OK, it’s the Daily Mail which no one should take seriously, but it’s important to remember that politicians do – this is a very influential hate-rag. What you’re reading in the Daily Mail becomes the basis for UK drugs policy because the Daily Mail represents public opinion if you believe politicians.
Readers of the Daily Mail have been treated to more than the usual amount of cannabis shock horror stories this week, and the paper has gone into overdrive to misreport things.
Several stories have been at the heart of this misreporting frenzy, first is the tragic story of Benjamin Frankum, a paranoid schizophrenic who murdered Daniel Quelch in Hampshire back in 2007. The paper was reporting on the report into the killing which has only now been released. The October 5th headline screamed
Schizophrenic man hooked on cannabis stabbed stranger 81 times…after NHS said he ‘posed no danger’
That’s about as bad as you can get. The paper claimed by way of justification that
The report’s authors said that the killer was already a regular cannabis smoker when he first came into contact with the NHS aged 19, and had been for at least a year, if not more. But they had not been able to establish whether he used ordinary cannabis or super-strength skunk.
This is a clear case of the Mail abusing its role as a newspaper to further its own agenda – the papers line on cannabis and mental illness is well known.
The story of course is more complex
Company director Mrs Quelch said: ‘We hold this NHS trust responsible for the death of our son as it did not look after Frankum properly and did not act on the warning signs. He was released into the community without proper support or monitoring.
‘He started smoking cannabis again, could not keep his house or himself clean and stopped taking his medication.
‘Even Frankum’s family were concerned and they told us that they were literally screaming down the phone at his care co-ordinator that he was not taking his medication.
‘Yet nothing was done and seven weeks later he murdered our son.’
It is a fact that, for whatever reason, people with severe mental illness tend to use drugs heavily – it’s not just cannabis. They often drink heavily, use heroin and most of them smoke tobacco like chimneys. He wasn’t taking his medication, he was using drugs, he wasn’t looking after himself – all classic signs of a spiralling problem. It is a tragedy this happened, it shows the truly regrettable state of mental health provision in this country, it shows a lot of things but it doesn’t show that cannabis caused this murder to happen, which is what the Mail implies.
It does show that he had no problem getting hold of cannabis of course – that the illegal nature of cannabis doesn’t restrict its availability to the vulnerable people who most need protection – it shows the utter failure of the drugs policy of prohibition, which clearly did nothing to prevent this happening and – of you believe the Mail’s claims about “skunk” – did much to make it worse. These are all points the Daily Mail chose – deliberately it would seem – to ignore at best and to misrepresent at worst.
Interestingly the paper has re-run the story. On 10th October a far more thoughtful article had another go at reporting the same story. It still played on the drug user connection but was much more measured. The October 10th headline was
Why was a drug-abusing schizophrenic left free to kill my son? And why will no one take the blame?
Quite why the “drug abusing” element of this story is still there is unclear, it’s largely peripheral to the story really. At least this report goes into more detail about how Benjamin had stopped taking his medication and how there was no support available for him. But it still says
Benjamin Frankum, who had suffered mental health issues ever since he began smoking cannabis in his teens.
Which implies the cannabis use caused the illness.
Why did the paper re-run this story? Perhaps they had complaints about the first version, certainly the feedback on the website for the first report was highly critical and pointed the finger of blame at the failure of the so-called “care in the community” policy and the irrelevance of the cannabis connection. Those comments supporting the cannabis hype were marked with red arrows by readers.
On 8th October the Mail carried this extraordinary headline
Cannabis use in young people soars by a third as more than 4,000-a-year need treatment
This is a story about the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) “1 April 2009 – 31 March 2010 report” – which you can see here.
According to the Mail
The number of young people needing treatment for mental or other serious problems caused by smoking cannabis has rocketed by a third, experts revealed last night.
The NHS National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse revealed cannabis use had taken a heavy toll on 4,400 youngsters last year – or more than ten every day.
Cannabis cases accounted for 7% of cases, this despite cannabis accounting for the vast majority of illegal drug use. It’s also important to remember that there are perhaps as many as 4 million cannabis users in the UK, so this “huge” number represents something like 0.1% of the using population, a figure probably greatly enlarged by the underground, illegal nature of the culture.
They were referred for treatment by psychiatric services or families worried the person’s life was falling apart.
These figures are comprised of hospital referrals and referrals by concerned relatives. More often than not it means kids getting into trouble through their cannabis use which leads to family or school problems. So we’re looking here at referrals covering the range from genuine psychiatric issues to what might be called teenage rebellion issues. Now there’s no denying that young kids can get into trouble through cannabis use and need guidance and perhaps help and it is right that they get it, but that isn’t the same thing as serious problematic drug use, but it all gets counted together and presented by the Daily Mail as a serious problem
In many cases, the user was aged just 18 or 19, the NTA said.
