When Will The Media Take Drug Deaths Seriously?

by Jack Ramage


Media reporting has time and again failed to provide correct information about the circumstances of drug deaths, evidencing the stigma and disdain with which those who take drugs are treated.

Last week, news outlets reported the story of a 23-year-old who tragically died shortly after consuming edibles laced with synthetic cannabinoids. On March 29, she bought the “gummies” with her 21-year-old friend via a messaging app on her phone and they were delivered to her home in Ilford. 

The Met has since filed a warning over sweets said to contain synthetic cannabis, linking the case to another incident in March where a woman was taken to hospital after eating cannabis sweets in Tower Hamlets. 

In wake of the breaking news, many mainstream media outlets showed total inadequacy in their reporting: omitting the importance of education and regulation of the market; initially labelling the product as cannabis; not consulting experts to explain what the product actually was, as well as not differentiating cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids.

Nick Hickmott – early Intervention Lead at We Are With You, a harm-reduction charity – argues that this is not isolated but another instance in a “long history of the media using the topic of drugs for clickbait headlines to get hits on a website.” He goes on to criticise the current mainstream media model, arguing their goal is to “get the story out first” without thorough fact-checking. 

With, 12 years of experience working in the sector, primarily supporting young people and their experience with drugs, he highlights the importance of “the media to take their time” in reporting stories like this. “It’s better to not release the story first [with inaccuracies] and, instead, release the story a little bit later and have it right. Journalists need to call experts for comment – there’s more than enough experts out there that can give a balanced, evidence-based view on a story like this.”

This is an occurring theme in the mainstream press. Most recently, The Times and many other mainstream outlets misreported a story regarding the planned proposal for full-flower medicinal cannabis trials in the UK – giving many patients false hopes and information about the prospect of medical legalisation. It’s a problem rooted in deep and systemic inadequacy: not only are journalists and editors routinely making these mistakes – they’re allowed to get away with it.

Hickmott highlights how there is little to no consequence if misreporting has occurred, despite having potentially devastating consequences for the public and the narrative surrounding drugs. “There needs to be some sort of consequence. I’m not sure what that should be, to be honest, but it doesn’t seem right that they can just print whatever they want about something as serious as this without any formal consequence.”

Perpetuating a narrative that demonizes drug users

Not only is this misreporting giving the public incorrect information but it’s also perpetuating a narrative that “demonizes drugs and the people that use them. We need to look at toxicology because we know [a circumstance like this] is extremely rare without any pre-existing, underlying mental or physical health conditions.” Hickmott suggests. “It is certainly not something I’ve seen [on the black market] over years I’ve spent keeping an eye on harm reduction across Europe.”

Niko Vorobyov, former drug dealer and author of ‘Dopeworld: Adventures in Drug Lands’, notes that these edibles are “still something of a rarity” as “most of your casual recreational chemistry enthusiasts haven’t heard of it and spice is lesser used compared to weed. That said, if it’s possible – humans are going to do it.”

Although potentially isolated, data indicates that the issue is growing in stature. The latest available data from the Office for National Statistics, reported by the BBC, show that between 2018 and 2020, 169 deaths were recorded where the cause of death was related to “poisoning” from synthetic cannabinoids. That’s compared to 60 deaths in the three years before that. 

However, the difficulty lies in the fact it’s impossible to truly know how common synthetic-cannabis laced edibles are. “Due to the nature of the black market you never know what you’re going to get,” notes André Gomes, editor of Talking Drugs at Release – a national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law. 

He draws attention to how, since the Psychoactive Substances Act was put in place in 2016 – making it an offence to produce, supply, import or export psychoactive substances – there has been a rise in drug-related harms associated with synthetic cannabinoids.

Instead of determining the prevalence of such substances on the street, Gomes suggests the media should focus their energy on highlighting the importance of clearly portraying what the synthetic cannabinoid gummy contains. “It’s a hugely important distinction – you’re talking about two different classes of drugs which differ in the way they act on your body biochemically.”

