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The cannabis trade - a critique

Summary of Complaint

Detailed critique

UPDATE: A response from the BBC was received 29th March - full details here

The information on this page formed the basis of a complaint to the BBC made on 2nd January 2008

Introduction:

The Cannabis trade was a two part series broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on December 20th and 27th 2007.

The series was billed as reporting on the growth of cannabis farms in the UK, the causes and the consequences of this development. Interestingly trailers for the series told of how the effect of cannabis use was affecting pupils in boarding schools, but this seemed to have been dropped when the programme went to air.

Radio 4 is a highly regarded BBC Radio station with a well earned reputation for fairness and reliable reporting. As this series promised to examine the situation it was reasonable to expect an in-depth investigation not only into the growth of the new cannabis farms, but also the reasons for that growth. Indeed, this was what the series claimed to do.

Overall it was an interesting series, but badly researched in places and biased toward support for prohibition as a policy for cannabis by virtue of the fact that prohibition was never once mentioned as a possible cause of the situation. The only debate around the legal status of cannabis was along the lines of increasing the legal sanctions.

It certainly wasn't an objective examination of the whole issue as it claimed to be and the programme was misleading and in places factually wrong. It did not reach the standard we have a right to expect of the BBC and of Radio 4 in particular.

Please note: The issue under discussion is not related to problems caused by the use of cannabis; this is all supply side.

 

 

Summary of criticism:

Both programmes were introduced by BBC continuity which explained that "A gap in the market for cannabis has opened up worldwide because of a fall in supplies of the drug from Morocco". This of course is a little unfair on Morocco which can hardly be credited with supplying the world with cannabis. The truth is a gap in the market in parts of Europe has opened up in part because of a fall in supplies from Morocco. This was indeed caused by the Moroccan government's action, but that action was done as a result of our collective government's enthusiastic support for global cannabis eradication which created the UN policy to "A drug free world, we can do it" - which had the goal of eradicating cannabis by 2008 [A]. The British and especially the American government have been leading lights in this campaign. From the start therefore, the fact that cannabis is subjected to the policy of prohibition was clearly at the root of the new situation, but that fact was not presented - the series started as it intended to go on.

It should be noted at this point that Morocco supplied the UK with Hashish (this was only mentioned in passing as "cannabis resin". The gap in the market has been filled with herbal cannabis. Hashish is a concentrated form of cannabis, the resin without the plant material. It is therefore very possible that cannabis grown to make hash will have a lower proportion of THC than cannabis grown for use in the herbal form. Therefore a move form hash to herbal cannabis could itself account for the increased potency which is claimed to be seen. Cannabis has, however, always been available in the herbal form from other countries but we weren't told how these varieties compared to modern day "skunk". However, as mentioned, this change is as a result of the policy of prohibition as enthusiastically supported by our government and the series avoided any mention if it.

At no point in the series was the fact that cannabis is subjected to the policy of prohibition questioned as possibly the cause of the issue under investigation. Prohibition is, of course, not only the reason Moroccan exports have been reduced but also the reason the resultant large scale cannabis farms in the UK are outside any legal regulation or control.

The historical parallel with prohibition of alcohol in 1920's America is clear, when illegal stills opened up in residential areas and accidents were common. As with the cannabis farms as fast as the police closed them down, others opened to fill the void. Again though, the series made no comparison to this historical precedent and instead treated the whole issue as something new. This deliberate ignoring of an historical precedent was misleading.

All the people interviewed apart from Robin Murray were either police or members of some government approved organisation involved with the prohibition policy. Robin has been a key figure in the mental health debate which has lead to the present moves to reclassify cannabis to class B and this connection was made in the programme. No effort to obtain views from respected law reform groups such as Transform or indeed UKCIA seems to have been made. A fair balance of views was therefore not presented.

Although the programme made many references to the claims of increase potency of so-called "skunk" cannabis, no reference to the issue of contamination was made.[B] This is a major issue and has been for over a year, yet it wasn't mentioned at all. High levels of contamination and high levels of variability of supply are used as indicators of "success" for prohibition, an example of how the present policy increases the dangers connected with cannabis use. Again, no criticism of present policy.

The programme highlighted the dangers some of the more extreme examples that criminal "grow ops" pose - such as fire risk, exploitation of people and so on. These are valid concerns. However it extended this to include the methods of growing used in the grow-ops and implied that growing in this way increased the potency and therefore the danger of the drug..

