Biased Persuasion

An Analysis of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Is Marijuana As Safe As We Think?”

A.D. Argyle
5 min readOct 18, 2019

In the 2019 New Yorker article, “Is Marijuana As Safe As We Think?”, Malcolm Gladwell proposes that the psychoactive drug can be dangerous, especially for those suffering from mental illness, and even suggests it creates violent tendencies, the exact narrative covered in colleague Alex Berenson’s novel, Tell Your Children: The Truth of Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. Berenson’s novel is leveraged as supportive material in the final paragraphs of the article.

Woman holding nugs of marijuana on a small plate. Get Budding. 2019. Unsplash.

I believe his argument is implicit because he does not outright make the claim that marijuana is not completely without fault but instead attempts to persuade the audience through the presentation of misleading evidence and emotional appeals. The combination of these two techniques has the potential to create reasonable doubt within the reader which can make a person feel as though they are no longer as qualified as someone like Gladwell to discuss the topic, making them more likely to be swayed by his argument.

The purpose behind the article is to confirm an older audience of the dangers they always associated with marijuana. This article is also trying to persuade the audience to believe weed should not be recreational but purely and strictly medicinal, a product managed by the government and distributed in restricted amounts.

As mentioned previously, the audience is seemingly from an older generation, one swayed by fear-mongering propaganda. I have assumed this because the article is from the New Yorker, a company that precedes anyone less than 30. Also, because his sources are older as well; Berenson has been writing for more than a couple of decades; RAND Corp. as a corporate entity does not typically bode well with younger demographics and would not be an indication of trustworthiness or credibility.

Elderly man reading a newspaper. Sam Wheeler. 2019. Unsplash.

The occasion for this article comes after Canada has legalized marijuana, which follows the legalization in Washington State. Since the legalization of marijuana, many states across our nation have been questioning their own long-standing opinions on the topic. Articles like Gladwell’s highlight these issues and can give leverage to political campaigns. With the 2020 election gearing up, written sentiments like Gladwell’s will surely be used as supportive material in any campaign wishing to demonize recreational marijuana, if not all sources of the drug.

American flag on a pole. Jonathan Simcoe. 2019. Unsplash.

While it could be argued that Gladwell exhibits all three of the rhetorical stances, I believe he led his article with pathos and logos because he included emotional and logical persuasion focused on mental illness and the well-being of children. To accomplish this, Gladwell explores vaping and society’s reaction and management of such a powerhouse industry. Gladwell states, “Vaping is clearly popular among kids,” (Gladwell, 2019).

He masks an opinion as fact with nothing substantial to back up his claims. Then, he goes on to use this statement to explain how this trend has affected the e-cigarette business — the banning of flavored nicotine products. While it is too soon to see the impact of this change, Gladwell questions why THC-laden products can be distributed in seemingly child-friendly packaging like gummy bears, candies, and chocolates. To the benefit of his argument, he ends the article with this sentiment.

Macro-shot of gummy bears. Jonathan J. Castello. 2019. Unsplash.

The article had been rather blasé in terms of emotional leverage until Gladwell speaks of a brief but shocking conversational exchange between author and New York Times journalist, Alex Berenson and his wife, a psychiatrist.

She argues that there is an obvious correlation between marijuana usage and maladaptive behaviors which gains her an emotional appeal from her husband. Gladwell, a New Yorker journalist, uses this thesis to support the remainder of the article. I believe this conversational excerpt was highly influential but also detrimental to his stance. There is little logic to back up Dr. Berenson’s claims and ethically, they harm her persona and the credibility of her practice. To create a stronger narrative, I believe Gladwell could have cited more credible sources.

He uses nearly ten different sources to create his narrative, jumping between both first and secondhand sources. Some of these sources cited are more credible than others, like the nonprofit organization, The National Institute of Medicine versus Beau Kilmer who is a drug-policy expert contracted through the RAND Corporation, who is a government-endowed organization that would benefit from the privatization of marijuana as an exclusive medicinal product.

When put in such black and white terms, it seems obvious who is more interested in how marijuana is presented to, not only the public but also government branches, however, Gladwell appears to use examples like Kilmer and RAND Corp. to support his argument while in the same motion belittling the work done by The National Institute of Medicine and other, smaller interests. They do not support his agenda and therefore he feels little obligation to give them any credit, instead alluding to the idea that they were in over their heads and were unable to come to a divisive decision. This is typical of all scientific research conducted as it gives other scientists an opportunity to further develop the hypothesis and the subsequent experiments.

Scientific researcher lifting specimen for closer examination. Ani Kolleshi. 2019. Unsplash.

I believe Gladwell purposefully misconstrued the apparent evidence of the National Institute’s findings to persuade his audience using emotional and logical appeals that were presented as facts rather than opinions. He also used carefully chosen arguments to cater to his specific agenda while degrading the one factual study in the article. Overall, his narrative appears solid on the surface while maintaining an air of arrogance and apathy. However, it is clear that under the surface the article is riddled with opinions and biased persuasion.

Works Cited |

Gladwell, M. (2019, January 7). Is Marijuana As Safe As We Think? The Dept. of Public Health, The New Yorker. Retrieved from

All photographs used have been taken from Unsplash, a site that allows photographers and creators to use license-free images without the need for credit (though it is appreciated).



A.D. Argyle

Ashleigh is a creator from the States that explores social issues and interests.