Cannabis, what’s the harm part 2 – watch it now on i-player


BBC 3 has made some pretty awful programmes about cannabis in recent times but the first part of the two part series “Cannabis, what’s the harm?” was unexpectedly fair and objective – not perfect, that would be too much to hope for, but it was pretty good. Last weeks blog carried a review of part 1 and can be seen here

Part 2 of this mini series was very different however and frankly failed utterly to properly represent the situation it described, instead served up a diet of pure propaganda. First of all, let’s be clear what is meant by propaganda and Word IQ gives this explaination:

Propaganda is a specific type of message presentation aimed at serving an agenda. Even if the message conveys true information, it may be partisan and fail to paint a complete and balanced picture. The primary use of the term is in political contexts, and generally refers to efforts sponsored by governments and political parties.

The goal of propaganda is to garner either support or disapproval of a certain position, rather than to simply present the position. The primary target of propaganda is people’s opinions rather than their knowledge. Therefore, the information conveyed is often presented in an emotionally loaded way and with other means of affecting the opinions of people.

That was what “Cannabis, what’s the harm?” did and that is why it was propaganda. What follows is an explanation of how the programme went about misrepresenting the situation in support of the government’s agenda.

The programme starts in typical BBC3 style by telling us what we’re about to see, with James Alexandrou explaining that cannabis is the most widley used illegal drug in the UK, and asking how much harm does cannabis actually cause? He then does a bit to camera where he explains in a street-wise way that like “most young people” he has tried cannabis in the past and like “most young people” he didn’t really think it was doing much harm to himself or anyone else, a subtle wink as he said this sort of implied possibly we were going to be told that simply wasn’t true.

A short recap of last weeks programme showed how common cannabis use is and how some growers are supplying themselves, then we’re told how we’re going to be shown how organised crime supplies the market, who’s buying it and and what’s the cost some people are paying in addiction. James is going to show us the “front line” as the authorities “battle to keep drugs flooding into Britain” and he’ll follow the police trying to topple the drug gangs.

Interestingly at this point we hear a snippet from an ex-grower who makes the point that the police action is putting more power and more money into the hands of the organised dealers, but then it’s back to the script as we told we’ll see the people trafficked into the country to help grow the cannabis and how some cannabis turf wars have even ended in death. “Cannabis is a controversial drug”, we’re told, and James wants to “go behind the headlines to find the truth”. Right from the start then, it’s clear this programme is going to carry a very different message to last weeks.

So to the programme proper and again James tells us that cannabis has been around for 4000 years, that it wasn’t made illegal until 1928 and that many famous people have used it including the American President, although he didn’t mention our Prime Minister, David Cameron, which seems an odd omission. We’re told that in recent years it was reclassified from C to B, but not that it had been moved from B to C only a few years earlier, and we’re told that this could mean a 5 year prison sentence for possession or 14 years for supply. We’re told how the police are making huge numbers of arrests for growing cannabis and how this has increased greatly in recent years. All this, together with the images of police arresting people and battering doors down seems to underline the hard line taken against cannabis. So James tells us he wants to see who’s buying and who’s supplying the most popular illegal drug in the country. This programme isn’t going to be about cannabis so much as the regime it’s supplied under, but the distinction isn’t going to be made.

Fist we go to meet a couple of cannabis users from Stourbridge who explain they enjoy cannabis and use it a fair bit. We go for a walk with them as they skin up and they tell us how they get their weed from someone they know and they know who grows it.

Then it’s to Brixton to meet an ex street dealer called Clive who describes how he got into dealing as  a young kid. He would make a couple of hundred quid a week form his dealing, but the biggest buzz was feeling he was worth something, he became someone people looked up to and this is why so many kids get into it. “It’s all around us, it’s a culture” Clive tells us and it all sounds true, but then we’re told that two years ago Clive found God and is now a born again Christian. He now works as a drug councillor with school kids and he tells how he is now working to “repair the community he once worked to destroy”. Clive’s story may well be true, but there is something a little disturbing about people who suddenly “see the light”, convert to an extreme form of religion and then dedicate their lives to spreading the word of drug prevention.

