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Two British Newspapers Embarrass Themselves Over Marijuana


As in the US, the UK press is all too eager to distort the findings of drug studies. Here’s how the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph messed up today.

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Stick to the pictures: today’s Daily Mail front page. Photo via

A recently published paper by Professor Wayne Hall, a World Health Organization advisor, in the journal Addiction—“What has research over the past two decades revealed about the adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use?”—has created a minor media frenzy in the UK, where tabloid hysteria is depressingly familiar. The resulting distortions will make it harder to further educate people about the real harms associated with drug use.

The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, two major newspapers that rarely hesitate to vent their moral outrage, respectively ran these headlines:

“Cannabis as addictive as heroin, major new study finds”

“Cannabis: The Terrible Truth”

The Daily Mail’s effort, in particular, carried an air of vindication, as if to say, Look, we’ve been right all along!

In the UK, as in the US, we receive regular doses of media fear mongering about how drugs will destroy us all if we don’t rid the world of them. And this time, as ever, the papers have skirted over key caveats in the study in question and twisted words to push their agenda.

Here are some of the things they got wrong:

On Addiction

The Telegraph’s claim that Professor Hall stated that cannabis is on a par with heroin when it comes to addictiveness is a pernicious manipulation of his words. The exact phrase he used to present his study was, in fact: “If cannabis is not addictive then neither is heroin or alcohol.”

This in no way equates to equal levels of harm, nor addictiveness, and at no point does the Telegraph cite a quote by Professor Hall to justify its absurd headline. By adopting the paper’s method of reasoning, you could just as easily print the headline: “Alcohol as addictive as heroin.” But that wouldn’t serve the Telegraph’s view as well, would it?

On Marijuana’s Impact on Mental Health

Both newspapers claim that Professor Hall’s study found that cannabis causes mental health problems. This is conveyed by each as indisputable, when it is anything but.

Professor Hall’s findings were, rather, that the link between cannabis and mental health problems such as psychosis and depression has been found to be unclear. Research has determined that cannabis may be a contributing factor or heighten the risk of developing a disorder. But to frame it as the clear cause of a condition is misleading, given the need to account for other confounding variables, such as family history of mental illness and socio-economic standing. Some research has managed to do this, but there is no consensus on the issue, Hall states.

On Marijuana as a “Gateway Drug”

The Daily Mail states that the study shows that “cannabis … opens the door to hard drugs.” This is, in one sense, true: Professor Hall did find from analyzing different studies that cannabis users may be more likely to use cocaine and heroin.

However, the Mail fails to note that this finding is based on the exposure of cannabis users to the drug market and/or factors completely unrelated to cannabis, such as the “risk-taking or sensation-seeking” personality of the user in question.

Thus, a pharmacological explanation of escalation in drug use is wrongly left on the table by the Mail’s failure to go into further detail, suggesting that the effect of cannabis on the user in and of itself serves as a gateway to other substances. Many experts reject this idea. As Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, has pointed out, if you frame cannabis as a gateway drug, you may as well note that almost everyone with an alcohol problem has at one point drunk milk.

On Other Harms and Media Responsibility

The Telegraph and Mail both highlight Hall’s key findings that driving after smoking cannabis increases the chance of an accident, and that it is potentially harmful to the development of a baby if a mother smokes during pregnancy. These are both vital pieces of information that need disseminating.

The problem with the coverage—primarily the Mail’s, here—is that it implies that those advocating reform of cannabis laws are pushing the issue on the basis it is a harmless substance.

No drug is without associated harms. Indeed, more needs to be done to educate people on this—yet the current drug policy paradigm is hell-bent on education through fear, in the false belief it will result in total abstinence. Elements of the media are sadly complicit in perpetuating this ridiculous (and dangerous) model, despite the fact that it is the one under which the harms they are so afraid of occur.

Demonizing drug users and manipulating research findings to sell papers serves only to avoid an open and honest debate on how to properly mitigate the harms of illegal drugs. By continuing down this sensationalist road, parts of the media remain a malicious hindrance to progress.

Edward Fox is the project coordinator for TalkingDrugs, a website operated by Release, the UK-based center of expertise on drugs and drugs law. He previously worked as an editor and journalist in Colombia, specializing in drug policy and production and US-led counter narcotics efforts in the region.

A slightly different version of this article will be published tomorrow on TalkingDrugs.