“It’s important to understand why these people are now consuming these drugs in the first place,” Gomes adds, noting how Brits have been consuming cannabis for years without having deaths. “So why is there suddenly one death that happens from the consumption of one edible?”

“Asking these questions will lead you to understand that it was an adulterated supply: this person thought they were purchasing something and ended up getting something else. Not knowing what [the gummy contained] is what caused the harm in the first place.”

Harm reduction and education is an important part of the puzzle

Vorobyov adds that the nuances of drug use, and the education surrounding it, have been missed behind the ‘drugs are bad banner’ and conflicting messages from the media. “We’ve got these two extremes where the British government and half the British press, especially the Daily Mail, is hooked on ‘reefer madness’, while certain others think drugs are just a bit of harmless, maybe even enlightening, fun.”

“All drugs can be fun – why else would anyone do them – and dangerous at the same time, depending on dose, setting and what steps you take to keep safe. We already do that with alcohol, for example – we don’t down moonshine then go for a drive like we’re in 1930s America.”

Regardless, it is undeniable that a failed education system played part in preventing this tragic story. As put by Hickmott, “this was a 21-year-old who, presumably was in education or had just left education. So to not have had that kind of basic hard reduction education around staying safe, and some of the pitfalls of taking even a smaller dose is a warning sign.”

Indeed, education can make a tangible difference – but it’s not the be-all, end-all solution. Although it can be useful in understanding the warning signs to look out for, Gomes doesn’t believe this circumstance was caused solely “due to a lack of education.”

“You may be the most clued up person on cannabis, but if you are consuming something that has been sold to you as cannabis and you have an adverse reaction to it, you wouldn’t understand why [it’s happening] in the first place.” Adequate drug education can communicate the dangers of an unregulated market and point those towards ample drug testing services which are available.

Regulating the market is key

Of course, the very existence of such necessary drug testing services is a sad reflection of the market’s current reality. “This woman died because she didn’t know what she bought. I’ve sold drugs without knowing what’s in them. Over a century of prohibition has made this a guarantee.” Vorobyov adds.

This is a view echoed by Hickmott, who notes that while this is a rare occurrence, young people having a negative experience with cannabis isn’t. “It doesn’t matter what type of drug we’re talking about – whilst we live with an unregulated market, there’s no way of knowing the dosage and strength of a product. Market regulation gives us something which we can use to compare and contrast; it gives us a safety net in terms of what we consume, particularly with cannabis edibles.”

“We need to have a legally regulated market with full information around these products to reduce drug-related harm,” Gomes agrees. “If we’re not going to be legalising the market, we need to at least work towards decriminalising. I think this is more important than legalisation, or at least more achievable.”

Decriminalising drug use would create a system that isn’t going to punish people for seeking support, he adds. “For example, if someone was not sure what they consumed, in a decriminalised model you would be able to call an ambulance or health services without having to fear any criminal repercussions for the act of possessing something.”

It’s a complex web to untangle: with such a nuanced problem, an informed and multilevel approach is needed. Sadly, inadequate reporting from the mainstream press is only fuelling the fire – sparking further hysteria around drugs. This is, in part due, to the industry model, in which papers compete with one another through fast, sloppy reporting and clickbait headlines.

But this problem goes deeper than that, tied to systemic wealth inequality and austerity perpetuated by the current government over the past decade. “As we all know, prices are going up. One-third of young people live in poverty at the moment – while we live in an unregulated market there are opportunities to deliver counterfeit products, not just with cannabis but with all products,” Hickmott argues.

This was a tragic story that could’ve been prevented through a legalised, or at least decriminalised model. Our hearts are with the victim’s family and friends. However isolated this case may be, it sadly won’t be the last without urgent and informed intervention. Without changing the current inadequate education around drugs – focussed on deterrence rather than education and harm reduction – and a system that criminalises those looking for support, those wanting to create change face an uphill battle.

Written by Jack Ramage. Tweets @jck_rmg

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