Monday, April 16, 2007

Independent on Sunday and cannabis - on it goes

In March we posted two detailed blogs responding to the Independent on Sunday's two-week long canna-pology and retraction of support for their 1997 campaign for decriminalisation of the drug.

How the Independent on Sunday got it horribly wrong on Cannabis

The Independent's born-again war on drugs: Round Two

To summarise: the basis for their new stance was the new evidence they 'revealed' about the increased potency of cannabis today, and its terrible toll on the mental health of Britain's youth. The blogs highlighted how the claims they were making were bad science: exageration, cherry picking and good old fashioned lazy sensationalist journalism, and also how there new editorial position totally misunderstood the issue, confusing the debate around drug harms with the debate around policy responses to those harms. (look, just read them).

The IOS has argued itself into a corner. After making such a big deal of retracting their support for progressive law reform there is no way they can back down now without considerable embarrassment and humiliation (it would certainly prove a poser for the headline writers next time around, although they could arguably reuse the first 'Cannabis: an apology' ). On the other hand, to support their case for prohibition – on the basis of the dangers of cannabis – they now feel obliged to produce a constant stream of shock-horror cannabis coverage which, given that they have very clearly nailed their franken-pot colours to the mast, will inevitably be un-bothered by scientific or journalistic objectivity. And, surprise, surprise, this is exactly what we have seen over the last three of weeks. Here's a quick guided tour:

The April 1 edition saw a front page teaser apparently borrowed from their tabloid colleagues:

Skunk: my son turned into a monster

Inside we learn, from Jonathan Owen, that:

“Academics and doctors say potent skunk is the cause of soaring psychiatric problems in the young; pro-drug campaigners sniff anti-cannabis conspiracies and claim there is no proof of a link”.

I responded to the, now repeated, cheap 'pro-drug' name-calling in the Round Two blog, and despite extensively trawling the extensive blog/web coverage of the IOS canna-panic I haven't seen a single mention of 'conspiracies' anywhere. I believe the key accusation was the one made above regards bad science, reefer madness sensationalism, failure to grasp the realities of public health and drugs policy, and lazy journalism.

What then follows is a depressing and tragic anecdote about a teenager getting into serious problems with drugs – that is then illogically and, Im sorry to say, shamelessly used to bolster the IOS's new cannabis-users-must-be-criminlised editorial position. It's not a review of the published evidence on drug harms, its a single case, one that would probably be more appropriately published in Take-a-break magazine than the news section of a nominally serious Sunday paper.

The son who 'turned into a monster', we also learn, was smoking an eighth of 'skunk' a day from the age of 15. This skunk, apparently, 'can be up to 10 times stronger' than 'conventional cannabis' – down from 25 time stronger as reported on the initial skunk potency panic front page report from two weeks previously. By the time he was 18 he was dealing to fund his use of 'LSD, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy'. So not really a typical teenager then, even of the casual cannabis using variety – and hardly the basis for extrapolating the threat of cannabis to mental health across an entire population of young people.

  • Could it possibly be that there was more at play here than the occasional cannabis use that describes the vast majority of users?

  • Do we get any discussion of how the policy of prohibition - the criminal justice approach the IOS now supports - under which this sad tale unfolded, prevented it happening? (No. because it clearly didn't)

The same week we also had a classic bit of old-school reefer madness, also from Jonathan Owen, on cannabis and lung cancer, dressed up as news on the basis of some new un-referenced research apparently being published 'later this year' in New Zealand. Nowhere does Owen mention that almost all cannabis in the UK is smoked with tobacco, or the obvious fact that smoking anything will increase the risk of lung cancer because inhaling burnt stuff of any kind is clearly not good for your lungs. Nor does he mention, as you might hope for responsible reporting, that such lung damage risks can be avoided by users if they either use vaporisers, or consume cannabis by eating it, for example in cookies (I seem to recall the orginal 1997 IOS cannabis campaign providing a recipe). A quick search for 'cannabis lung cancer' on pubmed (the serachable archive of medical journals) may provide you with some more balanced information from peer reviewed academic journals. Something Owen apparently didn't bother with.

