The Daily Mail can, when it wants to, publish good objective stories factually reporting events related to drugs – honest, it can and it’s done it on several occasions over the years. This week, however, the paper hit a particularly low point in an item written by Amanda Platell regarding the death of Amy Winehouse entitled “Genius, but Amy’s was not a life to admire” (read it here).

The reason for Amy’s problematic drug use was identified by Amanda Platell as

But, of course, it is not just drink. Amy was proud of the fact she started smoking cannabis at the age of 13. A year later, she started writing songs, and cannabis was part of the creative process — and part of being a modern, uninhibited woman.

Tragically, any number of her fans agreed. Even though countless scientific papers have shown cannabis can lead to schizophrenia. Even though research in the online scientific journal Neuro- psychopharmacy shows conclusively that cannabis is a gateway drug to heroin, cocaine and crack — all of which Amy Winehouse became addicted to.

Ten years after she had her first joint, and within three weeks of her marriage, Amy had a near-fatal heroin overdose.

Note she claims “cannabis use can lead to schizophrenia” -this is stated as a fact which it is not, we’ve covered this highly complex issue many times in this blog so we won’t go there again now, of much more interest is this claim of conclusive proof that cannabis is a gateway drug. Keen to track down the paper in the online scientific journal ‘Neuro- psychopharmacy’ she mentioned I entered the name into Google. If she means the publication “Neuropsychopharmacology”, a search of that publication for “cannabis gateway” produces eight results, or which the last four seem relevant.

Adolescent Cannabis Exposure Alters Opiate Intake and Opioid Limbic Neuronal Populations in Adult Rats (here) is possibly the paper she means from 2006

The current findings support the gateway hypothesis demonstrating that adolescence cannabis exposure has an enduring impact on hedonic processing resulting in enhanced opiate intake, possibly as a consequence of alterations in limbic opioid neuronal populations.

The other studies, however are far less certain in their conclusions and in any case, these are lab experiments on rats, they are not conclusive proof of anything in humans. This is a serious and very clear example of the Daily Mail printing misleading and wrong information; a misrepresented reference presented as proof. Neither can the paper claim that this was simply the opinion of Amanda Platell, the claim is quite clear; the article states that the “research has shown conclusively that cannabis is a gateway drug to heroin, cocaine and crack”. That is clearly no statement of opinion.

As always with scientific studies it’s easy to cherry pick those which seem to prove your point, especially if you’re willing to misrepresent the conclusions they do make. However there are also a large number of studies which have failed to support the gateway theory – for example as the BBC reported back in 2002

US researchers said it does not act as a “gateway” drug, and that measures to curb cannabis use does not have a knock-on effect on the use of harder drugs.

Instead, they say teenagers begin using cannabis, or marijuana, simply because it is the most available drug.

A study from York University in 2007 (here) concluded

The model suggests two distinct groups; a smaller group of “troubled youths” for whom there is a statistically significant gateway effect that doubles the hazard of starting to use hard drugs and a larger fraction of “most youths” where previous cannabis use has little impact.

Which would seem to imply other factors than a simple “chemical hook” are at work, the  individual circumstances of the person concerned not least among them.  But in addition to personal issues there are two ways that cannabis use can defiantly act as a gateway to addictive drugs, both very relevant to Amy Winehouse.. First of course is caused by the law in that cannabis is sometimes supplied by the same people who supply heroin and cocaine. The other is a cultural thing which the government has always refused to address; the association of cannabis with tobacco. It may, just possibly, be a very important factor here.

Something which come over very clearly in the awful pictures of Amy Winehouse in this grubby little article is the unmentioned presence of tobacco – she was a smoker and probably a heavy smoker, as are the vast majority of problem drug users. There is a good chance that Amy started her tobacco addiction through her early use of cannabis, a lot of young people do this and end up with a tobacco habit as a result. Tobacco, of course, is not ‘a drug’ in many peoples eyes and is not included as one under the Misuse of Drugs Act for reasons which make no sense at all. However the drug effect of tobacco is to mess about with the dopeamine flows in the brain, making the smoker feel really good about having had a smoke.  Tobacco is a very good mixer drug, it goes with almost any drug use and makes that drug use very much more enjoyable. It can be argued that tobacco re-enforces drug use, leading to more use and more habitual use.

There is a good argument for thinking that perhaps the very real “gateway” drug is tobacco, why is this never considered? The link would be easy to break if the government were willing to try. So far they have refused to support any safer use campaign along the lines of UKCIA and CLEAR’s Tokepure

We can’t discuss the the Daily Mail this week without mentioning the contributions from Peter Hitchens in his blog hosted by that paper. Peter has been spouting his personal take on cannabis and drugs all week in three entries. He actually states his reasoning in the first of three blogs on July 27th

I don’t believe in addiction, a concept which assumes that people have no power to control themselves. They have such a power. But they often choose not to use it because they are enjoying themselves.

If people are ‘enslaved’ by a drug it is because they have enslaved themselves. I do very much believe that the law can protect people against such self-abasement, by scaring them away from it when they are too young and/or ill-informed to understand the dangers they run.

That is at the root of the Hitchens take on this issue – nothing a cold bath can’t cure! He believes quite honestly that the law can scare people off using drugs and hence developing a problem. In the third of his blogs on 28th July he outlined his solution:

Most cannabis users don’t find it such a marvellous experience that they’d be prepared to risk six months at hard labour for a second offence of possession (my suggested minimum penalty, the first offence being dealt with by a genuine ‘caution’, whose condition would be that the cautioned person never subsequently committed the same offence).  Permitting premises to be used for its use would also be treated in the same way.

In the mind of Peter Hitchens the offence of cannabis use should attract the sort of barbaric sentence we wouldn’t give to murderers or rapists. It’s the sort of treatment civilised countries have long abandoned. Peter Hitchens really believes the way to solve a social problem like problem drug use is by barbaric repression of young people. He is, of course, entitled to that opinion, but the fact that a mass circulation newspaper provides him with the platform to air such views (in this case on its website) is really quite objectionable.

However, the real problem Peter Hitchens is causing is for the prohibition movement. The more extreme his views the more sites like UKCIA will be willing to quote them. Eventually the ever decreasing vocal prohibition campaigners will either have to support him and look pretty stupid in doing so, or distance themselves from his views, which I’m sure they don’t want to do. Keep it up Peter, we need you!

The Daily Mail is a very real problem however. Although it is widely understood to often print opinion as fact the paper is very influential. We can only hope that the changes to the ineffective Press Complaints Commission promised as a result of the Murdoch controversy will be able to put an end to this.