In fact, growing from cuttings hydroponically under lights can produce a high grade product of good consistency and it is the method used to grow crops for the medicine "Sativex" by GW Pharmaceuticals. Although this method of growing will maximise the crop, it will not in itself change the nature of the product as the series seemed to imply, the nature of the crop is determined by the strain grown and the genetics of the plant. To illustrate that point further, Sativex is made from a blend of cannabis, one low in THC, all intensively cultivated.

The series failed to point out that the commercial pressures created by prohibition and the resultant need for a fast growing, high yield crop were not made. These pressures may include the over use of pesticides, leaving dangerous residues in the plant.

Likewise the fact that under prohibition, drugs tend to have "more bang for the buck", simply because more potent forms occupy less space and give a higher return for the investment. Again, during American alcohol prohibition the same effect was seen in that moonshine was available but beer wasn't, but this was ignored by the series.

The programme described quite well the workings of an "underground" supply by reporting on the Rowntree study, but again, didn't make the point that this is how illegal markets always work. It made no attempt to investigate how older cannabis users obtain supplies, nor how mature and embedded in British society it is. Instead giving the impression that cannabis was used by young people and the trade is dominated by children. No mention of the fact that because cannabis is illegal, this trade is totally unregulated and uncontrolled and subject to no limits such as age restrictions. So again, having described the situation, any discussion of the cause was avoided.

Regarding the issue of strength: Here the series fell down badly. Early on in programme 1 Robin Murray explained that cannabis contains two major compounds, THC and CBD and that in his view the modern strains are more dangerous because they are low in CBD. This issue is vital for understanding the "potency" debate surrounding cannabis. But having explained this, it was as good as forgotten as the programmes unfolded. Instead the issue of strength was simply talked of simply in terms of the amount of THC present in samples. Of course, any plant which produces a high output of resin will produce a large amount of THC per gram of plant sample as a result. But without knowing the CBD content also, this information is meaningless in terms of the mental health debate.

In particular the interview with the scientist undertaking analysis was especially lacking in detail with no reference to the CBD content whatsoever. Indeed, we don't even know from the programme whether CBD is measured in these labs, instead we heard how they use large rolls of brown paper. This section of the programme was indeed very shallow, which is regrettable as the issue of changes in potency is at the heart of the debate. We heard nothing of how records of cannabis potency have been made and kept over the past few decades, had these questions been asked the damaging effects of prohibition would again have been highlighted..

The research being undertaken by Les King into cannabis potency was raised and the fact he is using samples seized in police raids was mentioned. No critical examination of this as a way to collect data was made (are these samples statistically valid?) and no reference to the fact that prohibition makes any such statistically valid sampling of what people are actually buying impossible.

The impression was given that cannabis grow-ops are all large scale businesses, no mention was made of the huge number of people who grow themselves in order to avoid contact with the criminal operations. It would have been interesting to know how much police time is directed against such small scale personal grows which are treated in the same way as the large scale operations by the law.

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References

[A] Towards a drug-free world by 2008 - we can do it… UN Chronicle, Summer, 1998 by Pino Arlacchi
"The adoption of UNDCP's concept of a global strategy is pivotal if we are to meet the challenges of eliminating or significantly reducing the use and production of illegal drugs by 2008."

[B] UK Government health warning regarding cannabis contamination January 2007

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Critique

This is a detailed critique of the programme, using clips form the programme to illustrate the points made. The clips are in MP3 format and can be downloaded (right click the link for PC's or ctl click on Mac) if they can't be played online.

Programme 1

The first programme opened with a police raid on a cannabis farm, "a couple" growing cannabis in what seemed to be an out of the way place.

The programme then goes on to describe how Vietnamese immigrants control 2/3 and ¾ of the trade. The Derbyshire police, who "raided 200 such farms last year", illustrated the scale of the situation and there is no doubt that cannabis farms (grow-ops) are popping up everywhere.

The grow op house were described; whole houses turned over to cultivation with windows blocked up and the police claimed that power is usually stolen. Police tactics were explained as to how they investigate the houses and what they look for.

The danger of such grow ops were illustrated by stories of fires from dodgey electrical wiring. The impression of a dangerous situation was given - which may have a fair degree of truth - and there is a clear health and safety issue here. However, no explanation of the role of the law in this was given. Prohibition means these farms operate outside of the law and thus have no regulation and are not subject to such measures as health and safety inspections.