Clive works for Hope UK, which described itself as

the drug education charity that enables young people to make drug-free choices.

What this shows is the BBC went to non-government organisations dedicated to working against drugs in order to get their input. This fair enough, but they didn’t extend that to organisations which work against drug prohibition, such as Transform, who could have made a valuable contribution to the debate.

Next we go to meet Rob who had been a commercial farmer who made his living growing  cannabis. He describes the sort of set up a typical large scale grow-op may need and that he would make around  £40-50,000 a year, a good wage but not a huge amount and most people he knows who are doing this “aren’t loaded”. Rob had worked for himself and hadn’t been connected with organised crime there are “10’s of thousands” like him, although the police enforcement in recent years is putting many people like him out of business.

It’s Rob who makes the point that because of the police action against growers like him the trade is driven into the hands of organised crime who can “put the frighteners on people”, the only thing the police are doing now is to “put more money, more power, into the hands of organised crime”, he was quite clear where the blame lay and of course he is right. But this important point was not mentioned again, instead James sums this contribution up by saying that

as Rob said, production is now in the hands of organised crime, which is why going after growers is now a high priority for the police.

That was not the point Rob made at all, but we’re now shown how the police go about their business as they raid a grower of the sort Rob described.

What this section shows us is how the police are knocking out the small growers, pushing the trade into the arms of organised criminals just as Rob said, but we’re not told that and instead we’re shown jubilant police having made a big bust.

Just down the road from the recently busted farm is 14 year old Nathan, who is a heavy cannabis smoker. We are told Nathan attends a school for kids with behavioural difficulties  and that he’s been committing crimes to fund his cannabis habit, he’s been smoking cannabis since he was 10 and that was when he behavioural problems started.  This kid clearly has problems  and we’re told  – almost in passing – that Nathan has had a traumatic young life, his dad died when he was 6 and his mother then had two violent relationships which Nathan witnessed. This was the reason he started playing up at school we’re told and his smoking is a way of coping with all that. We’re told his cannabis use is leading him to repeatedly break the law and is causing him to waste his life. Sure, the kid has a big problem with what seems to be escapist drug use, but his complex situation was badly misrepresented in this section of the programme. The point here is the kid has had a traumatic life and that is the root cause of the problem, the cannabis use is a symptom, not the cause.

James didn’t explain how the prohibition of cannabis, which has created the huge uncontrolled illegal trade pushed into the arms of organised crime and supplied by an unregulated network of street dealers has served to protect Nathan, nor how treating him as a criminal would protect him. Of course it doesn’t protect him, it only makes things much worse, so why wasn’t it mentioned?

James does a thoughtful bit to camera where he does conclude that Nathan has a “lot of things to deal with”, but then he makes the amazing leap of logic that Nathan’s heavy and habitual cannabis use is due to his addiction to cannabis, rather than being caused by the trauma of his earlier life. This is at best a serious over simplification of the situation and really should be challenged. James tells us he didn’t think people could get addicted to cannabis like that and so takes us to Ipswich and the Iceni projec. The Iceni project website states

The project was founded on the belief that addiction is based primarily on physiological and psychological motives and that these are closely linked to an individual’s external environment; Iceni believes that these factors need to be assessed holistically.
In practice this means that Iceni deliver a range of interventions and therapies to break the cycle of addiction. Whereas many drug treatment centres use drug substitutes (e.g. methadone) to break the addiction cycle, which often maintains psychological dependence, Iceni breaks down its service into three parts and seeks to provide treatment as follows:
1. Physiological interventions ( eg acupuncture, aromatherapy, reflexology, gym and fitness)
2. Emotional and psychological interventions ( counselling , anger management, addiction awareness etc)
3. Social and Economic Support ( accommodation, employment, aftercare etc)

Some of that is a bit questionable (methadone treatment leading to psychological dependence?) and the role of aromatherapy in treating drug addiction is at best suspect.   But it would have been interesting to have heard their thoughts regarding Nathan and his cannabis use and how his traumatic young life could have caused it, but instead we are shown a room full of cannabis addicts to underline the claim that cannabis can be highly addictive.

