Two media outlets not normally associated with presenting a complex view of the world had a go at doing just that this week – BBC 3 and The Sun! BBC 3, which to be honest has done some awful programmes on cannabis and drugs over the years started a two part series on cannabis whilst The Sun asked its readers what they think should be done with the drugs laws.
First, BBC 3’s programme “Cannabis, what’s the harm?” (watch it on i-player). The title didn’t bode well, giving the distinct impression this was to be the latest in the series of “skunk makes you mad” type scare stories. In the event, part 1 at any rate, was far from that. It was introduced by James Alexandrou, famous for once having a role in BBC 1’s East Enders who was outed as a cannabis user some time ago. Although the programme used the tired old “yoof” style production values so stereotypical of BBC 3 – badly framed shots, lots of random zooming and focus pulling and narrated with the sort of Estuarine accents only actors speak – it actually gave a refreshingly honest and balanced view of cannabis use in the UK, but not only that actually dared to come close to questioning the role of the law and exposing the harm prohibition causes.
It started off, as all BBC 3 programmes seem to do, by telling the audience what they’re about to be shown. It promised to look at why people use cannabis, how they get it and use it. James states clearly that he’s used cannabis, he never got too heavily into it and it never caused him any harm, so he wanted to see if it was like that for eveyone else. Cue shots of police smashing doors open, customs scooping out eye watering amounts of hash and a glimpse of California. He asks it it dangerous or beneficial; he wants to find out what is the real harm of cannabis.
When he was exposed as a cannabis user by the Sun he was surprised at the public reaction – although he didn’t say what it was it was generally supportive and not the castigation he expected.
First to South London to meet a kid – 17 year old Tom – who has parents who not only allow him to smoke at home, but who also smoke with him. Although Tom’s face was hidden, perhaps rather unwisely the parents appeared on screen. But it was clear they were not a dysfunctional family and the chemistry between them was very good. It can be argued that introducing a young kid to cannabis (or any drug) is unwise, to do so in a family environment is probably the best way to do it, after all, plenty of kids are introduced to alcohol this way. Ground rules are set – not smoking in the school week for example – and of course the parents are there to ensure he doesn’t react badly, This is understandably controversial, but it has to be better than turning a blind eye or driving the whole thing underground as many parents do. Unfortunately they had taught Tom to smoke with tobacco, which could well end up giving him a lifelong tobacco addiction. There’s no doubt Tom’s parents have taken a serious risk agreeing to appear on TV like this, they have laid themselves open to serious criminal charges. Prohibition of course simply can’t allow this kind of honesty to infect the debate and they could find themselves in really deep water.
We are then given a BBC3 style explanation of the composition of cannabis (lots of zappy graphics and wizz bang sound effects) but which got the explanation of THC and CBD over quite well, but then spoilt it all by saying “users don’t know how strong the weed is”, when they really should have said “users don’t know what the balance of these two chemicals is”, potency and strength are not the same thing and it seems a real shame to have prepared the ground so well and then confused it at the end. However, this essential fact is then used to explain why many young people want to grow their own – so they know what they’re getting. Of course it’s not only young people that grow their own cannabis for this reason, but never mind. The point is well made that many people grow their own not for profit, but for their own use so they know what they’re getting; these are “hobby growers” and we meet one called Owen, aged 19. Owen hasn’t grown anything yet, but proudly announces to camera that he’s about to and shows us his grow room kit, again, the lad is putting himself at some degree of risk by doing this. Owen points out that by growing his own he is also avoiding the illegal trade.
We have a look at the internet adverts and youtube videos for home growing, which as we all know is totally comprehensive.
Dr Gary Potter is a criminologist who points out that growing your own cannabis is seen as an ethical decision because it avoids the contact with the black market – which it is and it’s about time this point was made in programmes like this. He points out that black market cannabis is often contaminated and its production associated with organised crime, but more than that he makes the point that growers are growing varieties that aren’t as strong as the black market stuff. He points out that hobby growers deliberately select their favourite varieties which produce the sort of cannabis they enjoy most and which is least likely to cause any bad reactions.