The following week, April 8th, Jonathan Owen, again, reports that 'Cannabis is wrecking lives, says public school head' . This rather odd piece of 'news' is based on an interview with Dr Anthony Seldon, the Head of 'leading public school' Wellington College. His Wikipedia entry informs us that he is known for his biographies of recent prime ministers, but he doesn't seem to have any qualifications as a medical doctor, statistician or drug policy expert. None the less we learn:

The decision to reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class C drug was a mistake and should be reviewed, Dr Seldon, author of a biography of Tony Blair, said. He added: "The reclassification was unhelpful because it sent the signal that it is OK.

The change "emboldened" thousands of young people to try the drug, with many paying a high price, according to Dr Seldon. "What about all the children whose lives have been wrecked because they have developed psychoses or been unable to cope?" he said. "What about those who have died or reside in mental hospitals? Or the teachers who have had to endure apathetic or aggressive pupils high on dope? The message must be total prohibition."

Both the IOS and Dr Seldon seem unaware that over the last few years, including since the terrible signals sent out by reclassification, reported prevalence of cannabis use, the holy grail of Government drug policy targets, has actually fallen (according to the BCS):

Thanks to Clive Bates at Baconbutty

Could it be that, Government policy, classification, and levels of enforcement do infact have little or no impact on levels of cannabis use? This comparative study of drug use three very different cites would suggest so - but that sort of analysis is far too nuanced for the IOS's overt new drugs-can-be-dangerous-therefore-criminalise-the-sinners-who-use-them editorial line. And who can blame them? Why wrestle with all those pesky ambiguous research findings, that conflicting epidemiological evidence, and confusingly complex multi-variable socio-economic policy analysis when you have the clear cut certainty of an ideological drug war:

drugs are bad > BAN THEM!

Oh thank heavens for that - Its just so much easier for a hard pressed Sunday's writer. Once you're signed up, all you need do is wheel out lots of cherry picked information to hype the drug's dangers (there's plenty of it, and its pre-prepared), pull in a few drug-experts like businessman Richard Branson, political appointee Antonio Costa, and political biographer Anthony Seldon, add some emotionally charged 'annecdata' and BOSH! The paper practically writes itself.

If we were in any doubt where the IOS is going with all this we need only look at the latest edition which two more cannabis panic items, a stat-free prohibitionist rant from Seldon, and a 'loads of people take drugs' non-shock news story. For the record this makes a grand total of 17 news items and comment pieces on cannabis in 5 weeks, all except three either hyping the dangers of the drug or calling for its users to be punished, surely a UK record. The three are: in the first week - an opinion piece by Robin Murray that considers the dangers of cannbis but suggests legal status is irrelevant, a news piece that appears to contradict many of the IOS's arguments (the 'tobacco and alcohol..' one linked below on the lancet drug harms paper ) , and one lonesome pro-law reform piece by Rosie Boycott. Anyone for a debate?

Anthony Seldon: The effects of cannabis on vulnerable young minds can no longer be ignored

One-third of pupils have tried cannabis by the age of 15

Cannabis is wrecking lives, says public school head

Long-term cannabis use raises risk of lung cancer

Cannabis debate: 'I let my son have skunk. It ruined his life'

Antonio Maria Costa: Cannabis... call it anything but 'soft'

So how dangerous is skunk?

UN warns of cannabis dangers as it backs 'IoS' drugs 'apology'

Julie Lynn-Evans: Legalise the old stuff but make the new stuff a class A drug

Leading article: The cannabis debate

Tobacco and alcohol 'are more dangerous than LSD'

Skunk: How the 'safe' drug of choice for the hippy generation became a serious health hazard

Robin Murray: Teenage schizophrenia is the issue, not legality

Leading article: Cannabis: a retraction

Were we out of our minds? No, but then came skunk

Cannabis: An apology

Rosie Boycott: Skunk is dangerous. But I still believe in my campaign to decriminalise cannabis

The most recent opinion piece by the previous week's returning hero, Anthony Seldon, makes it all too clear. Within a few paragraphs we have heard that cannabis is 'sneakily and subtly toxic', is responsible for destroying lives, careers and triggering suicides, causing depression, psychoses and insanity, leads people to 'hard drugs' (its the gateway theory - noooooooooooooooooooo!), makes people 'boring', leads to 'apathy, self-centredness and a lack of engagement with others and the world at large', and is responsible for 'horrific acts of violence'.