James introduced Jo who had started smoking at 15 and had lost her kids to the authorities because, she told us, of her problems with alcohol and cannabis. After she had lost her kids she thought “enough is enough” and hasn’t smoked cannabis since, that was 15 weeks ago, we weren’t told whether she still drinks. The amazing thing about her story is that she claimed to have been smoking nearly half an ounce a day, which is one hell of a lot of cannabis. To be honest, such a high rate of consumption seems somewhat unlikely – especially considering the chances are she was smoking tobacco joints which would have meant a huge amount of tobacco as well. To get through that amount she would have had to be chain smoking from first light to sunset, leaving hardly any time for her drinking, let alone looking after the kids, she would have been a mess, there’s no doubt about that. There’s no doubt she had a problem with her drug use, yet seems to have stopped dead and cold turkied her self off this massive cannabis habit with the support of Iceni.

Her tobacco use wasn’t mentioned, nor whether she quit the tobacco habit at the same time, but one suspects not. More though was the possibility that a heavy tobacco addiction could have been driving the high level of cannabis use. Again, it would seem a complex issue was presented in an overly simplistic way and unsubstantiated claims presented as fact.

We are told by James that there is debate as to whether cannabis is addictive and that scientists don’t agree, but that a “government report” three years ago did confirm that heavy cannabis users do experience psychological cravings (which is not physical addiction) and some withdrawal symptoms when they stop (which might be). This is probably true, but anyone using anything to the extent described by Jo is going to have problems when they stop, half an ounce a day isn’t heavy use, it’s off the scale, yet she seems to have stopped with little more than really quite mild withdrawal symptoms. This section is rounded off by an Iceni worker – Susie – describing how “a lot” of people are addicted to cannabis, she gets “lots and lots” or people contacting her “weekly”.

To the accompaniment of a soulful guitar, James tells us he now

has a clearer understanding of the harm cannabis can cause to individuals, some people need help with addiction, the Iceni project has an 86% success rate helping users give up, but its one of only a few schemes in the country, that’s because cannabis addiction isn’t given the same funding as addiction to class A drugs or alcohol

Actually could it be because the addiction to cannabis is far less severe or widespread as the addictions to those other drugs. It’s odd how the BBC went to the Iceni project and broadcast their claims with no critical examination rather than one of the major drugs advice agencies like Lifeline or Release, which have many more years of experience.  But it allowed the programme to establish as an apparent “fact” that cannabis is a dangerously addictive and destructive drug. Having done that it’s back to the supply side to see how cannabis is supplied to “people like” the two “cannabis addicts” shown.

We go to Dover to meet the Jason, son of a jailed drug smuggler who tells of the scale of the illegal imports and the routes used. This is big league stuff, people earning “7 figure” sums. “Of course it’s organised” we’re told “if it was disorganised it wouldn’t last long”. We are now almost exactly half way through the programme and from now on we are given the police and boarder agency view of the situation entirely without criticism. We’re shown the scale of the problem, but told how the customs officers are working tirelessly to defeat the smuggling.

There is a probably unintended comical moment where a customs officer is seen TALKING VERY SLOWLY AND LOUDLY at a French driver to as she asks him questions, all made much clearer by hand gestures. “We do try to speak to them in their own language”, she explains

We see a customs bust of a massive cannabis import, where James pulls himself up when he starts to say “they’re fighting a losing battle”, instead we are told how the effort by customs is serving to fight organised crime, forgetting to mention the fact that it’s organised crime the enforcement started in the first place.

We’re then introduced to people smuggling by Vietnamese gangs and production of cannabis in “grow houses”. Again, we follow the police as they raid a big grow-op, they explain how a few successful grows can mean a lot of money for the family back in the home country. As the police raid a house they find a gardener in residence who doesn’t speak English, but are then shown a policeman reading him his rights in English.