We are taken to a hobby grower who has the sense to remain anonymous, a small grow op in a cupboard, James is amazed to find that this is going on quietly all over the country and you’d never guess, how right he is of course! What wasn’t mentioned was this grow room was using cold lights – low energy fluorescent bulb topped up with LED lighting. The advantage of this of course – other than lower elecrtricity use – is there’s no heat signature for the police to detect.
Cue police. We’re told that around 120 illegal cannabis grows are busted a week and we follow Avon police on a crack down on larger commercial grows. However we are told that anyone growing even a small amount is “vulnerable” – and interesting choice of words. Fast paced editing of a raid follows and we’re told (despite having just been shown a grow under cold lights) that inside grows need powerful lights which generate a lot of heat which the police can detect using thermal imaging from helicopters. However, on this occasion it was a false positive and the police had kicked in someone’s door who hadn’t got loft insulation, the police didn’t seem too upset it has to be said and made light of the distress they had just caused, instead they claimed there was “other intelligence” to support the raid, although they didn’t say what that was; sorry would have been nice. It would be interesting to know just how common this kind of “mistake” is but given this happened when they had the TV crew with them it’s probably quite common.
The police describe some large operations they’ve raided and tell how there could be anything on the other side of the door – people wielding knives and stuff, but then such is prohibition. More shots and yoof TV style editing of doors being smashed open and this time they find a medium sized grow, which could be making around £50,000 a crop which gives an idea of the money driving the supply side, all caused by prohibition.
More zappy graphics explain the law.
Then we watch a police action targeting drivers. Offences involving cannabis and driving are quite common and we’re shown some bloke caught with a tiny amount of cannabis who gets a what we’re told is a caution, but in fact is a warning. Then we’re shown someone pulled over because the passenger was smoking a spliff. The driver is then tested for co-ordination, but passes. Drug driving is taken as seriously as drink driving we’re told.
Next we meet some ex inner city dealers who describe the dangers of dealing and they claim some people can be addicted. Cue doomy music, we’re told that when these guys saw the downside of dealing they decided to clean upt heir lives. The music here is used to dramatic effect to highlight the “dark side” of cannabis and as the picture and music fade out James tells us “There’s clearly a much darker side to cannabis he has yet to see”.
Keyan started smoking at 11 and now he’s 14 he has a problem with cannabis. Keyan seems very depressed about his cannabis use, which he claims is certainly addictive and has ruined his life. However, it seems the BBC either didn’t do their research properly here, or if they did only hinted at something which was really important. As we say goodbye to Keyan he is off to a party which is unlikely to be the sort of party which has ice cream and trifles. He goes partying twice a week, every Friday and Saturday and so it is probably safe to assume that Keyan does more than just smoke cannabis. It’s not to dismiss the potential for cannabis to affect young people especially – and Keyan is young – but if he is joining in with the other chemical fun which is quite normal at parties he’s probably no stranger to such things as ketamine, speed, LSD, ecstasy and so on. If Keyan is a poly drug user binging on a cocktail of stuff every weekend it seems a little rash to blame his condition on cannabis alone. Why wasn’t this mentioned?
We’re told that around 4000 kids his age are offered help to get them off the drug, there are a lot of very young cannabis users which in truth is a real sign of failure for the policy of prohibition.
Back to the police who are “making every effort to stop cannabis reaching the street in the first place”. More fast pace editing, heavy drum beat music and doors being smashed open as they discover a big grow op in a warehouse which, we’re told could have a “street values” of £200,000. Apparently it cost £7,000 to set up, that’s one hell of a return on only one grow, over a year the money making potential is eye watering, which of course is why prohibition is such a daft policy.
We then meet a young mum who uses cannabis to keep her emotions in check. She tells us if it weren’t for cannabis she would either be in prison or dead by now. Again, she spoke openly to camera and ran the risk of getting herself into very real trouble. Cannabis makes her a better person she says and she explains why.
The we’re taken to the California where “medical cannabis” has virtually legalised cannabis for US citizens. We’re introduced to normal, responsible people who use cannabis in a regime of openness and control. It’s “very different to what we have at home” we’re told, and so it is. It’s pretty clear that the medical excuse is being stretched to the limit if not some way beyond it, but there is control over the trade and users can be sure of what they’re buying, a far better situation than we have here. We’re shown the dispensaries and even a B&Q style grow shop.
