The UK tabloid hysteria has flared again over the dangers of cannabis, distorting recent research in an act that will prove detrimental to further educating people on the real harms associated with drug use.
Professor Wayne Hall's recently published paper in the journal Addiction - "What has research over the past two decades revealed about the adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use?" - has created a minor media frenzy in the UK. The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail - ever-foaming at the mouth, ready to vent their moral outrage - respectively ran the headlines: 'Cannabis as addictive as heroin, major new study finds', and, 'Cannabis: The Terrible Truth', the latter doing so with an air of vindication, as if to say: "Look, we've been right all along."
So, we arrive once again for this seemingly monthly dose of media fear mongering over how drugs will destroy us all if we don't rid the world of them. And, as ever, papers have skirted over key caveats in the study in question and twisted words so as to push their agenda. Below is a brief rundown of just where they got it wrong on this occasion.
The Telegraph's claim that Professor Hall at any point stated that cannabis is on a par with heroin when it comes to addictiveness is a pernicious manipulation of his words. The exact phrasing he used to present his study was, in fact:
If cannabis is not addictive then neither is heroin or alcohol
This in no way equates to equal levels of harm, nor addictiveness, and at no point does the Telegraph cite a quote by Professor Hall that can back up their absurd headline. Adopting the paper's same method of reasoning, one could just as easily print the headline: "Alcohol as addictive as heroin." But that wouldn't serve the paper's view as well, would it?
On Cannabis' Impact on Mental Health
Both newspapers claim that Professor Hall's study found that cannabis causes mental health problems. This is conveyed by each as a statement of fact, when it is anything but.
Professor Hall's findings were, rather, that the link between cannabis and mental health problems such as psychosis and depression has been found to be unclear. Research has determined that cannabis may be a contributing factor or heighten the risk of developing a disorder, but to frame it as a sole causation of a condition is misleading given the need to account for other confounding variables e.g. family history of mental illness and socio-economic standing. Some research has managed to do this, but there is no consensus on the issue, Hall states.
On Cannabis as a Gateway Drug
The Daily Mail states that the study shows that "cannabis... opens the door to hard drugs." This is, in a sense, true as Professor Hall did find from analysing different studies that cannabis users may be more likely to use cocaine and heroin.
However, the Mail fails to note that this finding is based on the exposure of cannabis users to the drug market and/or factors completely unrelated to cannabis, such as the "risk-taking or sensation-seeking," of the user in question.
Thus, a pharmacological explanation of escalation in drug use is falsely left on the table by the Mail's inability to go into further detail, suggesting that the effect of cannabis on the user in and of itself serves as a gateway to other substances. As Sanho Tree has pointed out in the past, if you frame cannabis as a gateway drug you may as well note that everyone suffering from alcohol misuse has probably drunk milk at one point in their life
On Other Harms and Media Responsibility
The Telegraph and Mail both highlight Hall's key findings that driving after smoking cannabis increases the chance of an accident, and that it is potentially harmful to the development of a baby if a mother smokes during pregnancy.
These are both vital pieces of information that need disseminating.
The problem with the coverage - primarily The Mail's here - is that it implies that those advocating reform of cannabis laws are pushing the issue on the basis it is a harmless substance. No drug is without associated harms. Indeed, more needs to be done to educate people on this, yet the current drug policy paradigm is hell bent on education through fear in the false belief it will result in total abstinence. Elements of the media are sadly complicit in perpetuating this ridiculous (and dangerous) model, despite the fact that it is one under which the damages they are so afraid of occurs.
Demonising drug users and manipulating research findings to sell papers serves only to avoid an open and honest debate on how to properly mitigate the harms of illicit drugs. If parts of the media continue down this sensationalist road, they will remain a malicious hindrance to real progress.
Edward Fox is the project coordinator for TalkingDrugs.org, a website operated by Release, the UK-based centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law. He previously worked as an editor and journalist in Colombia, specializing in drug policy and production and US-led counter narcotics efforts in the region