The only reference to the law was when the presenter asked the policeman: "Do you think there's any case for tightening the law?" to which the policeman, not unsurprisingly, said in effect, yes. He said how he wants the power to shut such houses down. No discussion of law reform was even hinted at despite being a very current issue.

Of course if cannabis were legal and a legal supply were to be allowed, this situation would not exist. It has come about entirely because the law seeks to prevent a legal supply for a substance which has a high demand and is therefore worth a large amount of money. However, as will be mentioned often in this summery, the role of the law in this situation was not examined or even remotely questioned. This lack of questioning or highlighting of this basic fact represents a clear bias and distortion of the situation.

Is this an accurate reflection of the real situation? The impression was given that cannabis grow-ops are all on a huge scale and no mention of small scale home growers was made, although they could perhaps account for the ¼ - 1/3 of the market (using the figures given in the programme) not supplied by the big operations. Of course, due to prohibition, no one knows. No questions were asked as to how much police time is spent chasing small time growers, or why the law regards them in the same way as the big operations

Clip 1:
After the police highlighted the profit to be made, Harry Shapiro of Drugscope made the point that policing is difficult because as soon as one farm is closed, another opens - the "displacement" effect. Again though, no comment about the effect of the law was made, in particular no comparison to the role of the "mob" in 1920's America during the era of alcohol prohibition, although the similarity to the illegal moonshine stills they operated and the impossibility of policing them are clear and, indeed represent a clear lesson from history about the effects of prohibition. [1]

The programme then touched on the potency issue in a very interesting way:

The Drugscope research was quoted which indicates that the "home grown" cannabis has replaced the "cannabis resin" (hashish) we used to import. No discussion of the nature of hashish compared to herbal cannabis was made, they were both treated as simply "cannabis".

Clip 2:
The statement was made that the "Home grown product is more potent and harmful than the product it replaced", leaving no room for doubt whereas in truth, there is indeed great doubt. It may be that people with mental health problems are more likely to use cannabis than those without and the theory of an interaction with the COMT gene has not been supported by recent research. [2]. This claim was speculation dressed up as fact.

Prof Robin Murray then explains that cannabis contains two important chemicals, THC and CBD and that it is the ratio of these two constituents that is important. So far so good and this point is vital in understanding the "potency" issue. However, he goes on to say that by increasing the amount of THC a plant produces, the amount of CBD is reduced as if a consequence of doing so.

This is a distortion of the truth. The amount of resin a plant produces is determined by the way it's grown, but that doesn't alter the proportion of the two substances or indeed the overall make up of the resin made by the plant. Plants that produce low amounts of THC will do so even under intensive cultivation.

However, an early harvest is claimed to produce a product higher in THC due to chemical breakdown of THC once the resin has been formed and again the operation of prohibition will tend to encourage early harvesting.

The ratio of each substance produced by the plant is determined by the genetics of that particular strain and cannabis comes in many different strains. It is the economics of the illegal trade which have determined what is grown - varieties which grow fast under lights have been selected and, as is common for prohibited drugs, produce more "bang for the buck".

It may be that the THC/CBD balance is different between Moroccan hash of old and modern herbal strains as Robin claims, but whether this is due to "ratcheting up the THC content" is a misrepresentation of what's happened.

It could be argued somewhat more convincingly that the difference is due to the move from Hash to herbal cannabis - ie it is simply a different strain of the plant grown to produce hash to one grown to produce herbal cannabis. Cannabis has, of course, always been available in the herbal form and that type has probably always been high in THC/low in CBD as a result. There has, however, always been strong cannabis. [3]

The claim being made here is that the criminal gangs have produced a more dangerous mutant variety of cannabis, although no real evidence was presented to support that claim. The economic forces at work which have created this claimed change were not investigated or highlighted.

If it is true that Moroccan hash was so much safer, why does our government support its eradication? Has not the workings of the law created a more dangerous situation by creating the economic conditions for certain strains to be selected over others?

Again, no criticism of the policy of prohibition that removed the previous safer hashish and which created the economic conditions for the growing of these strains was made.

Also, it was not pointed out that we have never routinely measured CBD concentration in cannabis, the only historical data we have, such as it is, concerns THC alone. Robin's theory about the reduction in CBD, although very important and central to the debate is impossible to verify because of the workings of prohibition, but again, this point was not made.

Although the point was made that the concerns are cantered around young users - particularly young heavy users, no consideration was given to the merits of age limits on sales and the fact that this is impossible under prohibition.

