A full-blown outbreak of Reefer Madness has occurred in Great Britain in the last couple of weeks as segments of British society react hysterically to impending changes in that country's cannabis laws. Under an already-approved reclassification scheme that will go into effect January 29, cannabis will be downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug. Changes in daily practice are expected to be minimal, with the primary difference being that police will generally no longer make arrests for simple cannabis possession. They will instead issue tickets. In some aggravated cases -- public disorder, smoking near schools or around kids, repeat offenders -- police will make arrests.
But to read the British tabloid press and the pronouncements of some "experts," one would be forgiven for mistakenly believing that the British government was about to embark on a program of mandatory daily cannabis injections for all citizens and the fate of civilization rested in the balance. In the past few days, the tabloids have been full of half-baked reports linking cannabis to madness and mayhem:
"Hedge-Feud Coroner Warns About Dangers of Cannabis" (Daily Telegraph, January 16). The warning came in the case of a pot-smoking man who killed his neighbor after a simmering, years-long feud boiled over. Coroner Roger Atkinson called it "undoubtedly the worst case I've come across of somebody under the influence of cannabis." He added: "I have stressed that cannabis is not a harmless drug, and this demonstrates, if nothing else, how devastating its effects can be."
"Hedge Fracas Death Fuelled by Cannabis" (The Independent, January 16). Same incident, additional quote. Detective Inspector Peter Bray of Lincolnshire Police told reporters outside the court: "It does nobody any good to use cannabis and can lead to these sorts of things." The Independent article, however, contained critical information not apparent from the headline: The shooter was drunk.
"Why I Ditched My Liberal Views on Dope" (The Observer, January 18). Here essayist Sue Arnold, who credits cannabis with saving her eyesight, explains that she changed her view after her college-age son "had what psychiatrists call 'a psychotic episode,' triggered by cannabis." Arnold is unclear about whether the diagnosis was made by a Cuban psychiatrist (her son was in Cuba) or from afar. "To cut a long, long story short, my son came home heavily sedated, spent six months in hospital in an intermediate care unit (ICU). He was prescribed different drugs and, after a series of events which are too difficult and painful to describe, has just resumed his final year at university. He's still on medication and will probably have to take it for ever. It goes without saying that if he ever smokes another spliff he will have a relapse."
"Ban Tobacco, Legalize Cannabis -- Are We Barmy?" (Daily Telegraph, January 19). Here the essayist, WF Deeves, explores the contradictions between the two policies, and even concedes that limited marijuana use isn't so bad. "In the days when I knew something about dangerous drugs, sat on government committees dealing with them and talked to schools about them, I learnt a bit about cannabis. In truth the occasional spliff does most people no more harm than the occasional cigarette or cigar." But then he goes on to note that cannabis is stronger now and reports ill-effects, the most serious of which he mentions is that "some of the girls we interviewed mentioned that relations with the boyfriend had become eerily estranged since he took it up." Eerie or barmy? You decide.
"Cannabis Law is 'Threat to Health'" (Peterborough Evening Telegraph, January 20). Cannabis reclassification is a "mental health time bomb" waiting to go off, warned Verina McEwen, the Peterborough Drug Action Team coordinator, adding that pot-smoking was a factor in 80% of inner-city mental health cases. "My fear is young people will be confused about the health risks," she said. "We know cannabis can be linked to confusion, both short-term and long-term, depression, and trigger more serious problems, such as paranoia."
"Doctors Support Drive Against Cannabis" (Times of London, January 20). The Times is no tabloid, but here the British medical establishment contributes to the climate of fear. Dr. Peter Maguire, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's board of science, said: "The public must be made aware of the harmful effects that we know result from smoking this drug. The BMA is extremely concerned that the public might think that reclassification equals 'safe.' It does not. We are very worried about the negative health effects of smoking cannabis and want the Government to fund more research on this issue."
But none of those stories, as frighteningly dramatic as they are designed to be, can hold a candle to one that hit the British press on Sunday. In a shocking coincidence, just days before cannabis reclassification is scheduled to go into effect in Britain, the first purported cannabis overdose fatality was reported -- in Britain, no less! "Man Killed By 23,000 Spliffs!" roared the Daily Record. "Cannabis Blamed as Cause of Man's Death," chimed in the Daily Telegraph. A real shocker, if true.