We are then told about kids being smuggled into the country to work in grow houses. James meets a person who went through this and seems genuinely shocked about this forced labour, and that the kid would have been happy to have had an income of sorts and somewhere to live. James. it seems, has no experience of the grinding poverty that exists in some parts of the world and provides this slave labour. “It shouldn’t of happened” is all he can say, he really needs to do a bit of travelling to understand why it does.

James says that in making this programme he had met British youngsters affected by cannabis, but had never expected to see young people smuggled from half way around the world. The he says that

like most people of his age, he thought “what’s the harm of picking up a spliff… you can smoke it…put it down, if you don’t do it too much you won’t get any harmful effects”

Which of course is true – that’s the nature of cannabis, but he says this in a highly dismissive way and then says

it never occured to me – as I’m sure it never occured to many people out there that when you’re buying that weed, its funding something and more often than not it’s gonig to be funding organised crime…

and then

it makes you look at cannabis in a different light

Well, no it doesn’t. What it dis was make this viewer scream at the TV set that the point the programme should have made was that prohibition has caused this situation, because it clearly has, just as alcohol prohibition in 1920’s America created the mob. The involvement of organised crime is not caused by cannabis itself but by the regime it exists under. To misrepresent the situation like this is to deliver pure propaganda, it’s the government’s message pure and simple.

It’s trange how the BBC was willing to go to organisations founded by born again Christians to underline the point they wanted to make – thus proving they were willing to include non-government groups with a political/social agenda, but didn’t see fit to include organisation which could have made the law reform argument which is clearly central to the whole issue.

Next it’s back to the Bristol police to see another raid on a grow house , so we’re shown more police action, more doors being smashed in and another gardener found. It’s pointed out that the gardener may face retribution from the gang for getting busted, but on the whole this second grow house raid was simple a repeat of the previous example, why were we shown two yet given no law reform argument?

We are then told the story of a vicious attack on a gardener by a gang which resulted in a death. This is the extent of the problem created by prohibition and yet the programme didn’t aks any difficult questions, instead simply allowed the police to give their point of view.

We are told that organised crime is heavily involved in cannabis cultivation and that there’s big money involved. They are the same people involved with other groups and that the mainstay of their business is cannabis cultivation. In a sycophantic  interview with Paul Bunt, the head of drugs strategy at Avon and Somerset police, James agrees with the police that someone who buys a £20 bag of cannabis is funding this organised crime, gun crime, murder and kidnap. The Paul Bunt then says

I know an awful  lot of people look at cannabis and say “its just cannabis”, unfortunately it’s another illegal drug which these sort of people make a lot of money supplying

The question “so who’s fault is that then” wasn’t asked, instead James tells us

I’ve seen the harm cannabis causes with my own eyes, I never thought I’d end up meeting a victim of human trafficking or meet young people who say they’re addicted, but all the time cannabis remains an illegal drug that over 2 million people want to use there will always be violent organised crime groups willing to exploit this demand.

The important and most obvious point which should have been made here is that the problem with the organised crime gangs is not caused by cannabis, but the regime of prohibition. Why did the programme not address this? Not doing so whilst presenting the involvement of organised crime as a problem caused by cannabis  is the reason it was pure propaganda.

As a footnote to this, a question was asked in Parliament recently by Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East, Labour)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether her Department has (a) undertaken or (b) evaluated research on (i) harm caused by drugs and (ii) harm caused by the criminalisation of drugs.

James Brokenshire (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Home Office; Old Bexley and Sidcup, Conservative) answered and gave a detailed response to part (i) of the question, but to part (ii) simple replied

The Home Office has not undertaken or evaluated any research into any harm caused by the criminalisation of drugs.

It seems they simply don’t want to look at the real chaos they’ve caused, instead hoping to try to convince the public that the problem is people not obeying the prohibition law, rather than accepting that the situation is caused by that law. This programme by the BBC was a part of that deception attempt.