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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 6th April 2013

There’s an expression that is not as well-known as you might expect it to be. I say that because you would think that everyone would be aware that ‘If something seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is’. The number of telephone calls I receive from a variety of conmen and shysters seeking to part me from my money, however, implies that there are enough people unaware of this principle to enable these ‘charlatans and mountebacks’ to operate profitably.

I also believe something which is possibly the complement of that expression rather that its opposite. That is ‘If something looks too bad to be true, it most probably isn’t’. I’m not sure when I first realised this but I remember that it became central to how I read news when some charity announced that a majority of adults reported that they had suffered abuse as children. I can’t recall, or find, the actual percentage but it was well above 50% and immediately made me incredulous. Sure enough, a little digging determined that ‘abuse’ had been defined to include verbal chastisement as well of all other forms of sanction applied to misbehaviour.

I had that same immediately incredulous reaction when I saw this headline in the Telegraph;

Cannabis use soared by a quarter after Class C downgrade’

I won’t get diverted by another consideration of all the flaws in the way drug use is surveyed in the UK because I don’t think those flaws are so great that their findings, that cannabis use declined after the downgrading (though I’m not claiming the decline was ‘because’ of the change in classification), could be so wrong as to have missed a huge increase in prevalence.

The huge disconnect between what I thought I knew and what this headline stated as fact led me to spend a good part of yesterday tracking down more detail. With any story of this type, the first thing I do is to see how widespread it is. The only other coverage I found was this headline from the Mail Online;

‘The price of going soft on cannabis: Labour's experiment 'pushed up hard drug use and crime”

Drug use, society going soft and it all being the fault of the last Labour government, of course, creates the perfect win treble for the Telegraph and the Mail so their coverage is understandable. That no other coverage appeared suggested that things might not be as presented.

The Telegraph reported only on one piece of work by Nils Braakmann and Simon Jones from Newcastle University’s business school (NuBiz). This concerned the prevalence of cannabis use during the period that it was classified as Class C. The Mail also reported on a separate study by Elaine Kelly and Imran Rasul of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that looked at drug-related hospital admissions during what is known as the Lambeth Cannabis Warning Scheme (LCWS) that operated in 2001-2 in that London borough.

A little digging, and help from Twitter, soon found that both items had been presented at the Royal Economic Society (RES) Annual Conference on 5th April 2013. The two were presented in different sessions running simultaneously. The Braakmann and Jones work was included in ‘Law & Economics’3 while the IFS work was in ‘Public Economics: Health’4. I mention this because it suggests that the reporting arose from some form of press release rather than attendance.

The IFS paper is available online5 but the NuBiz presentation is of work in progress that has not, yet, been reviewed and published. I emailed Dr Braakmann for more information and I was, clearly, not the only one because, although I got an autoreply saying he was away I soon received an email from the NuBiz communications department pointing to a statement issued by Dr. Braakmann about the reports.6

The statement explains that the work is preliminary and makes clear that the headlined 25% increase in use is not an absolute increase across the board. It calls the reporting ‘misleading’.

Thinking I wasn’t going to hear from Dr. Braakmann, I also contacted the RES conference organisers and they very quickly and very kindly emailed the draft paper on which the conference presentation had been based.

I’m not going to look at that in detail. It wouldn’t be fair since the work is still provisional and, since the paper is not available online you can’t see if my comments are reasonable. In any case, I’m not a statistician, so I’m struggling to interpret the way the results are presented.

I do though want to touch on two things.

The draft says;

‘Consumption for individuals without prior cannabis experience increases by 25%’

I genuinely have no idea what that means. A non-user surely cannot increase their use by a percentage. They can only go from non-user to user. I’d really be grateful if someone could explain what that means. But certainly taking a figure whose meaning is not clear other than that it applies to a part of a population and headlining it as though it applies universally is not news reporting. It is propagandising.

The other thing is that the draft says;

‘The decision was later reversed and Cannabis was reclassified as a class B drug in January 2009. However, due to a lack of data this later reclassification plays no role in this paper.’

I think that is a pity. Much more was going on in the world of psychoactive substances, and in society in general, that just the reclassification of cannabis. Surely, the way to determine if the downgrade had any impact on usage patterns would be to look and see if those impacts reversed when the plant was returned to Class B.

I’ve written this blog to show how difficult it is for me, an interested amateur, to get to the truth underlying a newspaper headline. Most people won’t even try to do what I’ve done and will accept the headlines at face value.

When, as will inevitably happen, a Gyngell or Sabet or Hitchens or Brett, at some future date, trots out the ‘statistic’ that lower penalties produce higher consumption, I want to be able to point to this piece to prove that this claim, at least, is wrong. 

UPDATE 8th April 2013

See the changes made to references 1 & 2, below.

Further comment on this story has come from Prof. Alex Stevens7 and Ewan Hoyle8.


1.    Cannabis use soared by a quarter after Class C downgrade  The Telegraph 5th April 2013 (UPDATE 8th April. The Telegraph has removed this page from its website.)
2.    The price of going soft on cannabis: Labour's experiment 'pushed up hard drug use and crime' Mail Online 5th April 2013 (UPDATE 8th April 2013. Mail Online seems to have made changes to this article without acknowledging them.)
3.    Cannabis Consumption, Crime And Victimization: Evidence From The 2004 Cannabis Declassification In The UK Royal Economic Society April 2013
4.    Policing Cannabis And Drug Related Hospital Admissions: Evidence From Administrative Records Royal Economic Society April 2013
5.    Policing Cannabis And Drug Related Hospital Admissions: Evidence From Administrative Records University College London October 2012
6.    Response to media coverage of early-stage research into cannabis use Newcastle University Business School 5th April 2013
7.    Criminologist refutes cannabis-related crime increase claims. University of Kent 8th April 2013
8.     Comment: The sloppy journalism which misrepresents cannabis use 8th April 2013

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