Diane Abbot

When a politician uses a word which sounds like something you understand but is subtly different, it’s a good idea to be suspicious. One such word game we’re used to already with cannabis is the word “potency”, which sort of sounds like “strength” but actually means something very different. Have a read of this if you don’t know the distinction and why it’s important. Not unconnected with the issue of potency are the claims of mental health problems caused by the use of high potency cannabis (so-called “skunk”) and as we know the skunk panic is a favourite of prohibition supporting politicians who use the fear of mental illness as a reason for stronger prohibition.

So it was that we had another example of the subtle use of  words and this time the lack of understanding, or perhaps deliberate misrepresenting, lead to another bout of anti cannabis hysteria in the press. At the root of it was a question by prohibition supporting Diane Abbott MP, Labour shadow health minister. Ms Abbott asked the following question:

To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many people were admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of mental or behavioural disorder due to use of cannabinoids in each year since 2005-06

Spot the slight of hand? If not, here’s a clue: A seemingly very similar question was asked in 2011 by Charles Walker:

To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many people (a) under the age of 18, (b) between 18 and 24, (c) between 24 and 30 and (d) 30 and above were admitted to hospital for mental illnesses attributable to the use of cannabis or skunk cannabis in each of the last 10 years.

If you didn’t spot it, Diane Abbott asked about “Cannabinoids”, not cannabis. This is important because cannabis is not the only source of cannabinoids which are available for purchase as recreational drugs, the so-called legal high fake cannabis contain synthetic cannabinoids, or to give them their formal name “synthetic cannabinoid Receptor Agonists” or SCRAs for short.  Dianne Abbotts question therefore was not about cannabis use, but about cannabis and SCRA use.

The answer she got was for total cannabinoid use, not cannabis specifically. The important point being it showed quite a large proportionate increase in hospital admissions for mental health issues which the press – and Dianne Abbott herself – attributed to cannabis use.

So was Diane Abbott deliberately seeking to mislead with her question, knowing that the answer would sound like proof of the increasing harm of cannabis? Or did she simply not understand the wider use of the term cannabinods? Either is possible and I am asking via my MP for clarification, although a week after doing so I’m still waiting. Ms Abbotts office refused to clarify the situation with the somewhat lame excuse that I am not one of her constituents.

But there’s a deeper twist to this. Charles Walker’s 2011 question was specifically about cannabis, not cannabinoids, so what about the answer? Paul Burstow – Minister of State (Care Services), Health – a Libdem MP answered:

The following table represents the count of finished admissions by required age groups for patients admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of mental and behavioural disorders due to use of Cannabinoids

So even when asked a cannabis specific question, the answer was given for the use of all cannabinoids, which includes non-cannabis products. This is certainly misleading, so what’s going on?

The thing to remember about SCRA’s and the whole “legal high” trade is that it’s relatively new. Before about 2008 or so the only source of cannabinoids was indeed cannabis and of course, cannabis contains more than one cannabinoid. So it was historically correct to ask about cannabinoid use when asking about cannabis, however, it isn’t now, the arrival of SCRAs has changed all that and “canabinoids” is no longer a word that only encompasses cannabis. I so far haven’t been able to discover whether figures for SCRA admissions are recorded separately to those for cannabis, but clearly they should be.

Perhaps Dianne Abbott was aware that the only available statistics related to cannabinoid use and asked the question which would obtain the “correct” answer, in which case she should be aware of the distinction between asking about the effects on mental health of cannabis and cannabinoid use. If she isn’t aware of the distinction  she shouldn’t have asked such a scientifically specific question.

But whether through malice or ignorance, she issued to following press release on her blog:

12 Jun 2013

Too often, people are willing to romanticise cannabis

Growing numbers of cannabis users are needing hospital treatment for ‘mental disorders’ after smoking super-strength skunk, drugs campaigners warned last night.

In just three years, the number admitted for treatment has increased by 50 per cent.

Diane Abbott MP, Labour’s shadow public health minister has warned of the risk posed by hard skunk on British streets:

‘These figures are really concerning. I think that too often, people are willing to romanticise cannabis. What we’re seeing on our streets is often skunk – many times more powerful than the cannabis which today’s ageing baby-boomers smoked in college. These figures show that skunk is creating big problems in Britain.

‘The government’s lack of focus and interest in this issue, and the way they have abolished the National Treatment Agency, means that many of these problems may get even worse.

‘Evidence of the damage to mental health caused by cannabis use – from loss of concentration to paranoia, aggressiveness and outright psychosis – is mounting and cannot be ignored. We need to give out an uncompromising warning about the links between skunk and mental illness.’

The figures Ms Abbott is talking about were given in the answer to her question which asked for the number of people were admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of mental or behavioural disorder due to use of cannabinoids in each year since 2005-06:

2005-06       946
2006-07       750
2007-08       735
2008-09      651
2009-10       713
2010-11        799
2011-12    1,003

Now it’s true that these figures are not huge – there are millions of cannabis users – but they do show a trend, which is sharply upward following a period of decline. SCRAs arrived on the scene en mass around 2008-9, so it is entirely possible and indeed very likely that this sharp upswing in hospital admissions is not due to cannabis use at all, but by the use of products containing SCRAs like K2 or Spice.

The thing is, Diane Abbott should have thought about these figures a bit, because (if the government is to be believed) cannabis use is falling and has been falling throughout this period, assuming the figures are accurate the decline in cannabis use is mirrored by a decline in admissions up to 2009, when it goes sharply into reverse. That must mean something happened and the arrival of SCRA drugs is the obvious explanation.

The first conclusion to draw from this is that Diane Abbott is an even more undesirable politician than most and that’s saying something. She  deliberately asked a question using a term (cannabinoids) which either she didn’t understand or she knew would produce an inflated result, she then uses this incorrect data to spread fear in support of her previously held prohibitionist view. That’s bad, it’s very bad.

It would be good to get to the bottom of this, but it needs a constituent of Ms Abbotts to ask the question. So does anyone live in her constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington? If you do please contact me and I’ll let you know what to ask.

The other possible conclusion to draw is that SCRAs are far more dangerous than cannabis as far as the risk to mental health is concerned. Although SCRA use is relatively recent and is far lower than cannabis use taking these figures at face value it would seem they are potentially producing about the same, maybe more, mental health problems. SCRAs of course have only come about because of prohibition and they simply would not exist if real cannabis were available. Ms Abbott may have unearthed an important snippet of information with her question, but sadly she didn’t think it through, instead she jumped on it as an opportunity to make a cheap political point – a cheap political point which is possibly dangerously wrong.