Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More Independent on Sunday reefer madness exposed

Back in mid-September the Independent on Sunday (IOS) ran yet another cannabis themed news feature this time under the dramatic headline Re-classification of cannabis ‘fuels youth crime wave’. At the time I couldn’t help thinking that the central claim made in the headline sounded rather implausible even though reportedly having the cred of being based on 'academic research'. In the context of The IOS’s born-again prohibitionist crusade to criminalise half of the nation's youth I almost considered looking into it bit more closely. But I was busy and to be honest weary of the endless stream of self-justifying cherry-picked canna-panic silliness flowing from the paper since March. I figured the public and blog readers of the world probably were to. I had better things to do and lazy IOS cannabis stories are easy pickings.

Then some weeks later I just happened to be lecturing at King College London (as fate would have it, on the subject of drugs and crime), the seat of learning responsible for one of research papers quoted in the IOS cannabis crime wave story, and just happened to bump into one of the research team involved with the very paper used to make the scary crime wave claim. It turned out they weren’t happy with the IOS reporting. So I felt a closer critique of the reporting was probably justified and needless to say I wasn't disappointed.

The IOS coverage opens with

Cannabis use among Britain's young offenders is "out of control", up by 75 per cent in some areas and fuelling a crime epidemic, with youngsters stealing to fund their addictions, according to two studies.

And then, a paragraph later:

Research carried out by King's College London has indicated that 25 per cent of young offenders in Sheffield have turned to crime to fund their habit. This contrasts with previous government research which said that "cannabis use was unlikely to motivate crime".

I have the Kings College London (KCL) research paper in front of me. It's called ‘Young people, cannabis use, and antisocial behavior’ and is an excellent and indeed important piece of work that illuminates a lot of the key issues and concerns around cannabis and young people today, making a series of eminently sensible recommendations. But does it suggest that cannabis is fueling a 'crime epidemic, with youngsters stealing to fund their addictions’ , or specifically that reclassification of cannabis ‘fuels youth crime wave’ as the IOS proclaims?

Well no, actually it doesn’t. There's no mention of epidemics or waves of crime anywhere in the document, and interestingly the ‘fuels youth crime wave’ quote from the headline doesn’t even appear in the IOS news story itself. It isn't even paraphrasing something someone has said; a quote apparently pulled from thin air. I believe the technical term for this is ‘made up’.

And what about the IOS claim that “25 per cent of young offenders in Sheffield have turned to crime to fund their habit”. Well one of the KCL report's authors felt this didn’t very accurately represent its findings and emailed the IOS story’s author to express their concerns. They were good enough to forward me the email sent:

I have just been emailed a copy of your article quoting the research colleagues and I conducted in Sheffield on young people, cannabis use and anti-social behaviour. I just wanted to let you know that your sentence "Research carried out by King's College London has indicated that 25 per cent of young offenders in Sheffield
have turned to crime to fund their habit" is inaccurate. The actual sentence in the report reads:

"Pocket money and work were the most common sources of funding cannabis use. Just over one in ten mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use".

We did not, as the article suggests, interview all young offenders in Sheffield. In total we interviewed 30 youth offending service clients. Below, I have pasted our main findings. If I can be of any further help please don't hesitate to contact me.

The IOS didn’t go as far as to print a clarification. In fact they didn’t make contact at all, or even reply to the email. I believe this is technically known as 'rude'.

So is the 25% figure made up like the crime wave quote? Well, a closer reading of the KCL report reveals that:

“Only eight young people mentioned committing crime to fund their use, seven of whom were YOS clients.”

This is from a total interview sample of 61, all technically youth offenders purely on the basis of their cannabis use, but of whom 30 were specifically under supervision of the Youth Offending Service. So, if we are being generous to the IOS, you could arguably claim that of the 30 YOS clients interviewed, 7 mentioned committing crime to fund their use, and from that almost derive the 25% figure (well, actually 23.3 reoccurring % to be precise) . But let's have a think about this:

