· Decision of the Complaints Committee 01030-15 Westley v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of complaint
1. Joseph Westley complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “False optimism in the drugs debate”, published on 7 March 2015.
2. The newspaper had published an opinion piece about the risks associated with smoking cannabis. In the article, the author dismissed the argument that the legal status of cannabis should be changed on the basis that most people can take the drug without it doing them any great harm. He likened the argument to suggesting that drink-driving should be made legal as most people could drive under the influence of alcohol without causing an accident. The article also said that “according to the latest research in Britain, the consumption of cannabis early in life is associated with a greatly increased risk of developing schizophrenia”, and that evidence suggests that the consumption of cannabis, especially in high quantities, is responsible for many traffic accidents.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate and significantly misleading. He said that it was misleading to compare “drunk driving” and driving under the influence of cannabis as there is a “massive discrepancy” between the recorded rates of accidents.
4. He said that there is no conclusive scientific evidence that cannabis consumption leads to schizophrenia, and that the author’s arguments had been supported with “selective information”. He also said that although the consumption of cannabis had increased over recent decades, there has not been a rise in cases of schizophrenia.
5. The complainant accepted that studies had found an increased risk of road accidents by drivers under the influence of cannabis. He said, however, that they found that many factors increased the risk of accidents, including driving with three or more passengers. A study also found that driving under the influence of alcohol increases the risk significantly more than the influence of cannabis.
6. The newspaper said that the article had not equated alcohol and cannabis use in a literal sense. The article had clearly been recognisable as a comment piece, and the writer had expressed his view that the argument that the law should be changed because most cannabis users are not harmed by its use, was as misguided as changing drink-drive legislation based upon the fact that most journeys made by drunk drivers do not involve accidents.
7. The newspaper provided details of studies which had found a significant association between schizophrenia and early-life cannabis use. It also provided studies which established a link between cannabis consumption and road traffic accidents.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
9. The author had expressed his personal view that a central argument for the decriminalisation of cannabis was unpersuasive. He had done so by comparing it to the legal position regarding driving under the influence of alcohol. The article had not made a factual claim that driving under the influence of cannabis was as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
10. The newspaper had provided scientific studies which supported the claims that the consumption of cannabis in early life is associated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia, and the consumption of cannabis, especially in high quantities, has been found to be responsible for traffic accidents. Columnists are entitled to select evidence to support their arguments so long as it is presented accurately. As the newspaper had been able to provide scientific material which supported its claims, the Committee did not find that the article had been inaccurate or significantly misleading on these points. The article was a comment piece about the debate over the decriminalisation of possession of cannabis, rather than in-depth scientific evaluation of the research regarding the effects of cannabis. In this context, the omission of further information about the studies, or reference to other studies which reached different conclusions, was not significantly misleading.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 09/03/2015
Date decision issued: 22/05/2015Back to ruling listing