-hour rule”—in this case, spending thousands of hours of playing in Hamburg:
But this isn’t even the real problem with Gladwell’s theory. The real problem is that while the Beatles’ marathon stints in Hamburg did transform them as a band—they were so vibrant, so tight, and so unrecognizable when they returned from their first campaign that the crowds in Liverpool mistook them for a blistering new German combo—the “complex task” they had now “mastered” was not the same task that would eventually earn them world domination.
Being able to mach schau in a small club was a pivotal part of the Beatles development: it won them a fanatical following in Liverpool, which in turn drove their debut single “Love Me Do” up the charts even when the suits in London refused to promote it, and it was also the reason the Fabs were able record an LP as a thrilling as Please Please Me in a single ten-hour workday. But beyond that, Gladwell is wrong. The Beatles’ “excellence at performing” is not “what it took” for them to become the greatest rock band of all time. In fact, the Beatles were stuck in a rut even after they returned from Hamburg in 1961—and their live expertise was not enough to get them out of it.