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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 29th September 2012

I had decided not to write, for a third time, about Channel 4’s ‘Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial’ but something I read, yesterday, seemed to be so relevant that I thought I would offer some views on different parts of the programmes.

Like a lot of people, I wasn’t impressed with the format because it meant the programme wasted the resources it had to hand. On both nights, the audience was made up of people deeply involved in drugs policy, from all sides, yet, rather than invite contributions from these people who would have had something interesting to say, quite a bit of time was spent hearing ‘what Twitter has to say’.

On the few occasions when someone in the audience was consulted they were cut off before they could make their point. In one case, the identity and bona fides of the audience member was established only for Dr Christian Jessen to be forced to hand back to Jon Snow before anything was said.

I find that I am in agreement with Kathy Gyngell on this point but with one important exception. I’m concerned that we didn’t hear from people who had been invited because of their involvement, regardless of their position. Kathy is only concerned that;

‘Child development expert, Professor Derek Moore, Julia Manning, chief exec of the 2020 Health think tank and David Raynes, drugs prevention campaigner and expert on drug trafficking including precursor chemicals, did not even get a look in.’

She uses that to infer that the programme only heard from proponents of ecstasy use. Just another example of the cherry-picking so often seen.

In spite of my concern about the format, I still think the intention was worthwhile because, as I said the other day, the advantage is that ‘this trial can be presented direct to the public and without its results being perverted by journalistic prejudice’.

There have been plenty of examples of that prejudice. As you would expect Kathy Gyngell had something to say but, being Kathy Gyngell and, therefore, incapable of presenting an argument without resorting to abuse, her views seem to come down to ‘there is no merit in these programmes because Prof. David Nutt is fat’.

There was, however, another piece in the Mail Online that is worth some consideration. Not for what it has to say but for one of the most blatant examples of cherry-picking you will find. On Thursday 27th September I said;

This article by the BBC’s Mark Easton gives a clear identification of the way Prof. Parrott cherry picks his data to support his point.’

So I thought I would look at how cherry-picking is used to distort an argument.

The Mail Online’s piece is entitled ‘Fury at Channel 4's Drugs Live as viewers brand it little more than an advert for ecstasy that encourages 'a dangerous air of acceptability to taking the drug'.’ That sets up what the article intends to do i.e. show that the programme encouraged ecstasy use. To make that point, the reporters turned to Twitter. They quoted three Tweets. The first two set up the notion that the programme was an encouragement to ecstasy use;

‘Watching Drugs Live. Teenager watching too.... It’s a great advert for E – not what I was hoping for’


‘Think everyone is going to be on MDMA at the weekend after this great commercial on Channel 4 Drugs Live.’

The third offered proof of that;

‘Drugs live has made me want to do drugs for the first time in years.’

Case proven.

Except; I had the Twitter feed for the hashtag #DrugsLive open during the programme on Wednesday. Tweets were appearing in blocks of 40 or 50 every minute and during the hour of transmission there must have been thousands of tweets. Even the few I managed to read showed a full range of opinions from welcoming the information to abhorring the glamorisation. Selecting just three and claiming they are representative of ‘viewers’ in general is simply silly.

I want to mention two other things that struck me during the second programme. The female vicar, who featured on the first programme, returned to talk about having PTSD after being assaulted and said that, during the trial, she had been able to examine the experience without any difficulty. Furthermore, a week after the trial she could still think about what had happened to her without becoming upset. This demonstration that ecstasy could be used to cure PTSD with a single dose was immediately leapt on by David Nutt who said ‘Anecdote is not evidence, of course’.

When Keith Allen talked about the fact that he experienced none of the euphoria he associates with taking ecstasy, Prof. Andy Parrott immediately leapt in to say that this was proof that ecstasy produces tolerance and that is dangerous. No, Prof. Parrott; ‘Anecdote is not evidence, of course’ and shame on you for pretending that you don’t know that to be the case.

The final point I found interesting is that David Nutt and Val Curran used ‘seems to’ and ‘appears to’ and other similar terms of indecision when talking about what the trials had shown. Prof. Parrott used ‘does’ when talking about the effects of ecstasy.

It was this point that struck me, yesterday. I’m currently reading ‘Drugs, Crime and Public Health: The Political Economy of Drug Policy’ by Alex Stevens and I reached the part where Prof, Stevens writes about the time he spent seconded to the civil service. He details the way in which every attempt he made to include caveats in reports was rebuffed and notes that the culture was to present information in simple graphs leading the reader to a clear and undeniable conclusion about what the data showed. That conclusion has to be that current policy is working or that a proposed change WILL work.

It made me wonder if there is an ingrained cultural problem with progressing sensible drug policy. There’s almost a nominative determinism to this. The Nutts talk in ‘maybes’ and ‘possiblys’ and stress the unknowns that might impact on policy. The Parrotts talk in certainties, often repeating back to the policy makers what they want to hear.

When the ACMD’s 2008 report on whether Cannabis sativa, marijuana, should be reclassified concluded that ‘On balance…the majority of the Council advises that cannabis and the cannabinols remain in Class C’ that was the voice of the Nutts and was no match for the Parrotts telling government that cannabis WAS more of a problem than it had been when the classification was reduced and that the Class C reclassification DID encourage more young people to use the drug.

I strongly suspect that, if the ACMD’s forthcoming report on Catha edulis, khat, contains the words ‘on balance’, or a similar concept, the government will go with the Parrotts and classify the plant. 


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