As this article covers how not to write about a subject, it is always helpful to have a contrast to compare with. The first linked article appears to have been carefully researched and cites true experiences and facts relevant to the fast developing research into cannabinoids and cannabidiol that expands daily. It also references actual statistics from Colorado describing a lessening in deaths from other substances since the legalisation of cannabinoids denoting further positive indicators that those in the cannabinoid community have been crying out for.
Not as is portrayed in the media by drug addled fools giggling incoherently (that’s alcohol users BTW) but by people desperately trying to raise awareness that it is incongruous in the extreme to restrict research into the benefits of any drug, especially if there is a chance it can better the lives of many and even save the lives of many more.
On to the commentary itself then.. In a career where I have regularly been used to shoot down the claims of liars, buffoons and the incompetent, it rarely brings me pleasure to do so. In most cases, I would work with such people to bring a different perspective to their approach in the hope of understanding leading to altered perceptions. I would even defend many to those who had claimed the person intractable or difficult. In some cases however, the person or people deserve to have their nose rubbed in the mess they have imposed on others by the lack of accuracy and effort put into creating their work. In my experience there is generally a direct correlation between these type of people and those who shout about how great their own work is. Some people just don’t care to learn.
I am not a journalist nor do I claim speciality in any field beyond that which I work in. I do however read a lot, drawing from medical research papers and studies, news reports from many organisations, my own experience working with dozens of corporate and government organisations and by reading many volumes on military, cultural and linguistic history, besides what I read and watch recreationally. I thus often find myself questioning what actual research and validation a supposedly respected journalism organisation has undertaken of their own employees, when reading articles that seem to say nothing that hasn’t already been said. It is even worse if these articles expand upon common misconceptions thus spreading further confusion and disinformation.
Journalism has become a far less respected profession in the modern world. Remarkable really. One would have hoped that, with the dawning of global connectivity and faster dissemination of information, journalists would be able to produce articles of a far higher quality and accuracy, spreading knowledge and understanding to a broadening section of the human race. Shame it seems to be harder and harder to find a consistently trustworthy source that puts quality of articles above quantity.
So now I find myself beginning a long-awaited path into medical science for many reasons. I realise one of the reasons for this is to help destroy the mountains of disinformation that liars, buffoons and the incompetent continue to perpetrate to the detriment of general human health. In starting this journey, I immediately noted the standard expectation for the preparation of a piece of work, particularly in citing sources for information and validation of such information. How is it then with the expectation that most ‘professionals’ are expected to have studied at least a degree in some subject, there is such poor referencing submitted in most ‘news’ articles? My excuse is that I’m first and foremost lazy and secondly that I hadn’t undertaken any formal education beyond that expected in secondary school until recently. What is theirs?
As a good starting point in my attempts to observe referencing of information, I thought a recent article by a BBC Health Editor, Michelle Roberts (https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelle-roberts-927ba310), deserved greater scrutiny to demonstrate how even respected media institutions are following the premise “Publish something, anything at all, so I can justify my position as a … Editor”. It is easy to sit surfing the web, echoing official views as gospel without undertaking any proper research to provide provenance to one’s claims (or even, dare I say it, a balanced view).
To be fair, the BBC website is becoming filled with such articles that detract from what is traditionally classified as ‘news’ so it isn’t really entirely fair to single out just one. To be entirely fair, the BBC is one of the few organisations I have worked at where I was truly in awe at the professionalism and talents of some staff, alongside advanced technology and social awareness (For the mid-90s) present in the organisation. So it irks more to see such professionalism now associated with such sloppiness. I had wondered at the time with the closing down of all the old, quirky offices and the move to the shiny new open plan, soulless, White City site, it might kill off something of the spirit of the BBC. It does feel that way on reading articles such as this.
