The BBC has been at it again, local radio this time, BBC Sussex. The item was also published on the BBC news website here “Skunk cannabis addiction ‘growing’ across South East” this could have been a very useful investigation as they went out to buy samples of street cannabis which they then got analysed. What makes the news story is that the cannabis they bought off the street had very low levels of CBD. This blog has covered this issue in some depth before and the issue of THC:CBD is summarised here.
Now, there are two distinct issues here: One is whether or not the claims of a causal link between high THC cannabis and mental illness are true and the second is, if the claims are true, how does this happen and what to do about it?
The BBC Sussex angle on it all was that the mental health of young cannabis users was at risk due to the type of cannabis on sale. Not once did they look at the effect of prohibition or the debate over law reform, control and regulation of trade or anything like that, it simply wasn’t on the agenda. Instead the programme stated as a fact a claim made by Marjorie Wallace that 20% of the population is at risk from so-called “skunk”.
Part 1 - (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)
The programme started with the claim that the “New” forms of cannabis are creating a risk to mental health. A report follows of the BBC buying cannabis around Brighton. As in most parts of the UK, it’s clearly not that hard to buy “on the street” – they claimed to have bought it in parks and on the beach – this despite the 40 years of prohibition, although, of course, no criticism of the failed regime was even considered. When the samples were analyses it was found that the THC content varied from 3 – 11 percent, but the CBD content was near zero. Note the use of doom-laden music in this report behind the description of the high THC cannabis at 2 mins into this clip. Use of mood music on a news report is a highly suspect technique, clearly designed to raise emotions.
Marjory Wallace was interviewed and made the usual sort of claims she always makes, including that 20% of users will be harmed. This figure was repreated many times as a fact by the presenter throughout the programme. Interestingly Ms Wallace knew the young person used as an example in the BBC online news report mentioned above of someone suffering from their use of cannabis, so it’s highly likely she provided that example.
Pt 2 ((MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)
A short link where the announcer clearly “goes fishing” for tales of harm from cannabis. He claimes his daughter knew people who had been harmed by cannabis and gave an example of someone who had become a slower typer, forgetting the letters she was typing as she typed. This is a very loaded commentary, far from an objective examination of the issue.
Part 3 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)
Again the announcer “goes fishing” for stories of harm and makes the claim that “skunk” cannabis “can cause schizophrenia” and again the claim that 80% of the population aren’t at risk – implying that 20% are.
Part 4 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)
We now have a recap onthe atory and an interview with Dr Di Forte, who’s research was mentioned above. She actually gives a measured reply, claiming that high CBD levels can actually “abolish” the psychotic symptoms. The announcer makes the point that when buying cannabis “on the street” you don’t know what content you’re getting, and Dr Di Forti agrees, saying “because we don’t have access to the black market like we do with alcohol”. However, the argument that a properly regulated trade – impossible under prohibition of course – would solve that problem wasn’t considered.
Dr Di Forti claimed that the only previous study of cannabis potency was done in London in 2008 in East London. If she means the Home Office Potency study, that was in fact nationwide, but she’s right, we really don’t know what’s out there in terms of cannabis potency, all caused by prohibition, although of course, that wasn’t mentioned.
The announcer then “goes fishing” again for tales of harm from cannabis, repeats the 20% at risk of harm claim and calls the 80% “the lucky ones”.
Part 5 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)
The 20% at risk claim is repeated. The original report is rebroadcast (along with its mood music). A person who claims his cannabis smoking caused his psychosis is bradcast and a text from a “concerned mum” about a son who claimed he was made schizophrenic by his skunk use. Again the announce goes fishing for more stories of harm and repeats the 20% harm figure.
Andy Winter, Chief Executive of the Brighton Housing Trust re-enforced the “skunk makes you mad” line and dismissed “decriminalisation” as a way to solve the problem. Apparently “skunk” is the drug of choice “because it’s more potent”, rather than simply being all there is. “It’s becoming clear to those of us who work in mental health that skunk cannabis is a really really dangerous substance” he said. A He referred to Dr Di Forti’s research without crediting her as proof.
Again, more fishing by the announcer for stories of harm.
Part 6 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)
One phone call from Rose who described how “cannabis caused” schizophrenia in their child, which demonstrates how emotive and upsetting this issue is and it was just the sort of story the programme had been calling for throughout the broadcast.
Of course, there has always been schizophrenia, even before skunk came along. However,there is clearly a correlation – a link – between schizophrenia and cannabis use and high potency cannabis does seem to be especially damaging, but this is far from evidence of a causal role, whereas several proper studies have failed to support such a claim – for example here.The figure of 20% is pretty obviously fiction.
Peter Reynolds made it on to the programme and made some good points, but didn’t get to say how regulation could improve things.
A final appeal for stories of harm and that was that.
Quite why BBC Sussex picked up on Dr Di Forti – who has only published one small study, but didn’t consider the many other studies which have shown either no increase in psychosis or no proof of a causal link between cannabis and psychosis isn’t clear, but would seem to be lazy journalism and probably the result of relying on one source (Marjory Wallace?). The use of mood music in the report is very underhand and obviously designed to raise emotions – music has no place in news reporting – and the constant 20% level of harm figure was constantly repeated as fact. No consideration of the role or effect of the legal regime was given.
All together a very bad, blatantly propagandist broadcast, utterly lacking in objectivity, seemingly no alternative views were sought and really, given the way the supposedly 80% of “lucky” people were constantly described, was it sought.
Complaint sent to the BBC regarding the article on BBC News
“Skunk cannabis addiction ‘growing’ across South East” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-13796845. This report
stated opinion as fact, backed up by police claims, one cherry picked study and one anecdote. In doing so it
obscured the real story; that of an uncontrolled cannabis trade created by prohibition easily accessed by
The article quoted one scientist – Dr De Forti – who published one study in 2009. This study was of a very small sample of 454 people and failed to control for several confounding factors, notably the use of tobacco. Oddly the finding of this study that the age of first use of cannabis had no effect on the observed outcome was not reported.
Worse, no reference was made to the much larger studies in recent years of which there have been many that failed to find any evidence either of an increase in the rates of psychosis or of any causal link between cannabis use and psychosis. References can be provided on request.
However, assuming these claims of harm from so-called “skunk” cannabis are true, the cause of the market shift was the closing down of imports of hashish from North Africa due to the war on drugs, which created the market conditions for the “home grow” trade we see today. The fact that the trade is uncontrolled and unregulated meant
that this market shift went unnoticed for nearly 10 years. Cannabis, therefore, is clearly not a controlled drug. As this has only happened since the drug war took effect and had never happened in the 50000 years of recorded history of human involvement with cannabis prior to the war on drugs, surely the true story here, if these claims
of harm are true, is that the present drugs policy has turned a safe, almost benign drug into a dangerous substance?
However instead of an objective, critical look at the situation, the BBC simply reported the police view as fact and chose to promote the claims of reefer madnes