Reefer madness revisited

The following article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 11 June 2007.

On the BBC News website last Thursday there was a report that hospital admissions in England due to cannabis-induced psychosis have risen by 85% under Labour. The story was covered also by the Daily Telegraph and Scotsman newspapers, among other media.

I assume the figures quoted by Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley are correct, but they are hardly proof that Labour government turns people into drug fiends. After all, it is only in relatively recent times that a serious attempt has been made to assess the level of cannabis use, and the NHS has linked psychiatric admissions to use of this psychotropic plant.

On Friday, the BBC published another article on cannabis, this time featuring two victims of excessive cannabis use, both of whom are now recovered. So that’s two scare stories in as many days.

Does the BBC now intend to provide some balance, and publish articles featuring cannabis users who partake moderately of the drug, and with no ill effects? There are in the UK millions of regular users of the weed, and the numbers abusing it are relatively small by comparison.

On the question of hospital admissions, the Tory spin is misleading as no numerical context is provided. And neither is there quoted in the article any opinion contrary to the thesis that cannabis is a significant danger to public health, as portrayed by the medical profession, government and some sections of the media. Recall, for example, the Independent’s recent apology for having previously supported decriminalisation, and Ben Goldacre’s fisking of the dodgy statistics on the strength of skunk weed.

Regarding the two case studies published by the BBC, bipolar disorder sufferer and former cannabis user Jason Pelger says he knows of “hundreds and hundreds of cases” of mental health problems caused by cannabis use. I would be somewhat surprised if Mr Pelger – a mental health publisher – was unaware of the link between cannabis use and psychosis. It proves nothing.

As with Thursday’s article on hospital admissions, there is a lack of context and sense of proportion in this sensationalist report.

But I guess this is only to be expected in the current political climate. We have senior politicians of all parties opposed to the legal downgrading of cannabis, and there have been calls to return it to its previous classification. Medical professionals, who endlessly call on government to regulate the private lives of citizens, are also spinning hard and fast.

What I would like to see is journalists treating with appropriate scepticism the figures spun by medical professionals and politicians. For example, some of the numbers quoted in the first BBC article are statistically meaningless and mixed with conjectural opinion, and the claim that the strength of cannabis has increased in recent years is misleading bordering on false.

Aside from the known health benefits of cannabis-based therapies, millions of British people use the drug for recreational purposes, and will continue to do so whatever the official position. These latest scare stories are little better than the “Reefer madness” propaganda of old, and are treated with contempt by those who actually know something about the subject.

Cannabis is not a harmless drug, and there is need of public education so that people can make informed decisions about their lifestyles. But spreading scare stories and dodgy statistics is grossly irresponsible, risks bringing the medical profession into disrepute, and breeds contempt for political authority.