In this world direly in need of accurate and responsible reporting, ‘News’ needs to be most accurately defined. Separating out Entertainment ‘News’ from events of significance would be a great start. The Oscars have little significance in terms of global news yet the event is prioritised and given top billing alongside stories about child abuse, assassination and political intrigue. This muddying of what is important is exactly where most news organisations are failing to properly serve the public. Stories about pointless media celebrities who are famed for leaked photos of their private parts may qualify as important news for some, yet by associating such stories with the blanket term of ‘news’ it creates a cultural belief that poorly educated and opinionated people are capable of deciding the fate of the world, alongside allowing important and significant news items to be marginalised and ignored.
Even as an addicted user and self-proclaimed ‘functioning herbaholic’ I do not promote the use or advertisement of any so called ‘recreational drugs’ as I would hope that the factors driving people towards an escape from their lives, managing a condition or the effects of experiences, should reduce as humanity progresses. Most people living busy, comfortable and happy lives will never encounter nor seek to try such things.
In practice though, the causes and sometimes just the predilections of certain people will mean that recreational use of drugs will continue for the foreseeable future. As long delayed research into the benefits of cannabinoids accelerates, we are also now seeing the factual and indisputable benefits of their use in many areas of medicine. I can attest from my own addiction that the presence of negative aspects from abusing cannabinoids is no different from other addictive drugs. The impacts on one’s life may be lesser and easier to mask and hide than with many other drugs but they are there all the same and need the guidance of professional medical practitioners to control them. The move towards legalisation can only be good as it will allow people to honestly discuss their use with doctors rather than often confusing a medical diagnosis by not disclosing important diagnostic information, purely for legal reasons.
Finally, some people can do something that makes them feel good at an appropriate recreational time and do not do it at other times. Works for alcohol, as we are all told by even our Health Secretary that anyone responsible can responsibly enjoy alcohol. How does that differ from responsible people responsibly enjoying cannabinoids or other drugs? Probably the demonising of the ill-defined term ‘drugs’ created this concept that a drug taker has no moral fibre, acts entirely irresponsibly and is a danger to society. Then again, those holding such perspectives completely ignore the regular carnage perpetrated at drinking establishments.
On to the article then. May help to compare side-by-side to get the full context as only key sections are quoted below.
Unfounded claim 1
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform says “tens of thousands of people in the UK already break the law to use the drug for symptom relief”
No source quoted nor validated. Same goes for estimates of users who exist in all walks of life. How many people will tell a stranger taking a ‘survey’ they indulge in illegal activities? My own first sight of marijuana was watching the son of a high court judge throw a bag of weed he’d sold to our English tutor in class, whilst telling the story of how his father kept finding his stash and explaining how much trouble he’d be in if his son were known to be a dealer. Hardly evil drug lords selling on the streets of London to kids is it?
Unfounded claim 2
“The NHS warns that cannabis use carries a number of risks, such as impairing the ability to drive, as well as causing harm to lungs if smoked and harm to mental health, fertility or unborn babies.”
Blunderbuss fear reporting – fire a half dozen unlinked claims in one sentence and hope people don’t read carefully.
Based on the NHS page linked in the article and above, ‘Cannabis: the facts’, the depth of understanding demonstrated therein would seem to reflect the dilettante approach to journalism evinced by the likes of the BBC Health team. Given there are currently around 368 research projects underway relating to cannabinoids in the UK alone and that the official NHS source of ‘factual’ information was last updated on 30/10/2014, it doesn’t take a genius to understand how flawed any data on that page could be. Topical enough for Michelle though.
The proof of research into driving impairment references a French test that states it is twice as likely to cause a FATAL car crash. Not just a car crash – only FATAL ones? Interestingly specific interpretation of something that sounds scary, obviously cannot be proven and thus if it stinks of merde de vache, it probably is.. If, as it is agreed, this drug is in use by tens of thousands of people medically, should the UK not undertake tests of recreational, medical, regular and heavy users to understand, if nothing else, the capability of such people to operate a vehicle and thus if there is any ‘safe’ or acceptable level? This alongside a timescale for the effects to be deemed an impact to one’s capacity to drive? It would also provide valuable information in relation to detecting potential offenders if driving behaviours differ based on the substance in use. Police may stop someone who appears to be driving under the influence of alcohol, it is very unlikely this would occur with users of cannabinoids.