Seldon then proposes three possible school responses to this 'sinister' drug:

1. Educating young people about the dangers of cannabis. Seems worth a try, but he describes this as the 'the least reliable' of the three methods. OK, its not had a great track record but that does seem a bit defeatist, for an educator and headmaster of a 'leading public school'.

2. Punishment. Yes! now we are getting somewhere. Bit of punishment: that'll learn'm. Seldon is unequivocal:

"I have never believed in giving children who bring drugs on to school premises a second chance. It means that, for some, to be "busted" for drugs is a badge of honour. This strong line might seem heartless, but it has saved many more pupils than it has damaged. Random drug testing and sniffer dogs are other devices. Nothing is ruled out in the interests of protecting those in my charge."

Anthony Seldon: 'No second chance'

Isn't that just brilliant? Despite official advice and ample evidence that excluding the most vulnerable and needy pupils 'in his charge' is counterproductive, he is resolutely determined not to give them a 'second chance'. Wellington is a Church of England faith school, according to their website:"The values of Christianity - upon which our whole society is built and continues to operate - are the foundation of Wellington and are immensely important to us as a school community, still providing the framework for our daily lives." Values of Christianity like....forgiveness perhaps?

3. 'teaching young people how to live'. Now, at last, a bit I can find some agreement with. Giving kids more attractive options than drug use: fine. Encouraging sensible/healthy lifestyle choices: excellent. "What is the point of schools if they do not help children to learn how to live their lives to the full, how to enjoy themselves and be happy, and how to live intelligently?". It gives the impression of being an outbreak of reasonableness, maybe I have misjudged Dr Seldon....

....But then we have the final insult:

Drugs are not intelligent living. Alcohol is part of intelligent life for many, and with older school children the art is to help them to realise that drink, properly used, can be a significant enhancement to life. With drugs, there is no half-way position. Everyone - government, the media and schools - needs to give the same message: "No."

Now if you will excuse my non-Christian language, but, what the hell? Alcohol apparently is not a 'drug' (er, it is), but rather it is part of 'intelligent life', in fact we need to teach 'school children' how it can be a 'significant enhancement to life'. Maybe they should hand out alco-pops at play-time, before the hurling the empty bottles at those nasty potheads as they are chased out the school by drug dogs? remember - 'nothing is ruled out'. Forgive me (if you can) but what on earth is he talking about?

'life enhancing' booze

It is amazing to me that he would round off this hopelessly emotive and unscientific anti-cannabis tirade with an exultation of alcohol - the drug at the centre of a growing youth epidemic of binge drinking and anti social behaviour, and the cause of 10-20000 premature deaths a year. And Seldon talks about cannabis reclassification sending out the 'wrong signals'.

Just think about this for a moment: How easy would it have been to produce almost the exact same article, but about the 'scourge' of alcohol. Read the article again - change 'cannabis'/'drugs'/'joints' to 'alcohol'/ 'drinking' etc. and you'll see what I mean. The millions of young people for whom the just say no message, dogs, testing, punishment, criminal records and and exclusions dont appear to work need accurate information about the dangers of all drugs and how to minimise the risks of their use.

The Seldon denoument strikes me as utterly bizarre. But this, perhaps, sums up the IOS's whole approach and there will be more to come so buckle up. The Independent on Sunday appear to be digging in for a long war.

For the record: I will be contacting the Independent to see if, in the interest of 'the great debate', they will run an opinion piece from Transform. I dont hold out much hope, since when they rang up and asked me for one a few weeks ago, they then didnt publish it. You can but try.

Some other interesting coverage of the IOS cannabis panic:

Bad science column in the Guardian: 'Reefer Badness' by (Medical) Dr Ben Goldacre

Cannabis - sorry about the apology by former prime-ministerial advisor, and former director of anti-smoking charity Ash, Clive Bates

Do 'Skunk' stats stink? from the George Mason University (Washington DC) statistical assessment service


Anonymous said...

Great article Steve. The comments from Dr Seldon about alcohol are utterly dumbfounding given what he had said moments before.

Anonymous said...

There really isnt much to say other than - where did it all go wrong?

If their readership was slipping I could understand this strange turn around, but they were going up.

Anonymous said...

Another desire of the prohibitionist machine to make sure that no one considers alcohol a "dangerous drug" despite all of the obvious evidence, "You can die of cancer all you like we won't give you any medicinal cannabis so how about some whiskey instead?". It's the spates of violence related to cannabis that confuse me, really, wtf?