Shock Press: British papers misrepresent drug statistics.

Cannabis Joint: Torben Hansen

By Levent Akbulut

SOMEONE once said that drug use leads to fear and paranoia in those who have never taken them. Apparently this gives license to journalists to propagate fear and misrepresent studies that are yet to even be published.

On Friday 5 April, the Mail a stalwart in the war on science based drug policy outdid itself and perhaps more surprisingly the Telegraph, which has greatly improved its coverage on drug issues over the years ‘reported’ on two different studies presented at the Royal Institute for Economic Studies Annual Conference. Both newspapers attempted to present ongoing research as peer-reviewed science. All the research is still in its early stages and neither of the studies support the ‘findings’ reported on.

The headlines read as follows; in the Mail: “The price of going soft on cannabis: Labour’s experiment ‘pushed up hard drug use and crime”, and the Telegraph: ¹ “Cannabis use soared by a quarter after Class C downgrade, study finds”, and “Soft, softly cannabis scheme drove up hospital admissions for hard drugs, study”.

These newspieces have forced the researchers to break with convention and comment publicly.

Dr Nils Braakmann, Newcastle University, has written an open letter to the public outlining the problems with the newspieces. He believes that ‘research should only influence public policy after undergoing peer-review’, which means that it has received ‘outside scrutiny’ and that ‘only then can we be sure the respective study will not change anymore’.

The newspieces claimed that the 2004 declassification of cannabis from class B to class C led to a 25% increase in cannabis use, amongst young people who had never used it. And an associated increase in other criminal activities, including violent offences such as ‘assault’.

Dr Braakmann states that his studies do not find ‘any absolute increase in cannabis consumption’, because they ‘never looked look at absolute increases in cannabis consumption’ and ‘there has never been any absolute increase in cannabis consumption’.
Nor do they ‘find any absolute increase in crime’ for the same reasons as above.

Their study does not even evaluate the 2004 declassification. The research was on ‘whether cannabis consumption might lead to increased criminal behaviour among consumers’. And even at this stage of the research acknowledges that it is ‘very difficult to rule out that criminal behaviour causes cannabis consumption or that things like lifestyle changes cause both cannabis consumption and criminal behaviour’.

Anyone with any kind of scientific knowledge will be aware that distinguishing between correlation and causation is an incredibly complex process and is not always conclusive.

Some people did start using cannabis after declassification and for a group of these people, deterrence mattered.  ‘The 25% reported in the press is the relative difference in the change in annual consumption’ between previous non-consumers and those who already smoked cannabis. This was because previous non-consumers increased their consumption post-2004 (having not been consumers), while previous consumers decreased theirs (in line with general trends in cannabis use).

The second study by Elaine Kelly and Imran Rasul, Institute for Fiscal studies, claimed that the Lambeth experiment in tolerating cannabis use led to an 100% increase in hospitalisation of young men under 35 who had no previous history of treatment for alcohol or drug use.

The study (which is also ongoing) does imply support for the widely discredited gateway hypothesis that cannabis use leads to the use of ‘harder’ or more dangerous drugs. Some very crucial points are excluded from the study and could well be picked upon in peer-review.

Hospitalisations in Lambeth were compared to boroughs home to people with very different socio-economic backgrounds, rather than to boroughs with similar patterns of user groups. Indeed it was an escalation of crack use in Lambeth that forced the police there to consider deprioritising cannabis offences. Perhaps correlating with increased ‘harder’ drug use in that vicinity.

Crucially, the Institute for Fiscal Studies research has not yet gathered any information on hospital admissions from actual drug workers in Lambeth. Whether they will choose to do so is unclear.

Journalists have an obligation to inform the public and initiate debate. And when they do, they must not misrepresent research with potentially serious public health consequences to sell a story.

¹The Telegraph has since withdrawn this story from their website.