  • Firstly, a total sample size of 30 is very small and can therefore only ever suggest very generalised behavioral patterns. Positive respondents in single figures, just 7 on the crime-to-buy-cannabis question, is far too small a number, with far too large an error margin to be the basis of any serious policy conclusions, let alone claims of 'epidemics'. It might suggest the need for further research but as the basis for a ‘youth crime wave’ headline it is faintly ridiculous. The IOS notably fails to mention the sample size, offer a link to the document (which isn't published in a journal yet anyway), mention the title of the research, or -as we have seen- name the authors or offer them a chance to comment (although 11 other experts do get quoted, along with 6 typically narrative re-enforcing IOS vox pops).
  • Secondly The fact that certain individuals, (all eight of them), ‘mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use’ is very different from IOS interpretation that they were ‘stealing to fund their addictions’ or that they had ‘turned to crime to fund their habit’. The fact the 7 YOS clients bought cannabis from crime related earnings is not really surprising. They are young offenders already in the system and likely to be using criminal proceeds to find lifestyle expenses generally from clothes, to big macs, to alcohol. Cannabis is not especially expensive(they are likely to be spending as much or more on alcohol), it is in a different league entirely regards crime creation to heroin or crack use that can run to over £50 a day – even though the IOS evidently uses these addictions as its semantic reference point. The KCL report does not state that the youths were asked how much they spent on cannabis or, for any of the 7 youth crime-tsunami, what proportion of cannabis expenditure was crime funded. It is also worth noting that of the 31 cannabis users who, like the vast majority of cannabis users, were not YOS clients, just one ‘mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use’. This observation, in contrast to the IOS rather desperate assertions otherwise, doesn't really suggest an epidemic and actually indicates support for the ‘previous government research which said that "cannabis use was unlikely to motivate crime".
  • Thirdly the KCL report does not link the 7 youngster crime 'epidemic’ with addiction as the IOS specifically claims. The report notes that, of the 61 youths interviewed: ‘23 believed that their use had some problematic aspects. Half (12) of them expressed concerns about the frequency of their use and the likelihood of developing addictive patterns of use’. However it does not state that any, let alone all of the 7 who ‘mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use’ were amongst the 12, and no details are given that any of this 12, or the 7, had been diagnosed as dependent cannabis users or received treatment accordingly. It's possible of course that they were all hopeless cannabis addicts, but the KCL report doesn't tell us this, and actually it strongly suggests otherwise.
  • Finally, whilst there is much interesting discussion in the KCL report about the confusion resulting from the rather bungled re-classification of cannabis from B to C in 2004, there is nothing in it to suggest that for any of the crime-wave-7 reclassification had anything whatsoever to do with their offending or use, as suggested by the IOS headline.

So in just two brief sentences there is a whole series of misrepresentations of the Kings College research, all skewing its findings so as to hype the cannabis crisis and support the IOS's pre-determined narrative about how awful cannabis is. Its an old trick (that even more credible papers can fall foul of from time to time) but in this case it is part of a pattern; the IOS's deliberate and ongoing journalistic shenanigans to justify their born-again prohibitionist editorial position, and indeed its increasingly evident support for a re-reclassification back to B. The same week's IOS leader, dramatically (perhaps in retrospect - ironically) titled 'Our criminal ignorance of cannabis', regurgitates the same distorted reporting, almost triumphantly declaring that:

“Today, we report a further complication. One of the arguments for reclassif'ying cannabis as less serious was that users did not tend to steal to pay for their habit. But disturbing new research suggests otherwise. Our own investigations suggest cannabis use is high and rising among young offenders, and an academic study in Sheffield suggests one in four young offenders has stolen to pay for cannabis.”

And finally it is perhaps worth pointing out one of the KCL report’s recommendations that the IOS didn't mention:

“Strategies that are developed to reduce the negative perceptions that press stories create in the public’s mind about young people should be encouraged.”

More blog coverage of the IOS cannabis frenzy during 2007:


jdc324 said...

Re the Indy on Sunday's "born-again prohibitionist editorial position" - they do seem a bit evangelical on this. Which can get you into all sorts of trouble as a journo. And may prevent you from seeing the irony in headlines such as "Our criminal ignorance of cannabis".

Steve Rolles said...

hahaha: the irony of that had not escaped me.

Anonymous said...

Surely it would make more sense to criminalise this kind of misleading, shoddy, sensationalist journalism.

Steve Rolles said...

i dont know about criminalise but i imagine a complainnt to the PCC would be possible. i think it probably comes within their remit. It would probably be better coming from the authors though.

The Daily Growl said...

What I want to know is where does that picture come from? - it's amazing!