These figures include a range of clients, only some of which were aged 18 – 19.
The NTA summaries the treatment for cannabis in it’s document “Drug treatment in 2009-10” available here
A range of talking therapies (known in the trade as psychosocial interventions) is used in treating under-25s for cannabis. Many of these young adults are aged 18 and 19, and so won’t have been using long or intensively enough to warrant treatment for dependency. In these cases, treatment will focus more on the impact their drug use is having on their family and other relationships, and on education or employment.
Most of the cannabis users in this age group do well in treatment. According to TOP data, on average they reduce their use of the drug by almost half, with nearly 40% of this group becoming abstinent within six months of starting treatment.
In other words a session or two of counselling is all that’s required. It’s hardly the sort of issue that applies to problem drug users who make up the 84% of the cases reported with by the NTDMS report (page 2)
The Mail goes on to claim
It follows concern about the increasing availability of the super-strength skunk variety of cannabis – which now accounts for between 70 and 80 per cent of police seizures.
The Mail loves this factoid, but fails to understand how it undermines their whole argument for prohibition – the market for “skunk” resulting from the strangling of supplies of hash from north Africa caused by the war on drugs.
Then we get this:
Doctors warn that people who smoke skunk are 18 times more likely to develop psychosis than those who use milder forms of the drug.
They do? Of course, the Mail provides no reference for this claim, but does mention something this blog has reported in the past
The researchers, from the Institute of Psychiatry in London, compared data on the health and habits of almost 200 cannabis users.
They seem to be citing this “study” – if it deserves the term “study”, although the source of the “18 times” figure remains a mystery. Somehow the Mail concludes
Analysis showed skunk was the drug of choice of those being treated for psychosis, while hash was more likely to be smoked by those without mental health problems.
Again, an example of prohibition creating a problem which, if you believe the Mail, didn’t exist before. Don’t they have editors to correct howlers like this? But whilst we’re on a scare hype, why not go the whole hog?
Cannabis has been linked to a string of vicious killings by young people, including the murder and mutilation of teenager Jodi Jones by her boyfriend Luke Mitchell and the stabbing of fashion designer Lucy Braham by Oxford University student William Jaggs
This is just plain irresponsible, alarmist scaremongering, really quite objectionable. But then the paper’s argument takes a bizarre direction:
In 2004, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett approved the reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C.
The decision was reversed four years later, on the orders of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on the grounds it was sending out the wrong message to children that cannabis was harmless.
It’s a bizarre thing to write because of course the whole point of reclassification – a cause strongly trumpeted by the Daily Mail – was intended to reduce the amount of cannabis use, to reduce the harm it was claimed to cause and to protect everyone by to imposition of stronger prohibition. If the Mail’s report is to be believed it seems the attempt to show that cannabis wasn’t harmless has reversed the decline in use we saw when it was downgraded to C and that use – or at least harm – has increased as a result, but the paper doesn’t realise this at all.
So it’s hard to understand what the Mail is trying to say here, but the comments section on the web page shows people understand this and the point is well made by several commentators.
Finally, as if all that weren’t enough there is one more outraged report in the Mail headlined “Anger as Blair’s former drugs tzar takes part in talks with Government” – read it here. This is a story about Mike Trace, a respected person in the drugs field who the site “Beyond Engagement” describe as:
Mike is the Chairman of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Foundation and former deputy “Drug Tsar”. Mike is also the Chief Executive of Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (RAPT), one of the country’s largest providers of drug treatment services in the UK prison system. He has held senior drug treatment and policy roles within the British government, European Union and United Nations. He led the creation of the UK National Drug Strategy “Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain” and managed the first five years of its implementation.
It’s not entirely clear who is “angry” about claims that Mike Trace has been having talks with the Home Office about the future direction of drugs policy but the MP Peter Bone – an obscure Tory – is quoted as saying
‘Given his chequered past, I am surprised he is being consulted by No10 on the quiet. I would like the Government to clarify exactly what his role is
His “chequered past” is, of course, an awareness of the failings of the present regime and a willingness to speak out about it, which seems something to applaud frankly. Clearly the Mail thinks that only prohibition supporters should be giving advice to the government.
Perhaps there’s a reason for this tirade from the Mail, maybe they’ve got wind of something and are making a pre-emptive strike to stir up public hostility to drug law reform? As stated above though, the politicians are influenced by the rantings of this member of the gutter press, the paper is truly dangerous in it’s degree of influence. That the Daily Mail is free to write such rubbish is a sad abuse of the ideal of a free press, that it is taken seriously by politicians should be a cause of great concern.