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Feature: Reefer Madness Strikes a Leading British Newspaper

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #478)
Consequences of Prohibition
Politics & Advocacy

Careful observers of the British press are accustomed to tabloid-style grotesqueries. Even a cursory review of stories about drugs in the British press reveals breathless headlines -- "Cannabis Boy in Drugs Shame," "Heroin Girl in Drugs Tragedy" -- and mind-boggling statements right out of Reefer Madness. Just this week, the tabloid Liverpool Echo warned that "SUPER-strength cannabis so potent that just one puff can cause schizophrenia is being grown by Merseyside drug gangs."

UK press: backsliding into reefer madness
Along with topless models, lottery appeals, and gossip, lurid drug stories are to be expected in the tabloid press. It's another thing when one of Britain's premier serious newspapers gets down in the muck with the tabloids, but that's just what happened Sunday when the Independent on Sunday reversed course on cannabis. A decade ago, the upstart newspaper launched a campaign to legalize the weed, but this week it said it was wrong. In a series of articles led by the editorial "Cannabis: An Apology," the newspaper said the emergence of powerful cannabis varieties like skunk and increasing evidence of mental health problems for smokers prompted its recantation.

"In 1997, this newspaper launched a campaign to decriminalize the drug," began the editorial penned by Jonathan Owen. "If only we had known then what we can reveal today... Record numbers of teenagers are requiring drug treatment as a result of smoking skunk, the highly potent cannabis strain that is 25 times stronger than resin sold a decade ago. More than 22,000 people were treated last year for cannabis addiction -- and almost half of those affected were under 18. With doctors and drugs experts warning that skunk can be as damaging as cocaine and heroin, leading to mental health problems and psychosis for thousands of teenagers, The Independent on Sunday has today reversed its landmark campaign for cannabis use to be decriminalized."

The newspaper also cited "growing proof that that skunk causes mental illness and psychosis" and statistics showing "that the number of young people in treatment almost doubled" between 2005 and 2006. And again with the skunk: "The skunk smoked by the majority of young Britons bears no relation to traditional cannabis resin -- with a 25-fold increase in the amount of the main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabidinol (THC), typically found in the early 1990s."

The newspaper cited several academic specialists who have been at the forefront of the campaign to prove that cannabis has serious mental health consequences. According to Professor Robin Murray of the London Institute for Psychiatry, cannabis use accounts for fully 10% of all schizophrenics in the UK. "The number of people taking cannabis may not be rising, but what people are taking is much more powerful, so there is a question of whether a few years on we may see more people getting ill as a consequence of that."

The Independent also cited veteran anti-drug campaigner Professor Neil McKeganey from Glasgow University's Centre for Drug Misuse Research. "We could well see over the next 10 years increasing numbers of young people in serious difficulties," he said.

But proponents of drug law reform and academic marijuana experts were shocked and dismayed by the Independent's new stance and its seeming fall into tabloid-style reporting. "This is very reminiscent of the potency panics in the US a few years ago," said Steve Rolles of the London-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation, who earlier this week wrote a highly critical blog post about the Independent's change of course. "If you take the weakest cannabis from one era and compare it to the strongest from the current era, you can make that 25:1 argument, but that just doesn't represent reality. It is fair to say there has been an increasing prevalence of more potent indoor grown cannabis, but the Independent was just cherry-picking the data. What they did was to grossly overstate it to make it seem a bigger issue than it is, and that's both bad science and lazy journalism."

"This is one of the most ridiculous and flaccid attempts to justify prohibition I have ever seen," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "The UK media is ensconced in incredible reefer madness that even the US can't match at this point. I keep a file called bad journalism. It's a fairly large dossier, but I never added so much material to it as I did last Sunday. That skunk they keep talking about must be extremely strong; look at the incredibly deleterious effect just writing about it has on people's ability to think rationally," he told Drug War Chronicle.

Dr. Mitchell Earleywine, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany and author of "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence," scoffed at the Independent's claims about potency and the link between marijuana and schizophrenia. "There has probably been a two- or three-fold increase in potency on average," he told Drug War Chronicle. "Estimates from the 1970s are likely underestimates because we didn't understand how storage in hot police evidence lockers degraded THC. Most of the estimates from back then were around 1% THC. When we give folks marijuana that's 1% THC in the laboratory today, it's so weak that they get a headache and think they've received a placebo. Obviously, the plant wouldn't have become popular if it just gave people headaches."

Even if cannabis is stronger today, it does not follow that it is more hazardous, and stronger may even be better, Earleywine added. "The tacit assumption that stronger equals more dangerous is also wrong. Data on the subjective high that people obtain suggest that folks don't get any higher than they used to," he pointed out. "They may end up smoking less, using less total cannabis as a result, and therefore limiting the chances of developing any respiratory symptoms. Although cannabis use doesn't increase lung cancer risk, it can increase cases of cough, wheezing, et cetera. Those who smoke stronger cannabis tend to take smaller hits and deposit less gunk in their lungs."