The story, however, appears to be a combination of a coroner's stab in the dark and the tabloids' insatiable appetite for titillation. Lee John Maisey, 36, died in August of unknown causes. Those causes are still unknown, despite the coroner's verdict that "cause of death was probable cannabis toxicity." That verdict appears to be based solely on the fact that he had cannabinoids in his system and the coroner could find no other cause.
According to the Pembrokeshire Coroner's Office: "An inquest was held on 18th December 2003 into the death of Lee John Maisey, who had died on 24th August 2003. A full autopsy had been carried out which had failed to reveal a cause of death. A histological examination also failed to establish a cause of death and, in consequence, a toxicological examination on blood samples obtained was carried out by Forensic Alliance. The samples showed a high concentration of Carboxy-THC, consistent with heavy cannabis usage. There were also traces of cannabidiol, indicating that cannabis and/or cannabis resin was used within a few hours of death. In the view of the pathologist, and in the absence of any other significant abnormality in spite of exhaustive investigation, it was likely that death occurred as a manifestation of cannabis toxicity. The coroner recorded a verdict of death by misadventure and that the cause of death was probable cannabis toxicity."
"They've proven nothing. We're still at zero fatalities," said a leading marijuana researcher who asked to remain unidentified for employment reasons. "They have no more proved he died from cannabis toxicity than he died from Mad Cow Disease from drinking orange juice," he said. "If you read carefully, you see it wasn't even a firm diagnosis. This does not constitute proof, either medical or legal." When asked for an alternative explanation, he pointed to heart disease. "Most often, when someone of that age dies suddenly, it is from cardiac arrhythmia," he speculated. "This is ridiculous."
Of course, such considerations did not stop a steady stream of British "drug experts" from confirming the fatal danger of cannabis. Nor did it stop the Daily Telegraph from printing those ill-informed pronouncements. "This type of death is extremely rare," said Prof. John Henry, a toxicologist at Imperial College, London. "I have not seen anything like this before. It corrects the argument that cannabis cannot kill anybody."
Dr Philip Guy, a lecturer in addictions at the University of Hull, said: "Cannabis is not the nice hippy drug it used to be. It has been experimented with to produce stronger varieties." Guy guessed that Maisey had eaten himself to death on pot brownies. "I would not be surprised if in this case the deceased had ingested a fatal amount of cannabis."
And Tory shadow home secretary David Davis was all aflutter, using the alleged news to jab at the Labor government. "This highlights what we have been saying about the effects of cannabis all along. When will people wake up to the fact that cannabis can be a harmful drug? By reclassifying the drug David Blunkett has shown he has lost the war on drugs. In my eyes, it's nothing more than an admission of failure."
So did Tristan Millington-Drake, the chief executive of the Chemical Dependency Centre. "We have always taken the view that cannabis is an addictive drug, unlike the pedlars who try to persuade us that it is harmless," he said. "The government's decision to reclassify cannabis is a mistake."
"All this was to be expected, the backlash is always waiting to pounce," said Danny Kushlick of the Transform Drug Policy Institute (http://www.tdpf.org.uk). As for the amazing coincidence related to the alleged cannabis fatality, Kushlick pronounced himself boggled. "That's quite something, isn't it?" he laughed wearily. "They've done the same thing with this mental health stuff. They find some sort of correlation, but the causality gets very spurious when you look at it closely, and the correlation turns out to be extremely tiny."
"We are witnessing the dying gasp of prohibition there" said the anonymous marijuana expert. "Now we see a whole spate of articles about schizophrenia. That argument has been around forever; it's been studied for 115 years, ever since the Indian Hemp Commission in 1894, and the answer is always the same. The fact is, yeah, some people smoke and seem to go nuts for awhile, but it is self-limiting, and there is no evidence whatsoever that you can create schizophrenia with cannabis. People who are susceptible to schizophrenia could have problems, but at the same time, there are many schizophrenics who find it helps their symptomology."
And all of this over a simple rescheduling of cannabis. "The change is really minimal," said Kushlick. "For the police, they have to rely on their arrest guidelines, not the reclassification, to get that presumption against arrest. Ultimately, this should lead to fewer arrests for possession. The fact is, for the amount of furor around this, the government could have made a much bolder move."
To read the coroner's report in the "marijuana overdose death," visit http://www.pembrokeshirecoroner.org/coroner/faq.php#1 online.