Clip 3:
At this point the programme showed signs of being very badly researched. The presenter stated - correctly - that the most potent part of the plant is the flowers, but claimed that the Vietnamese growers had concentrated on only producing this part of the plant and that it's the only part of the plant they harvest and sell.

This is rubbish, it is only the flowering heads of the female plant that have ever been used in cannabis production - hash or herbal. The outer leaves and stems have never had a drug use.

Clip 4:
The presenter then introduced Les King who is studying the potency of cannabis based on cannabis seized from users by police, this was presented as if this was in any way a valid sampling method without criticism, no mention of the desirability of proper statistically valid sampling methods - impossible under prohibition - was made.

Les King described the intensive methods used including the production of Sensimila - female only plants - again as if this were a new practice unique to the criminal growers, which it isn't.

He made the point that the flowering heads produce the THC - which is true, but they also produce the CBD and all the other oils in the resin.

The way the plant is grown will not affect the type of resin it produces - ie the ratio of the active chemicals. It will, of course, affect the amount produced but the balance of THC/CBD - which we've already been told is the important thing - will not be changed.

Growing from cuttings likewise doesn't increase the THC content. Indeed, it is the most reliable way to grow a consistent crop with each plant being in effect a clone of the one it was taken from. It should be pointed out that the cannabis medicine Sativex is grown in precisely this way, being a blend of cannabis in order to achieve the 1:1 ratio of THC:CBD.[4]

Les King also made the point that we don't know how prevalent this intensively grown product is. We don't know, of course, because it's illegal, but again the programme didn't go there.

The programme than touched on the role of Vietnamese people in the production of cannabis in the UK, in doing so it quoted the UN as claiming the worldwide shortage of cannabis was caused by the government of Morocco clamping down on production there. Again, poor old Morocco gets the blame for creating the worldwide shortage, this if course is nonsense.

If there is a worldwide shortage it's been caused by the UN "drug free world" policy - which the UK government has been one of the greatest and most enthusiastic supporters of for the past 10 years or so. The shortage in the UK was thus created by our own government's policy and the laws of supply and demand opened up the market.

As for why Vietnamese people were quick to exploit his gap in the market it may indeed have historical roots in the decades of war in that country, the resulting refugee camps and so on. The American war in Vietnam was also the origin of our modern day "war on drugs", as first described by the then US president Richard Nixon, before he was impeached.

The presenter than went on to mention the downgrading of cannabis to class C, but again with no critical comment on the illegality of cannabis in the first place. The thrust of the argument presented by was that downgrading increased the likelihood of cannabis production. No mention of the fact that harsh penalties still exist for growing and dealing - up to 14 years - and that this was unchanged with the move to class C. This is a crime with penalties higher than the majority of serious offences, yet the law is clearly no deterrent. Why was this clear lack of effectiveness not questioned?

Throughout this section, cannabis growing was talked about as a crime with (again) no exploration of the alternatives. It was an implicit assumption throughout that the law is correct and should be enforced. No argument for law reform was presented.

The programme then returned to the difficulty of enforcing the law and the danger of the grow-ops bad wiring etc.

A representative from ACPO was then interviewed as to why the police response isn't better, but again, no examination of the cause of the problem; prohibition. The presentation throughout was "why isn't the law stronger?"

Clip 5:

At the end of the programme the issue of downgrading to class C was raised again, referring to the "chorus" of calls for a rethink, again, no alternative options were presented. The "officials in the Home Office" - actually the respected ACMD - who "defend" the decision by pointing to the fall in use since class C, the choice of words here is interesting and shows the bias we have seen throughout the programme.

Clip 6:
The programme ends with a remarkable statement from Det Insp Bill Stupples from Merseyside Drugs Support team who claimed - with no evidence whatsoever - that the UK could be exporting cannabis to the rest of Europe. The possibility that the market for cannabis in this country is simply huge and on the whole non-problematical was not entertained.

However, his comments did hint at the scale of the business, and the degree of the problem created by the government's prohibition policy, but of course, it wasn't followed up with any critical investigation by the programme.

The fact that small scale cultivation is legal in several countries in Europe wasn't mentioned and the effect of legalising such small scale production here not investigated..

Programme 2

Again, a similar continuity introduction.

This time the programme featured the experience in Canada, which is where the Vietnamese gangs are claimed to have originated. According to an ACPO spokesman, they simply spotted a commercial opportunity and moved in.

