Thursday, August 31, 2006

Daily Mail, Bad Science Drugs Deaths and Reclassification

The Daily Mail, where ghosts, mediums and quack medicine are regularly reported as serious news, has long been a haven for bad science reporting. Combine this with an appetite for scarey drug stories that make the Government look bad and you have a recipe for some classic poor journalism.

In this instance, under the hysterical headline 'The deadly downgrade' (subtitled: "Deaths from drugs have soared since Labour eased the law against cannabis"), the story's author, James Slack, has committed a series of crimes against reality: positing completely spurious causal relationships as fact, having misunderstood and misrepresented the statistics in the first place.

The Mail story claims that 'drug deaths spiralled after Labour downgraded cannabis'. However, the data they cite runs from 1991 to 2004. Given that reclassification took place in 2004 its hard to see how the suggested impact on drug deaths could have happened, given that no time had elapsed, and no data is presented from 2005.

Oddly they also note that drug deaths have dropped 9% since 1999, and whilst Transform are not in the habit of defending Government drug policy, this longer term trend should overall be seen as a positive and does not suggest drug deaths have 'soared', 'rocketed' or 'spiralled'.

The story also makes a completely unsubstatialted causal link between the apparent (2003-2004) rise in drug deaths (primarily opiates) and the reclassification of cannabis (for which zero deaths are reported). This link is reported as fact ('as a result deaths from heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy all rocketed') despite there being no evidence of any causal link whatsoever and indeed substantial evidence to suggest there is none. This has come most recetly from the cross party Science and Technology Select Committee which found there was no link between drug classification, deterrence or prevalence of use, as well as (again) torpedoing the 'gateway theory' the Mail espouses.

Indeed the entire factual basis of their analysis is faulty: recent official surveys have shown that cannabis use has infact stabilised (or fallen marginally) since reclassification, opiate use has been stable for the last few years and ecstasy use has fallen. Only cocaine use has been rising - continuing a trend that had begun well before classification. None of this is mentioned in the report.

Drug deaths in the UK do remain unacceptably high (for a long time the highest in Europe)despite progress being made in the harm reduction field. This is a serious issue worthy of serious news coverage, Its a great shame that the Mail, which has on occassion run very sensible op-eds and editorials on the drugs issue (including advocating legalisation), has resorted to this shoddy journalism, apparently just as a lame attempt to undermine the Government, in this case on one of the few vaguely sensible things they have done in the drugs arena (ie. reclassification).

Bad science and distorted statistics in pursuit of political point scoring or juicey soundbites (from politicians and journalists) have blighted drug policy for far too long and must not go unchallenged.


daksya said...

The Daily Mail once advocated legalization??

Do you have a link?

Ali G said...

they have run stories and opinion on legalisation here:

from Transform

(see first entry - this was just the Scottish Daily Mail)

by Transform Patron and former drug cop Eddie Ellison

and here

and ran a straight legalisation rant alongside a broadly sympathetic editorial here:

Hel said...

The way the likes of the Mail use and misuse things like statistics and correlations is one of the reasons why I think Statistics should be a compulsory subject in schools, otherwise people could be fooled by their "facts" instead of analysing them like you have. Great post.

800 pound gorilla said...

Stats are meaningless without background. How are the stats in relation to comparable stats for something else. What proportion does this represent? What is the distribution of the stats?

If Bill Gates moves into an Appalachian hillbilly community the average net worth will go to over 10 million easily. 300 megawatts is HUGE for a lightbulb; it isn't so powerful for a desktop.

The problem that I found with drug war claims is that, if you believe their conclusions, the number of drug problems should be much higher. I kept looking at the number of users versus drug abuse problems and it didn't add up to a "drug scourge". And the closer I looked at the numbers the less they gelled with the hysterical claims for the drug war.

When I discovered that most users had no problems it was a far cry from the original impression that "any user who didn't get into trouble was just lucky" mantra.

I've always been skeptical but even I was shocked about how dishonest our government has been for so long about the drug war. And the fact that you can't rub the drug editors' noses in the truth doesn't seem to affect the lying.

Anonymous said...

Daily Mail gives birth to kittens.