Quoting the following from the APPG report that was linked by Michelle actually directly contradicts the findings of the unreferenced French testing “Traffic safety: The issue of marijuana consumption and road safety has received considerable scrutiny, particularly in the last decade. The preponderance of evidence indicates that the risks of further reforming marijuana laws are quite low. The largest review of the scientific data by far—a 2012 meta-analysis of 66 studies of drug-positive drivers and crash risk—found marijuana-positive drivers’ risk among the lowest of any drugs; the risk was statistically comparable to that associated with penicillin, antihistamines and antidepressants.” (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0c_8hkDJu0DRnBfdGRDRXBROUU/view);
Comparable to those on common medications that people are not generally disqualified from driving whilst using. Hmm.
Smoking cannabis is harmful to lungs. Well, once again this cannot be quantified any more than tobacco as the cause of specific lung cancers when no research is undertaken to map cases of lung cancer to areas of high industrial and vehicular pollution. But it is nice and easy to make this claim as it cannot be separated sufficiently to be disproved or to highlight the true relevance in making healthy choices for our lives. To be completely fair though, common sense would dictate that inhaling any smoke is not likely to be a good long term plan for lung health. So let’s give this half marks as the likely true statement mixed in to add credence.
Mental health effects. Nice and easy again to link something that cannot be quantified even by respected professionals in a field, let alone journalistic dabblers. Yet no mention is made of myriad factors that can cause the mental health issues being linked here to cannabinoid use or the common sense and accepted fact that people with pre-existing or underlying conditions should not ingest any psychoactive recreational drugs at all (including alcohol).
Fertility or birth defects. Once again sadly adding in a set of unreferenced data that fits the same as with the lung claims, as no clear separation between the various causal or incidental factors exists.
On the fertility side, I’d guess also the four children I fathered over the course of 12 years having now used cannabinoids daily for around 30 years, is probably just good fortune. Regardless of my statistically irrelevant case, it would be more helpful to explore the fertility and birth defect question in more depth than a headline. Fertility problems in men or women? Birth defect statistics per 100,000 cases? If a cause of birth defects at the least, that must imply an infant mortality rate statistic is also available based on parent(s) using the drug? Come on Michelle, earn your salary..
Unfounded claim 3
Empty ‘facts’ reported from the same All Party Parliamentary Group who claim ‘tens of thousands of people use the drug for symptom relief’, without any proof of this or the following claims.
“Medicinal cannabis use
- 37 average age of patient
- 67% try conventional medicines first
- 37% don’t tell their doctor
- 72% buy street cannabis
- 20% grow their own
Source: APPG/UPA survey”
No detail provided of the actual survey or number of people surveyed. Most current surveys are also based on such small numbers of participants (due directly again to the suppression of research) that for statistical analysis purposes they are almost entirely worthless.
Unfounded claim 4
“..It found short-term side-effects of cannabis were generally mild and well tolerated, but that there was a link with schizophrenia in some long-term users.”
“There is probably a link in those who start using cannabis at an early age and also if the individual has a genetic predisposition to psychosis. There should be caution with regard to prescription of cannabis for such individuals,” says the report.”
- “a LINK with schizophrenia in SOME long-term users”
- “PROBABLY a link in those who start using cannabis at an early age”
- “genetic predisposition to psychosis”
As you can see based on the capitalised text, only one of these is quantifiably true (i.e. if you are already likely to suffer with a mental illness) but guilt by association allows ‘journalists’ to distort facts to continue framing a negative effect even in something that is building up volumes of proof to the contrary.
If somebody is predisposed to suffer a psychotic episode in their life, thousands of things can trigger this. Environmental, emotional, chemical impacts amongst them. Why are cannabinoids singled out? Because it makes better copy doesn’t it? There are a raft of drugs that would be deemed unsuitable based on the specific condition of any given patient. “The prescription of cannabis would need to be subject to the same controls as any prescription drug used for medical purposes.” would be a more accurate statement.