Earleywine also raised questions about the science behind the claimed link between marijuana and schizophrenia. "The obvious stuff, that pot doesn't cause schizophrenia but schizophrenics like pot, tends to apply here," he said. "The longitudinal studies often do a great job of assessing psychosis at the end of the period but a poor job of assessing symptoms at the beginning of the study. There are now about five longitudinal studies suggesting increases in 'psychotic disorders' or 'schizophrenic spectrum disorders' in folks who are heavy users of cannabis very early in life. There are also six studies to show more symptoms of schizo-typal personality disorder in cannabis users. Note that none of these are full-blown schizophrenia, the rare, disabling disorder that affects about 1% of the population," he said.

"The best argument against this idea comes from work showing that schizophrenia affects 1% of the population in every country and across every era, regardless of how much cannabis was used at the time or up to ten years before," Earleywine added.

The alleged schizophrenia connection is more hype, said Rolles. "Nothing has really changed. The dangers associated with cannabis have been documented for years. Certain groups, particularly teenagers and people with preexisting mental health problems, can have problems if they use cannabis," he conceded. "But again, this is more cherry-picking of the statistics, the Reefer Madness thing used to justify prohibition. You hype the dangers. We see this over and over again with all drugs."

As for the Independent's claims that strong cannabis is driving record numbers of young Britons into drug treatment, Rolles was equally skeptical. "The experience in America is instructive," he said. "There, your drug czar talks about huge numbers of young people in treatment for cannabis-related problems, but if you look at the numbers, most of them are referred by the courts. The same is true here."

"This schizophrenia thing is unique to England and, to a lesser degree, Australia," NORML's St. Pierre said. "The principle advocate of this thesis, researcher Robin Murray, is literally trying to create a new myth around cannabis. It seems like we have a new myth every decade or so. In the '30s, pot made you crazy; in the '40s, it made you a criminal; in the '50s, it made you want to use hard drugs; in the '60s; it made you a hippie or radical communist; in the '70s, it made you apathetic and unmotivated. Now we have this latest version -- that cannabis is a source of psychoses. The way the British media has bought into this is a disgrace," he said.

"Empirically, this is one of the easiest marijuana myths to shoot down," St. Pierre said. "From London, you can practically see the Netherlands, a country where cannabis is readily available and fairly potent. If one one-hundredth of what they claim were true, you would be walking over bodies in Amsterdam."

St. Pierre noted that the marijuana-schizophrenia connection has not migrated to the United States. "Where is the American Psychological Association, where is the American Psychiatric Association?" he asked. "They should be the natural allies of the Brits on this, but they're not because this is absolutely bonkers."

Like NORML, Transform is an advocacy group working to end marijuana prohibition. British mental health organizations have a different take. "We now know that cannabis can be a trigger for mental health problems and smoking it under the age of 18 can double people's chances of developing psychoses," a spokesman for the mental health group Rethink told Drug War Chronicle. "The government must invest in a wide-scale public health campaign so that young people know cannabis is not risk-free."

While Rethink has led the charge for higher awareness of the dangers of cannabis through its Cannabis and Mental Illness Campaign, the group is not advocating for a reclassification of the drug. Instead, it believes its current classification as a Class C drug is appropriate.

That's not what Member of Parliament Paul Flynn thinks. Evidence of possible harms doesn't change the underlying dynamic of his anti-prohibitionist position. "My view is exactly the same. Prohibition doesn't work," he said. "It's much worse to have the market controlled by dangerous criminals than for it to be properly controlled."

And so the debate over cannabis in Britain roils.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

I've been reading endless stories from the UK about "skunk", teen-psychosis, and surging numbers of kids in treatment centers. It's a real relief to read something SANE about it all.

I have to say I don't understand the logic that under prohibition cannabis is now more dangerous than ever (as the papers allege) and their proposed solution? keep prohibiting it. Normally when something makes the problem worse you try something else. The twisted logic of prohibition boggles the mind. There wouldn't even BE "skunk" if the cannabis market was regulated!

Fri, 03/23/2007 - 5:23am Permalink
David Dunn (not verified)

Wonder why The Independent didn't look at some other studies indicating that schizophrenics are often low in Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)?

Could the use of marijuana by schizophrenics be indicating that the body is singling the need for EFAs? Hence smoking marijuana may be an effort at self-medication.

However, I'm not sure that EFAs would survive the burning process of smoked marijuana. Hemp oil or hulled hemp seeds would probably be a better source of EFAs.

Fish oil was first used but was discontinued because of the toxins in it. That was risky for women of child-bearing age.

