This should have been easy to get sorted out. Back in October last year the Daily Mail ran a story about a study undertaken at Bristol University that apparently showed

Just ONE cannabis joint ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ as well as damaging memory

Serious stuff if true, which of course it wasn’t. The study in question didn’t look at cannabis users, it used rats, didn’t use cannabis it used a totally artificial substance and didn’t make any comparison of doses with recreational use, nor come to any conclusion about any causal role cannabis may or may not have for mental illness. The report, in short, was total fabrication.

I made a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, as did others. My complaint read:

Daily Mail 26th October 2011

“Just ONE cannabis joint ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ as well as damaging memory”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2053486/One-cannabis-joint-bring-schizophrenia.html

I wish to complain about the above article, I do so in a private capacity and also as the editor of the website http://www.ukcia.org , a cannabis law reform site. The article  would seem to clearly violate the PCC code in that:

* It amounts to deliberate falsification of evidence and would therefore seem to breach the editors code. * It breaches clause 1.i) of the code in that it publishes inaccurate, misleading and distorted information. * It breaches clause 1.iii) in that it fails to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

1: The report concerned a study by Matt Jones and others at Bristol University entitled “Dysfunctional Prefrontal Cortical Network Activity and Interactions following Cannabinoid Receptor Activation”. The Daily Mail represented this as demonstrating a causal role for cannabis in the development of serious mental illness. That was not the point of the study, nor was it a conclusion of that study.

2: The headline contained the phrase ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ which is contained in quote marks, implying it is a quote from someone. It is not attributed to anyone however and seems to not actually be a quote, it is therefore misleading.

3: A sub-heading states “Strongest evidence yet, claim scientists”, yet no scientist seems to have made that claim and it was not a conclusion of the study.

4: It states that “Smoking just one cannabis joint can bring on symptoms of schizophrenia, a study has found”. The study did not find that conclusion.

5: It states that “Researchers at the University of Bristol have, for the first time, looked in detail at the changes in the brains of cannabis users”. This is untrue and in fact there have been several  studies of the effect of cannabis on the human brain, never mind those of rats. For example the work of Philip McGuire and Zerrin Atakan from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s, Jose Crippa from Ribeirão Preto, Brazil and Rocio Martin-Santos in Barcelona, Spain (http://www.iop.kcl.ac.uk/news/default.aspx?id=274& ).

6: The item reported that “They found the drug disrupts the same parts of the brain as the psychotic illness, those associated with memory and decision-making” and “Cannabis abuse has previously been linked with increased rates of schizophrenia but this is the strongest evidence yet that the drug mimics its effects”. This is not a discovery made by this study, in fact it is well understood and has been for some time that cannabis mimics some of the effects of psychosis, which is why such drugs are called “psychedelics”. As there has been no recorded increase in the overall rates of psychotic illness in the UK (Frisher et al http://www.schres-journal.com/article/S0920-9964%2809%2900269-2/abstract ) it cannot be claimed that cannabis has been linked with an increase.

7:  The report stated: “The scientists studied rats who had been given the active ingredient of cannabis – in a similar dose to a person smoking a joint”. This is an utter fabrication. The drug used in the experiment was a pharmaceutical product not found in cannabis known as CP55940 and this was made clear in the original paper. It simply isn’t possible to make dose comparisons with any degree of certainty, but it is likely, allowing for the weight difference between a rat and a human that the dose administered would have been vastly higher than a normal cannabis joint would deliver. The essential point however is the chemical used was not one found in cannabis, much less was a it a reflection of the profile of chemicals found in real cannabis.

I would like to request in the strongest terms that immediate and strong action be taken against the Daily Mail to both correct this totally falsified report and to prevent similar false reporting in future.

Others made similar complaints but the PCC were very reluctant to investigate and they flatly refused to for several months. The reason given was a that as I wasn’t directly connected with the study I had no right to complain. However, eventually they agreed to look at it and they picked the complaint submitted by Peter Reynolds of CLEAR (read it here). This is the strange way the PCC work; if they get more than one complaint they pick on to investigate and in effect ignore the others.

As things proceeded with the speed of an arthritic snail, the whole sorry mess gets picked up by another blog – “Neurobonkers” (original entry here), and then nominated it for the “Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation” (here), an award run  by  Oxford University neuroscientist Prof. Dorothy Bishop. Not surprisingly, it won hands down. You can see the award here.

So yes, this should really have been a cut and dried case for the PCC to investigate. What happened was the headline on the website legacy article was changed fairly quickly but the rest became the subject of a long argument between the Daily Mail and Peter Reynolds. The eventual result, some five months after the original article was printed was a small correction printed last week. The only problem is the “correction” didn’t correct the failings of the original article.