How also does this work then for the cases where cannabinoids are deemed likely to benefit those with particular mental health conditions? Sorry Michelle, it doesn’t just fit a single, standard answer. Medical work is like that, you should try it.
Unfounded claim 5
“Dependency rate of 9%”
How has this been calculated? It took from the publication of La Guardia Report in 1944 until 2006 for the first published medical study to state there are a specific set of conditions denoting cannabinoid addiction and that they fit within similar frameworks as many other drug addictions. That a long term user could list each and every one of the effects on an addict and that they are held as common knowledge in the cannabinoid community, denotes once again the unique aspect of cannabinoids in that the general public has long known more about the effects of this substance than the medical community. Why did it take 62 years to categorically prove something a regular user could have told you in moments?
There is barely any point in expanding on the dubious claim above, unless one is actually arguing for the legalisation of cannabis! This contextually weak claim, does not include the comparisons from the original document. It actually states; “We found there is a small dependency rate with cannabis at around 9%, which needs to be taken seriously but compares to a rate of around 32% for dependency in tobacco use and 15% dependency with regard to alcohol.” So, adverts could claim, “6% less dangerous than alcohol and 23% less dangerous than tobacco”…
Unfounded claim 6
“The evidence for cognitive impairment in long-term users is not clear”
One could state, “The likelihood of long-term users growing an extra arm from their heads is not understood at present” and be just as headline grabbing. Framing facts accurately would paint a clearer picture, such as stating that it is impossible to be clear on any long-term effects for users as research has not been undertaken for long enough to provide data to draw conclusions from.
All properly researched medical papers that are written by doctors and researchers who actually work in the field of medicine (rather than say someone who spent five years qualifying as a doctor and moved straight into ‘journalism’ and whose Linkedin profile contains NO recommendations in relation to medical competency) quantify uncertainty as best they can in aiming for the highest levels of accuracy. I would ask specialists working in the field of Neuroscience to qualify if the evidence for cognitive impairment resultant from medicines used to treat various brain diseases is clear? If it is not clear for approved medications, then what relevance has this beyond adding another line to an article?
Again, having worked at the BBC, I would suggest Michelle looks around a bit and wonders how many colleagues have suffered so little cognitively that she has not ever known they regularly use cannabinoids or other substances? (The saying “You don’t have to be an alcoholic to work at the BBC but it helps.” may not be as relevant today. Maybe that’s what’s wrong!)
Unfounded claim 7
“A Home Office spokesman said: “There is a substantial body of scientific and medical evidence to show that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health.””
‘A Home Office spokesman said’ Well that is far better than ‘Heard it off some bloke in the pub’. Far more specific and traceable so it must be true?
No there isn’t. Simple. We don’t need a new term such as ‘fake news’ to describe what is simply a lie. This statement is no different to a politician having previously said “There is no link between tobacco use and ill health” until enough evidence piled up to prove them to be entirely erroneous, let alone working for the tobacco industry. There are withdrawal effects and there are specific effects which are not solely due to the use of cannabinoids or relate to their method of absorption but one would have to explain more, rather than cut and paste, to get that across.
Think about it this way, no politician currently makes money from cannabinoids so there is little benefit to legalisation for them. Might take a little longer before the enough income reports arrive from US States that have legalised before our politicians see enough of a nice little earner to support it.
It would therefore seem that out of the entire article, the only words that have any worth were those directly quoted from Professor Michael Barnes which pretty much underlines the invalidity of what is being claimed elsewhere in Michelle’s article. (Link to sources: http://www.drugpolicyreform.net/ or https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0c_8hkDJu0DUDZMUzhoY1RqMG8/view)
Note even there that Michelle has written her article to denote Professor Barnes’ findings differently to his actual words. She does not separate the disorders that have limited or no evidence for and states CATEGORICALLY, there was “limited or no evidence” for all, where Professor Barnes more accurately states “We have found some limited evidence of efficacy, but further studies are required, in;” relating to conditions there is limited evidence for and where Michelle states there is “no evidence”, he states, “We have found that there is a theoretical basis, but so far no convincing evidence of efficacy;” ‘No convincing evidence’ is far from ‘no evidence’ when we are discussing human lives.