Returning to the UK we meet a very real medical cannabis user who medicates with a vapouriser. Jason is really worried about being treated as a criminal simply for relieving his pain, this is sadly quite common thanks to prohibition. “Cannabis means life for me” he says, being regarded as a criminal simply isn’t going to stop him and nether should it, he tells us “he simply doesn’t have a choice”. James tells us he feels Jason is “for real” and Jason’s parents support him. If the police come his parents will stand by him absolutely.
Lastly we meet Prof David Nutt the ex-head of the ACMD advisory committee.”Once a drugs is illegal” he tells us “you can’t have a rational debate” Professor Nutt states quite clearly that the biggest danger of cannabis comes from its illegality. This is not an opinion shared by the police – cue more high power music, more doors being smashed down and a small time commercial grower making a bit of money on the side is busted. Quite why the opinion of the police matters on a social issue like this isn’t clear. The police then tell us again that the hot lights are required, no mention of the cold lights we were shown earlier is made. We are left feeling quite sorry for the poor sod busted.
Next time we’re to be shown the big commercial grows, see a cannabis addiction clinic, see the customs at work and hear about the dark side of the organised crime supplying cannabis under prohibition.
There were shortcomings with this programme – not least the irritating production values – but it was far better than we’re used to from BBC 3. It shows the situation with cannabis in this country to be far more complex than the tabloid media claims and went some way to showing the chaos caused by prohibition.
The Sun also ventured into the drugs debate this week and got a bit out of its depth. Now the Sun is generally not to be trusted to give an objective opinion about anything really and it didn’t disappoint with its presentation of a survey it conducted amongst its readers. Headed “Sun Voters split on legal highs” (see it here) The Sun asked the question “Should all drugs be legalised” and gave three options:
Yes, all drugs should be legalised
No, only some should be legalised
No, all drugs should remain illegal
The results were reported in typical misleading style, after all trying to deal with three options is a bit much for The Sun:
VOTERS on a SunVote poll were almost evenly split when deciding whether to decriminalise drugs.
34.74% said drug laws should remain the same, while 31.46% were in favour of legalising some drugs, and 33.33% wanted them ALL legalised.
Actually right at the end of the item it does carry the views of one reader who points out that:
If 35% say yes to all and 30% yes to some that means 65% want some sort of legalization,” pointed out Foose. “So why is there so little support in Government? There must be more politicians who can’t speak out because they need to tow the party line
It’s “toe the line” actually, but never mind, the point is well made. What this poll shows is there is very little support for the prohibition policy of the government and massive support for some kind of law reform, especially for cannabis, even amongst Sun readers.
Interestingly, this is not the first poll to show this sort of support, back in July the LibDem drugs policy group (LDDPR) commissioned a survey which took a similar line to the Sun’s poll:
Rather than just ask whether each drug should be “legalised”, the poll gave brief descriptions of three regulatory options and asked the public to pick which they thought most tolerable for each of a series of drugs. The options were:
Light regulation (drugs sold like tobacco and alcohol are now)
Strict government control and regulation (an example of how government could heavily regulate a legal market in an attempt to minimise harm)and Prohibition (the current status of illegal drugs).
As with the Sun’s poll the results showed a massive majority in favour of change, especially regarding cannabis:
• 70% support for legal regulation of cannabis, with 1 in 3 of those polled feeling that it should be sold in a similar way to alcohol and tobacco.
• More people supporting legal regulation than prohibition for 3 other drugs: Magic Mushrooms (52% to 34%), Amphetamines (49% to 40%), and the recently banned “legal high” Mephedrone (41% to 39%).
• 39% support for the legal regulation of ecstasy sales, 36% support for regulation of cocaine, and 30% of respondents supported the legal regulation of heroin.
• For alcohol and tobacco over 1 in 4 respondents supported strict government control and regulation and 8% expressed a desire for tobacco to be prohibited.
• Very little variation in opinion dependent on which political party respondents support.
What these polls do is demonstrate that there is far more support for law reform than the government pretends and far less support for its policy than it claims. It seems that there is very little support for the hard line prohibition of cannabis we are forced to endure and they must be aware of it.