The final exchange between the PCC and Peter Reynolds was:

Dear Mr Reynolds, I write further to my previous email of the 8 March. As you are aware the Commission has been actively considering this matter. It considered that the newspaper – in light of its online clarification – ought to clarify the position in print as well. As such, the newspaper has offered the following wording to be published in its corrections and clarifications column on page 2:

“A report on research by the University of Bristol on 26 October was headlined ‘One cannabis joint ‘can bring on schizophrenia’.’ We are happy to clarify that, as the article explained, the research on rats found that the active ingredient in cannabis could induce symptoms similar to schizophrenia, rather than schizophrenia itself”.

I note from your email of 20 January that you considered a clarification in print was called for, one that made clear that the study had been conducted on rats. In light of the above, I would be grateful for your comments on this proposed wording as a further means by which this matter can be resolved. As you will agree, this matter has been on-going for some time now, and while I acknowledge your position, I believe that the offered wording represents a good offer by which the original article and the basis of the study by Bristol University are clarified. I look forward to hearing from you in due course and within the next 7 days.

Peter replied

It is a woefully inadequate correction for what was scurrilous, dishonest and corrupt journalism.  The fact is that falsification of scientific research is normal practice for the Daily Mail.   However, it quite clearly shows that the entire basis of the article was false so I accept it as resolution of my complaint.

And so the short “correction was duly printed.

But of course, it’s still wrong. It makes no apology for the misreporting of the nature and conclusions of the study, for that fact that the study didn’t use a compound found in cannabis or any of the other fabrications made in the report.

They went ahead and printed this “correction” with no reference to my complaint and without informing me that the matter has, apparently, been “resolved”. I have now lodged another complaint with the PCC:

reference – 114998

Further to my complaint regarding the Daily Mail article of 26 October. The correction printed on 3rd April stated

“A report on research by the University of Bristol on 26 October was headlined ‘One cannabis joint “can bring on schizophrenia”.’ We are happy to clarify that, as the article explained, the research on rats found that the active ingredient in cannabis could induce symptoms similar to schizophrenia, rather than schizophrenia itself”.

The study found no such thing. One of the active ingredients in cannabis, THC, is known to produce psychotic like symptoms in users and cannabis is classed as a mild psychedelic drug for that reason; psychedelics are so called because they induce a state which appears similar to psychosis. This was known before this study was undertaken, it was not a result found by the study.

The study did not use THC, the “active ingredient found in cannabis”, it used an artificial compound CP55940.

The retraction is therefore inaccurate.

The report in the Daily Mail stated:

“Researchers in Bristol have, for the first time, looked in detail at the changes in the brains of cannabis users”. The study actually looked at the brains of rats when given CP55940, no human cannabis users were involved.

The report claimed the study gave rats a dose of the “active ingredient in cannabis” at a “similar dose to a person smoking a joint”. This is simply incorrect. Whilst CP55940 is an agonist of brain cannabinoid receptors as is THC, it is not possible to draw any conclusions regarding dose equivalents between it and THC and the study did not do that. The study did not make that conclusion, much less did any scientist claim that “this is the strongest evidence yet”.

The study did not look at the changes which take place in the brains of human cannabis users. However, had it done so it would not have been the first study to do so. In 2008/2009 Philip McGuire and Zerrin Atakan from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College et al used MRI scans to look at changes taking place in the brains of actual human cannabis users. http://www.iop.kcl.ac.uk/news/default.aspx?id=274&

A seemingly pedantic point, but never the less one that is important is that cannabis does not deliver a single “active ingredient”. Cannabis delivers a cocktail of drugs, most importantly THC and CBD. The presence of CBD is important in that, as the study mentioned above by Philip McGuire and Zerrin Atakan makes clear, the presence of CBD alters the overall effect of THC. Therefore any study which looked at the action of THC alone – much less a totally different chemical on a different animal – would only ever have limited value in considering the effect of cannabis on the human brain.

Frankly I can see nothing of merit in the report whatsoever, it fails to report the aims and conclusions of the study with any degree of accuracy or honesty and would appear to be no more than a concoction of lies and misinformation designed to support the anti cannabis agenda of the Daily Mail.  The correction as printed falls well short of an acceptable retraction in that it fails to reflect the conclusions of the study or to draw attention to the failings of the original story and the claims made therein.

The original report and the retraction break three sections of item 1 of the the editors code:

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.   ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving the Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in advance.   iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Derek Williams

I don’t hold out much hope of the PCC doing anything about this, the organisation is clearly in the pocket of the Daily Mail and is worse than useless. But we’ll see.