Loses something in translation by a lay person doesn’t it?
The self-defeating arguments in Michelle’s article also start to increase the more one reads Professor Barnes statements. If cannabinoids can help with Anxiety, sleep disorders, PTSD and Parkinsons, how is it that it is deemed a danger to mental health by an unspecified, unqualified Home Office spokesperson and echoed by a journalist who did a medical degree 16 years ago?
If you’re going to write an article, at least learn how to précis a document accurately.
“It is important that medicines are thoroughly trialled to ensure they meet rigorous standards before being placed on the market.”
How is it then that other countries have allowed medicinal use to be approved? Could it be that (possibly in a previously known fact?) it is growing harder and harder to prove that cannabinoids DON’T work? Is there therefore a reason governments, who have undertaken a thorough risk assessment for not legalising, wish to quickly make it legal so everyone is too busy working on the future to notice the massive slap in the face humanity has suffered?
It is said, to find the answer follow the money, well here’s a money question that governments are praying is not put to a competent class action lawyer.
It is becoming apparent that Marijuana is clearly far better for humans than governments have claimed for many years. Fundamental to this is the subject of legal liability for withholding access to a substance that could have saved countless lives in the past hundred years, yet has been subject to controls that did not exist for any other substance. Cocaine and Heroin have been available to doctors to test and research with, yet not marijuana. The impact of the side effects of any drug prescribed where cannabinoids could have otherwise been prescribed can therefore be used as the negative impact on hundreds of millions of lives in justifying costs sought from health organisations and pharmaceutical companies.
Consider how this is pretty much the opposite argument to tobacco support from governments historically. Tobacco was making a lot of money and was the favoured career path of ex-UK Prime Ministers and MPs after their time in parliament. Pressure from the (unpaid by tobacco) medical community reached a point that liability would begin to play a part. Suddenly many governments’ public positions changed (of course out of sight, the likes of Margaret Thatcher still got to sit on the board at BAT during ‘retirement’) and tobacco users went from promoted (from Grand Prix to Snooker) to vilified (second hand smoke from evil smokers killing rather than general pollution) and their addictions and exposure to unnecessary extra toxins that continue to be added to tobacco, ignored.
Cannabis research is now leading towards proving something that has been illogically withheld from any use with thin justification for decades, could actually help millions of lives become better. Governments and pharmaceutical companies are directly complicit in this act and so… abooooooooouuuuuut turn, quick march, hope nobody notices while we try to create a brand that encompasses ownership of all plant life on Earth so only ‘official Monsanto TM’ plants may be grown in future..
Were cannabinoids shown to be beneficial in treatment of terminal diseases and governments were shown to have been restricting access to research and testing of this substance, how much would they be liable for to relatives and current sufferers who cannabinoid treatments are too late for? Quite a lot?
Take it one step further and how many pharmaceutical companies could be held liable for providing a drug that negatively affected people’s health by treating symptoms of ‘incurable’ diseases and which contributed to the deterioration in health of those being given no choice but to take the only government approved medicines for their condition?
Hey, let’s do it properly and prosecute anyone who reported false propaganda relating to cannabinoids… Michelle …
Perhaps, to hold out a minuscule olive branch to BBC Health employees, you could write an article covering how much money would be saved by the NHS overall, were people not scared to tell their doctors about any illegal substances they use? The fact is that many diagnoses could be improved were doctors to be given a true picture of people’s recreational drug use beyond alcohol and tobacco. In practice, most do not. Let’s face it, most lie about alcohol or tobacco consumption levels and they are legal. That’s not even bringing to bear the rising data from the US covering the reduction in Opiate related deaths following the legalisation of cannabis.
Legalise cannabis to save lives and reduce healthcare loads and costs that will help rescue the NHS? Now that’s news worth reading about.