Anyone who has traveled around the world – especially to the US – will know how bad TV and the broadcast media in general can be, likewise traveling around this country skipping from station to station on the car radio is usually a depressing experience, a choice of lots and lots of identikit commercial stations all playing the same pap interspersed with the same adverts. Broadcasting at its worst is dire and it seems the more stations we get the more dire everything becomes.

In all of this the BBC shines like a jewel in the mud; its news service and public information content are rightly regarded as the best in the world. When it comes to discussing cannabis though, all that seems to go out of the window and “aunty” becomes a weapon in the government’s arsenal of misinformation. Two events this week illustrate this only too well.

Thursday 17th May saw BBC Radio 1 newsbeat reporting on a Release proposal to decriminalise cannabis. Now this was pretty timid stuff from Release, who seem to be proposing that cannabis possession be punished by  a fine but no criminal record, because that’s what is in effect happening anyway.

Release doesn’t believe selling cannabis for money should be decriminalised.

But it does want small-scale growing for personal use or passing the drug on to friends for free to be made a civil offence.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the charity, says: “We are criminalising thousands of people every year and that has to end.

“Small-scale growing of cannabis for personal use or social supply (passing onto friends for free) means that people are not part of the black market which is driven by organised crime and violence.

“Secondly it reduces the risk of young people being exposed to harder drugs.

“Thirdly, arresting people who do it is a waste of police time, effort and money.”

Well, it’s an argument worth half a cheer, but it’s hardly a world shattering proposition.

The BBC angle on this was made apparent right from the start

Medical experts say it can cause psychological problems and smoking it can lead to diseases like lung cancer.

Indeed the BBC dug out a doctor:

Medical experts though, like Dr Owen Bowden-Jones from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, say cannabis is a dangerous drug and can cause severe psychological problems.

“It doesn’t matter if people are growing one or 1,000 [plants],” he says.

“The issue here is the strength of the cannabis.

“It’s the strength of the cannabis that determines the risk and the risks include anxiety, paranoia, hearing voices and of course the health risks of smoking, which include emphysema and lung cancer.

It’s interesting that the BBC seem to have put some effort into finding a doctor who would give that quote, because had they done the obvious thing and checked the official NHS advice about cannabis they would have discovered (from the NHS document “A summary of the health harms of drugs“)

no conclusive evidence that cannabis causes cancer

And other studies have shown no real link to emphysema and lung cancer (here and here). In any case any risk of lung cancer that may exist isn’t made worse by strong cannabis, actually quite the reverse.

regarding the risk of psychosis

evidence that early initiation and regular, heavy cannabis use is associated with a small but significantly increased risk of psychotic symptoms and disorders in later life


complex association between cannabis use and schizophrenia – some evidence that use may exacerbate psychotic symptoms and is linked with relapse but it is unknown whether this is a universal risk or due to differences in individual vulnerability

Hardly a seriously dangerous causal role as the report seems to indicate. Besides, how much of the alleged problem of high potency (rather than “strong”) cannabis is a direct reult of the criminal supply side the doctor seems to support?

Why did the BBC feel the need to undermine the Release story with claims they which were so weak?  Didn’t they check these claims before broadcasting them, or did they actually go fishing for someone to quote with the “right” message?

BBC 3 – the TV station, not the classical radio service – is well-known for not only presenting biased programmes about cannabis (for example)  but also for doing so in an annoyingly shallow  “yoof” format of wobbly camera work and bad editing.  I’ll be honest I hate BBC3 with a passion.

So when last week “Free speech” promised a debate about drugs and whether it was time to legalise them I didn’t hold out much hope of a thought-provoking, challenging debate and I was right.

Free Speech opens with the typical BBC 3 sort of claim

This is Free Speech – YOUR chance to have YOUR say and issues that matter to YOU

That sort of thing makes my skin creep, it’s a good idea to be wary of any organisation that promises to give you what you want, especially when they set the agenda. Free Speech is a studio based discussion programme and there clearly isn’t going to be a chance for the viewer to have a say about anything on air and actually influence the course of the debate.

We were introduced  to the panel who are going to debate the issues with the studio audience and we are told follow-up comments are encouraged on the net. We are also told that this is the show that you – from your chair – judge the panel’s opinions. We are told in best BBC 3 near-Essex  English

Free speech is tha only show where your opinions maha

This is democracy in action, BBC 3 style. Be very afraid.

Actually, for all the production and presentation nastiness, the actual studio debate wasn’t too bad and there seems to be a sizable level of support for cannabis legalisation, even from the young woman who had beaten her drug misuse problem, which was a bit of a surprise. This overall desire for cannabis law reform  was not picked up on by the presenter however, who steered the debate away from cannabis specifically to all drugs and even tried to pump the audience for support for prohibition. If this audience was typical of the UK population though, cannabis law reform has a lot of support.

The panel was made up of people I’d never heard of and who didn’t really have much of interest to say, although Alexandra Swann who the show described as “the future face of the UK Independence Party” (!) and as a “rising star in the world of right-wing politics” was dead against any law reform, perhaps predictably.

The problem with the viewer feedback is that although there is undoubtedly a  lot of it coming in via facebook etc, very little makes its way on air. All we are given by way of a summary of audience feeling is an instant bar-chart of support for the four panelists, which wasn’t very informative.

The whole drugs debate was given just 15 minutes or so and although reasonably balanced was a depressingly shallow debate. It truly lived down to the standards of BBC3 infotainment.

You can see a summary of the programme and a few comments here on the Freespeech website.