The claim was made - perhaps with some justification - by a Canadian police spokesman that an increase in hydroponics shops indicates an increase in big commercial grow-ops. Some of the Canadian shops were also selling security services, night sight goggles and other suspicious stuff.

The connection was made to grow shops in the UK. However, no examination into the extent of small scale enthusiast growing in this country was made, the implication being that these shops only sold to big league growers and that their existence was evidence of such large scale outfits.

The story of a shop in Derby was told, where police carried out a sting by going in and asking for advice about growing cannabis.

The shop had open information about cannabis growing and legalisation campaign information which doesn't really sound like the sort of outfit which would be selling wholesale to big league growers.

Again, the police were allowed to make their case with no critical examination of their claims or of the wider issues.

Clip 7:
Again, the claim of "greater concentrations" of THC was made by the presenter, which as we have seen above is a misrepresentation of the issue. Of course, a plant which produces a lot of resin because it's been grown in ideal conditions will produce a higher concentration of THC per gram of sample, but as Robin Murray explained in the last programme, the important thing is the THC/CBD ratio, this wasn't mentioned again however.

Interestingly the person interviewed who was analysing the plants was coy about this, describing the plants simply as "better quality" than they used to see. Again, the unenforceability of the law was mentioned and the fact that when one grow-op is closed, another opens.

Again, no mention was made of CBD content and of course, no mention was made of options for controlling or regulating the production of cannabis and no criticism of prohibition. Why was the testing lab not asked about CBD content? Why no discussion about how records of potency have been kept over the past decades? Had this been done, the truth about the claims of increased potency might have been exposed.

But at least we learned from the report from the analysis lab why they use large rolls of brown paper.

Clip 8:
We then returned to the effects of cannabis on mental health, and Robin Murray.

He states that cannabis consumption has increased around the world - forgetting to mention that cannabis is a long established part of many cultures where use has always been endemic.

Interestingly he made no claim of a worldwide increase in mental illness as a result. This is interesting because there had there been an increase to match the increased use of cannabis we would certainly have heard about it given the huge increase in use over the past few decades. Why wasn't this point raised?

Robin does claim to have seen an overall doubling of rates of Schizophrenia in South London where he works [5]. This in an area where there have been a great deal of changes in risk factors for the illness, including the widespread use of other drugs. In this time however cannabis use has gone from almost zero to almost the norm and so a correlation is difficult to claim.

Robin is on record as being concerned about young people who use cannabis heavily. Although he showed great and understandable concern for young people, no mention of the desirability of regulating the THC/CBD balance was made nor of measures such as age limits for sales which would be possible if cannabis were not prohibited. Instead his comments were simply left as a stark warning of the dangers of "skunk".

This is an important and complicated issue which really needed more analysis and explanation.

Also of interest is the fact that Robin was not asked for his views on the issue of reclassification to class B, something he is on record as opposing. There was no discussion on how best to protect vulnerable minorities such as children or those suffering from mental illness.

Clip 9:
The programme then went of to look at how young people get cannabis, but with no mention of how the long established older people get it.

Again, no critical examination of the operation of prohibition and its role in creating an underground supply network was made and in particular no examination of the maturity of the market and the degree to which it is established in mainstream British culture, other than to observe that cannabis is easily available through social networks in rural and urban areas.

The impression given was that cannabis is only used by young people.

The workings of an underground, unregulated market were described in almost chilling detail, but this point was not made. Instead the immature opinions of two young people were used to illustrate a popular misconception that cannabis is harmless.

The programme then returned to the unenforceability of the law, in particular the apparent failure of the Derby sting operation against a grow shop. Things then took a surprise turn and looked at the situation in Canada, where cannabis farms are now treated as a health and safety, not a legal issue. But that was the end of the series and no opportunity for reflection on UK policy was made.

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References:

[1] Dried out but still thirsty :The Noble Experiment

[2] "Genotype effects of CHRNA7, CNR1 and COMT in schizophrenia: interactions with tobacco and cannabis use" - STANLEY ZAMMIT, GILLIAN SPURLOCK, HYWEL WILLIAMS, NADINE NORTON, NIGEL WILLIAMS, MICHAEL C. O’DONOVAN, and MICHAEL J. OWEN - British Journal of Psychiatry 2007 191: 402-407

[3] Potency of cannabis - European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

[4] GW Pharmaceutical's cannabis growing methods

[5] Robin Murray interview with the Schizophrenia Research Forum - where he explains his theories about the genetic vulnerability which the research at [2] did not support, his experience in South London and his view on legal sanctions.



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