As the Leveson Inquiry looks at media standards, we should investigate the lies written about cannabis in the British press.
By Peter Reynolds
In the mid 1930s, after the end of alcohol prohibition, Harry Anslinger, former assistant commissioner at the Bureau of Prohibition, was settling into his exciting new job as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and working on his next campaign.
"This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with negroes, entertainers and any others," he wrote in one of Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Hearst was behind the organised campaign against cannabis hemp, then one of America's most successful crops, by timber, oil and paper interests. The strategy was to slur the plant with the racist term "marijuana", demonise it, outlaw it and wipe it out.
Come forward about 80 years to the present day. In the US there is the White House drugs czar Gil Kerlikowske and the head of the DEA, Michelle Leonhart. In Britain we have James Brokenshire, the Home Office minister. These people are faithful in style and message to their role model Anslinger. They use arguments and propaganda of exactly the same type and value but adjusted to politically correct 2011 terms. Their weapon is deceit and their strategy is intransigence. The prejudice, discrimination and media scaremongering continues. As Anslinger had Randolph Hearst's media empire, so Brokenshire has the Daily Mail.
The Mail came out all guns blazing last week in response to the Global Initiative on Drug Policy Reform and the ex-head of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, calling for legal regulation. Despite the furious propaganda war it has waged against cannabis and cannabis users the issue won't go away. Why? Because millions of British citizens regularly use and enjoy cannabis with no ill effects and many find it of enormous therapeutic benefit for conditions such as chronic pain, MS and Crohn's disease. Also, because this war on cannabis is just another war on people. It is futile, expensive and causes far more harm than it prevents. It has created the modern phenomenon of rented property being destroyed, electricity being stolen with human trafficked gardeners and intensive production of high potency cannabis.
For forty years the Daily Mail has been running its malevolent, systematic campaign of misinformation and false science. So successful has it been that it has had both the present and the former prime minister repeating its untruths like faithful disciples. Gordon Brown and Paul Dacre conspiring together to come out with the “skunk is lethal” buffoonery in 2008 is one of the most blatant examples of improper collusion between government and media. In March this year, in a YouTube Al Jazeera interview, David Cameron made a series of statements about cannabis that are absolutely false which despite repeated polite requests he has done nothing to correct. Even more astonishing is the way the Mail has brought its competitors along with it. Not just tabloids, even The Independent, which had made a noble and courageous stand for a rational policy back in 1997 was duped ten years later into its famous "Cannabis, An Apology" front page.
Duped is exactly the right word. Amongst a torrent of sensationalist claims there was "skunk cannabis is 25 times stronger", "more than 22,000 people were treated last year for cannabis addiction", that there was "growing proof that skunk causes mental illness and psychosis". All presented in accordance with the Daily Mail stylesheet.
All of The Independent’s claims were false. The truth is that cannabis today is on average about two to three times stronger than it used to be, about 750 people each year are admitted to hospital for cannabis (while 3,000 are admitted for peanuts) and there is no proof at all of a causal link between cannabis and psychosis, only of correlation and increase in risk – but the increase is far greater for alcohol and tobacco use, even for energy drinks. Also alcohol is clearly proven actually to cause psychosis in around one per cent of users.
The best evidence about cannabis and psychosis is a review of all published research so, by definition, not cherry picked. It shows that, although there is no proof of causation, the risk of a correlation between lifetime cannabis use and a single psychotic episode is at worst 0.013% and probably less than 0.003%.
This mendacious campaign has criminalised millions of citizens, worldwide tens of thousands have been killed and millions more denied safe, effective and inexpensive relief from a wide range of diseases and conditions. What was originally driven by oil, timber and paper interests is now driven by Big Booze and Big Pharma. The first is terrified of a much safer, non-addictive, non-toxic alternative to its popular poison. The second is desperately trying to patent new varieties, extracts and components of the plant in the knowledge that modern science now proves that cannabis is as close to a panacea as possible. Only discovered in 1988, we now know that the endocannabinoid system is fundamental to all aspects of life. Endocannabinoid deficiency is now being postulated as the fundamental cause of cancers, MS, fibromyalgia and many other conditions. The only natural source of cannabinoids outside the body is the cannabis plant. No wonder that 100 years ago more than half of all medicines in the British pharmacopeia contained cannabis.
