Jeremy Sare on the media’s misrepresentation of drugs

Everyone has an imperfect knowledge of drugs. But where do people find the information on which they base their forthright opinions?

An Ipsos poll found the media are the most important source of drug information for 58 percent of the population. Given much of the media’s persistent misrepresentation of the facts that is perhaps why the issue of drug control is synonymous with public confusion, contradiction, and in many cases cognitive dissonance. If alcohol were reported in the same way as controlled drugs then any public figure’s habit of a small pre-prandial sherry would be portrayed as, “years of terrifying, self-destructive booze bingeing.”

The Home Affairs Committee (HAC) have just published their report on drugs, “Breaking the Cycle” and it is a modest, reasoned, cross-party exploration of the weaknesses and strengths of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. It is a law seemingly unchanged since the time when LSD also meant pounds, shillings, and pence. The world of drugs has been transformed several times since including a huge rise (now fall) in heroin use, the rapid emergence of ecstasy, and now a flood of Chinese legal highs.

The central recommendation of the HAC—the establishment of a Royal Commission to review the efficacy of the act—was leapt on by the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Telegraph as slamming open the door to “legalisation.” So keen were they to get the story out, both papers were happy to break the convention of abiding by the committee’s press embargo to get their view into the public domain before anyone else. So much for Leveson’s influence casting a “chilling” effect on press behaviour. The Sun opted for a simplistic headline which bears no relationship to any suggestion in the report, “Make Dope Legal” and is naturally a “shock verdict by MPs.”

In recent years, there has been a pervasive drift in the media into attributing the current enforcement regime as a, “war on drugs” when clearly in Britain we don’t and, thankfully, have never had one. Nixon declared “total war against enemy number one” for the US in 1972 and set in train cataclysmic human rights disasters such as the creation of a Narco state in Columbia in the 1980s and the industrial scale of murder by cocaine cartels in Mexico now.

The regime of prohibition in Britain may lead to disproportionate punishment for possession offences, but is on a different scale from a wholesale war. But it suits many in the tabloid media to heighten the stakes artificially, to retain our levels of fear and put the population on a phoney war footing. Polarisation of debate makes policy inertia certain.

Of course, the negative campaigning by tabloids on certain drugs is far from restricted to Britain. I heard a story of an editor in Western Australia who told one of his hacks to re-write an article, insisting, “Our editorial policy is not to show cannabis use going down.” The commentators in the Mail harden opinion beyond easily scientifically verifiable fact (Peter Hitchens “does not believe in addiction,” Melanie Phillips has written how cannabis is more harmful than heroin.)

What is extra-ordinary to experts and academics with long histories of study and analysis on their CVs, is that these columnists feel free to dismiss expert opinion out of hand if it does not match their newspaper’s narrow world view. Even though these journalists pontificate blithely about all manner of subjects with seemingly equal authority, they appear to be unable to accept that a professor who has dedicated his life’s work to the subject may actually have superior knowledge.

Significant stories on drugs may also be diminished editorially. When the Daily Mail reported the release of the documentary “Breaking the Taboo,” which promotes reform of the international conventions on drugs, it was relegated to the celebrity gossip pages. The article focussed predominantly on the stars who had appeared at the premiere and much less about the film’s message and themes.

The two main drugs which have caused the most media misrepresentation of their potential harms have historically been cannabis and ecstasy. It is easy to speculate the reasons why, but they appear to be drugs which a firm body of experts maintain are in the wrong legal classifications. In fact, in both cases the issue of their classification led to ministers rejecting advice from its own Advisory Council. Here we have the real battle ground between scientific fact and media power.

In the case of cannabis, the familiar impishness of some journalists in exaggerating the dangers of drugs has morphed into a more sinister obsession with portraying it as a “killer” drug. There is a long history of violent people who intoxicate themselves with various substances and carry out murderous attacks. But since cannabis was first reclassified in 2004 there have been many examples of highly misleading inferences drawn about cannabis (not existing mental health problems or alcohol) being the primary cause of violence.

For example, in the Sun article “Skunk Monster” a Huddersfield couple’s sustained attack over two weeks on their four year old daughter, culminating in her death, was tritely attributed to them “running out of skunk.” The UK Drug Policy Committee submitted a catalogue of evidence to the Leveson Inquiry about the media, “deliberately to seek to reinforce the relationship between skunk, schizophrenia, and violence, skewing the way information was presented.”

The proportion of ecstasy deaths are reported far more extensively than fatalities from other drugs so making it appear a more dangerous substance. Alasdair Forsyth carried out a study of every newspaper report of drug deaths in Scotland from 1990 to 1999 and compared them with the coroners’ data. In that period there were 2,255 drug deaths, and 546 reported. For heroin deaths, one in five was reported, for cocaine it was one in eight, but 26 out of 28 ecstasy deaths were deemed newsworthy.

Over time, these partial reports have an uncertain influence over the politicians in parliament who show no sign of wishing to concede publicly there is much wrong with the way the law on drugs stands. How causal the link between the two cannot be proved definitively nor that it amounts to what Niamh Eastwood of Release called a, “reactionary and tabloid led policy.”

What we do know for sure, is that the 58 percent of people who rely on the media for information on drugs include backbenchers and ministers too.

Jeremy Sare is parliamentary adviser to the Angelus Foundation set up to educate parents and children about the dangers of “legal highs.”