Friday, November 13, 2009

ABC Radio reverts to ill-informed sensationalism

ABC Radio's World Today current affairs program departed from its usual high standard yesterday to run a tabloid-style piece blaming most of the problems of remote Aboriginal communities on cannabis use.

The piece is based on a 'study' by Alan Clough from James Cook University. Readers of this blog, or anyone abreast of the current evidence, will recognise the ludicrous basis of the piece from the following:
Cannabis use is now so extensive that psychotic episodes are becoming common place.
Really? This evidence-free assertion, if true, would turn the world of drug research on its head. Mr Clough is not a drug researcher, however, but works at the University's School of Indigenous Studies. It seems he has simply co-opted a few prohibitionist myths and worked them into his otherwise sensible research and scored a national headline.

No authoritative evidence review has yet been able to establish causality between cannabis and psychosis -- only "links" or "correlations" as used in this story. Even then, the numbers affected are so low -- a fraction of one per cent of cannabis users -- that the academic and media focus on this "link", compared to innumerable activities with far higher risk, is ludicrous. This type of issue is why six members of the UK's drugs advisory panel have now resigned -- because political panic merchants have ignored their considered advice about the relatively minimal dangers of cannabis.

That the article treats petrol-sniffing and cannabis use as roughly equivalent is also deeply ignorant and ignores any objective assessment of toxicity. It's similar to comparing rat poison with beer.

There is wealth of reliable evidence easily available online to support my statements. I blog hundreds of such links -- start with this or this; or this from the authors of the new, very well researched Marijuana is Safer book.

Mr Clough's attempt to link cannabis with violence is almost laughable, especially as it assumes withdrawal symptoms from "addiction" which is remarkable for something that is not physically addictive. Even the suicide rate and child sexual abuse were 'clearly linked' with cannabis use.

The piece is a political beat-up, the more so because it ignores the role of prohibition, firstly because it creates the very illicit market the story laments, and secondly because it makes cannabis easily available to minors in a totally unregulated market.

Worse, the story quotes Johnathon Nicholls of Wesley Uniting Care who blames a lack of policing, implying that more policing would somehow stop  cannabis use. Messrs Nicholls and Clough should come to Kings Cross where platoons of police with sniffer dogs make no difference at all.  Clough claims 70 per cent of remote Aborigines are using cannabis -- so what is he proposing? Arresting half the population? What could possibly go wrong?

Any 13-year-old smoking cannabis must be already suffering a deeper set of social and parental disadvantages. Cannabis use is only a symptom of these, not the cause as implied by this misleading story. These disadvantages existed long before cannabis was so popular, as Mr Clough must know.

This research could just as easily have linked chronic unemployment with problems among remote Indigenous people -- but drugs are a much better headline-maker.

The story is arguably racist as well, reading more like a 19th-century colonial report about the Pygmies than balanced discourse.

Shame on The World Today -- it's a stain on your usually excellent standard of journalism. Do a bit of basic research, please, before broadcasting such sensationalist tripe again. At least get a balancing view (Journalism 101). Same goes for Mr Clough.

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