Fish oil was used because it was found that the incidence of schizophrenia was lower in parts of the country where more fish was consumed regularly in the diet.

"The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government."

- Thomas Jefferson

Fri, 03/23/2007 - 11:50am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

the best weed I ever had came from the old days (Colombian, Mexican, Hawaiian, African........
this new stuff is nothing special.........just more prohibitionist schemes.

Fri, 03/23/2007 - 12:20pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Within that same hysterical issue, one article contains the following paragraph of reason, which lacks an appropriate headline (of course).

Professor Leslie Iversen, of the University of Oxford, said there was a widespread myth that skunk, from the tips of the cannabis plant, was 20 to 30 times more powerful than that available 30 years ago. "It is simply not true," he said. "The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs looked at this carefully. Cannabis resin [hash] has changed little and is about 5 per cent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Skunk has 10-15 per cent THC. That makes it two to three times more powerful, not 20 to 30 times."

Fri, 03/23/2007 - 1:53pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I was perplexed about why this grand push of propaganda was happening now until I read that a new independent drug policy commission is set to begin a debate on the British government's approach to the issue.

Obviously, all the sound and fury is an attempt to influence this new commission.

John Thomas

Fri, 03/23/2007 - 3:04pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The day when the British Empire was a true leader is a myth in all but the uppermost levels; so much that came from the pens of the great contributors was and still is so very powerful in theory, in discussion, in the big picture.
The tremendous common sense shown in their handling of heroin addiction and cocaine dependence, in dispensing them legally to those for whom "treatment" is not an option, is overweighted by the truth in action.
Let us hope their influence is contained within their own troubled and overpopulated shores.
We have enough bs to clear without importing any...

Sun, 03/25/2007 - 2:02am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

thanks for the link to the Transform debunk of the Independents attack of reefer madness. This weekend there has been a whole bunch more which I have responded to here:

I have also blogged on the recent lancet drug harms report here:

Steve R

Sun, 03/25/2007 - 6:13pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Yeah, Man! The old equatorial sativas. . . long, thin, and with up to 15 leaflets; taking centuries to mature, but the smoke. . .Wow! . . a heavenly and cerebral, magic potion!
If there were a causal link between cannabis and psychosis(however tenuous), it would be mirrored by a corresponding rise in mental illness statistics. No such rise has been found here or in the US, despite steadily rising cannabis usage levels over a number of years.
During the symptom-free period at the onset of schizophrenia, patients appear to be drawn to runaway self-medication, and because their usage of cannabis is so over-the-top, the kneejerk reactionaries see an opportunity to disinter the decidedly threadbare corpse of reefer madness one more time.
With schizophrenia, early diagnosis and treatment are essential for good outcomes, but early symptoms can be ambiguous, making real diagnosis difficult, and this, in the early stages of the disease causes uncertainty and the consequent delay often leads to poorer prognoses, overall.
It's certainly possible that, were cannabis fully legal, a diagnosis of schizophrenia might be made on the basis of the rate of cannabis use by a person in the vulnerable age-group.
Far from *causing* psychosis, cannabis may, after legalisation, become a valuable marker for the condition, with concomitant advances in the treatment of this debilitating form of mental illness.
The current situation is helpful to no one.
Jim Caden

Sun, 03/25/2007 - 7:15pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Since pot was made illegal by false propaganda (refer madness) being shown to congress .With no other expert testimony or medical and scientific research to verify the truth of the video .It was obviously a decision made in error .At the cost to peoples lives and families and damage that has been done by erroneous information submitted to congress .Why hasn't congress reexamined the abundance of information and research that has been done in the last 5 decades to correct this error .If it can be made illegal by so little false information .Why with volumes of legitement research to dispute the what they were led to believe .Why is huge amounts of factual evidence of truth so much harder to base our laws on than one small video of lies with the devastation those lies have caused to our society

Sun, 12/16/2007 - 12:46pm Permalink
Rhubarb Koznowski (not verified)

I think you miss the motive. It is not about Pot. It is about Power.

Fri, 02/15/2008 - 4:16pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If someone is mentally ill and gets diagnosed then it's one thing. If someone is mentally ill, then smokes pot, and then gets diagnosed, it's the pot that did it .

Sat, 02/23/2008 - 5:32pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Medical evidences definitively demonstrate that cerebral cells are receiving compatible to the canabinoides, which as well demonstrates to genetics and undeniably the relation between the substance and the human species, therefore, the necessity of their use, then, perversely visionary politicians, allies with producers of marijuana plants, secure to the prohibition, winning money in the black market, and also they receive federal financing, having financial gains by both sides.
Now we buy cows, and we prohibit milk… and to make money!!!!!

Sat, 02/23/2008 - 5:52pm Permalink

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