The Daily Mail's campaign has been remarkably successful. Make no mistake, virtually all of the reefer madness can be traced back to it. Other newspapers have followed its lead. Even police officers and members of the judiciary declare as facts what are actually Daily Mail scare stories. Funding for cannabis research is most easily available if a scientist subscribes to the Daily Mail agenda. The truth and the scientific evidence have been corrupted. Irrational prejudice has been promoted and swallowed whole by many who should know far better. It is a bandwagon that many have chosen to jump on.
What is the truth about cannabis? Another myth is that there is disagreement amongst scientists. This isn't the case. All the evidence points in the same direction – that cannabis use does increase the risk of psychosis and that the risk is greater at a younger age. This is meaningless though unless it is placed in context and compared with the risk from other activities. Then it is clear that, relatively speaking, cannabis is very safe.
The bizarre truth is that Professor Les Iversen, the government's chief drugs advisor, is on the record saying this again and again but the Daily Mail doesn't print it and the government ignores it, only accepting the advice it chooses to. Professor Iversen is also a long time advocate of the medicinal use of cannabis but the government continues with its inane position that "there is no medicinal value" in cannabis. Simultaneously, the Home Office has granted a unique monopoly licence to GW Pharmaceuticals to grow 20 tonnes of cannabis a year for medicinal use. You really couldn't make it up, could you?
Just last month GW announced the results of clinical trials which show that its super-strong, super-concentrated, 51% THC skunk cannabis medicine Sativex has "…limited relevant adverse effects and – particularly reassuring – the drug does not appear to lead to withdrawal effects if patients suddenly stop using it." It's a far cry from the usual hysteria about psychosis and addiction.
There is a furore in the US over medical marijuana. The DEA and the massive forces of prohibition see their business coming to an end. They are fighting back furiously but ultimately they cannot frustrate the declared will of the people. Seventy-seven per cent of all Americans now favour legalising medical marijuana on a federal level. Sixteen states have already done so. The market is predicted to be worth nearly $10 billion within a few years.
Last week Switzerland announced that cultivating four plants per person would no longer be an offence. It's one plant in Belgium, five plants in Holland and they're even less strict in Italy and Spain. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are reforming their laws. In Britain, cannabis production is regularly treated more severely than paedophilia or violent assault. Just a few plants can get you more than a year in prison.
Medicinal cannabis is available all over Europe except Britain and France. Residents of other European countries, prescribed cannabis by their doctor can bring it to Britain and use it without restriction under the protection of the Schengen Agreement. A British resident would risk jail.
The Daily Mail’s campaign amounts to a hate crime against cannabis users. The Press Complaints Commission has proved itself incapable of correcting even blatant falsification of scientific evidence. More than a million people in Britain now have a criminal record for cannabis. According to independent research, every year our government gifts up to £9.5 billion to organised crime rather than adopting the safer, more responsible policy of tax and regulate.
All these factors are combining to make change urgent and imminent. We are witnessing the death throes of prohibition while its advocates make a desperate and frantic last stand, their final frenzy.
There is one huge obstacle left to overcome. How can our cowardly political leaders find a way to save face while reversing the dreadful policy they have
supported for so long? If any issue exposes the hypocrisy and dishonesty of politicians and the way that the media has an improper influence, then it is cannabis. We have to find a way to let them off the hook.
In years to come, the attitudes that now prevail towards people that choose cannabis will be as politically incorrect as racism, homophobia or denying women the vote. Cannabis is one of God’s greatest gifts with which mankind has had a symbiotic relationship since the dawn of time. The prohibition experiment of the last 80 years has been a disaster. A rational approach will bring enormous benefits to our country, save billions in wasted expenditure, create thousands of new jobs, cut crime and disorder, provide tremendously safe and effective relief to millions in pain and disability. The time has come to embrace cannabis as the miraculous plant that it is.
Peter Reynolds is the leader of Cannabis Law Reform (CLEAR), an officially registered UK political party with more than 5000 members. Next month, he will be giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry on the Press Complaints Commission and the influence the media has on drugs policy.
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