The Media’s War on Cannabis

by Ruby Deevoy


According to a report published by the World Association of Newspapers World Press Trends, more than half the world’s adult population read a newspaper – a number that surpasses all internet users across the globe. More than 2.5 billion read print newspapers, while more than 600 million get their news digital form.

That’s a seriously impressive reach, supporting Ronald Regan’s famous quote during his aggressive ‘war on drugs’ campaign: “the news rooms of our media centres have a special opportunity to send alarm signals across the nation.”

And they do.

Ideally, our mass media newspapers would be doing what far too many people still believe they are doing – reporting facts, world news, real investigative and unbiased journalism. Providing truth and information to the global population. After all, this is where most will turn to, to find out about politics, health and our world as a whole. 

But in truth, what we’re fed by our mainstream media is more often than not seriously skewed reports, propaganda, and click bait. It’s all about what brings in the money – entertainment, voyeurism, advertising – rarely unbiased, informative, balanced news at all. 

The press’s role in the near-century long war on cannabis is a glaring example of how media narratives can strongly influence public opinion and support. In the face of changing attitudes towards cannabis, our mass media continues to use stigmatized language, moral panic, institutionalised racism and lies to underpin an enormously successful anti-cannabis propaganda effort. 

It may sound great that over half the UK adult population supports cannabis legalisation, but what about the other half? They have been misinformed.

Sadly, our news is not about informing people – it’s about making media giants money, and pushing agendas. There’s no agenda that makes headlines quite like the war on drugs. A broad body of research has demonstrated that this media support of the negative drug narrative, which largely focuses on challenges and harms, strongly influences public opinion. 

But, has our press ever really been about anything else?

In the 1870s, racist moral panic was used to tarnish Chinese immigrants, using Opium dens as the avenue with quotes like “Those Mongolian Death Pens are no doubt great promoters of vice and disease” (LA Herald, 1875). 

More recently, we can look at the dishonest coverage of the Iraq war. It’s well known that media propaganda has always been used as a political and military strategy, to shape opinions and gain allies. 

Is free press dead? Did it ever really exist? Propaganda and panic reigns supreme and, according to a variety of sociology papers, it always has. 

As a mainstream media journalist myself, but one who focuses solely on positive cannabis reporting, I can tell you first hand that plenty of my pitches about ground-breaking cannabis science, devastating patient stories and shifting drug policies are more often than not met with one of the following:

“there’s not enough science to support medical use of cannabis/CBD”

“cannabis stories don’t drive traffic”

“cannabis stories don’t resonate with our readers”

Pitch an article about a huge cannabis bust or the old favourite, hikes in schizophrenia as a result of cannabis use, and they’re snapped up. Just take a look at the Google newsfeed for evidence. 

Fear sells. Prohibition sells. I imagine it pays pretty well too.

By focusing on potential harms, over the extensive list of benefits cannabis has to offer, the media prolong the negative narrative. The damage this does, the lives it costs, is inexcusable. 

The misrepresentations of cannabis and the enduring use of stigmatising language in the media is directly to blame for public hesitancy over cannabis law reform, a skewed perception of risk and benefits and a lack of real education into the transformational discoveries being made about cannabis on a regular basis.

The news industry is so huge, surely they’re not all peddling the same rhetoric? True, some newspapers are more honest, balanced and liberal than others. But it’s also true that 90% of the UK newspaper market is owned by just 3 publishers: DMGT Media (publishers of the Daily Mail, Sunday Mail, Metro and i); News UK (The Sun, The Times and the Sunday equivalents); Reach Plc (the Mirror, Express and Star titles, and the Sunday People).

Surely reports and features are fact checked before publishing? They can’t just print lies.

Well, yeah they’re not supposed to. But they do.

Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of The Sun and prolific journalist for the Daily Mail, Sky, The Mirror Group and TalkSport openly admitted making up stories about drugs saying he could “print anything – no matter how wild or ridiculous, and it would be believed”. 

Furthermore, in Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into phone hacking and the ethics and culture of the UK media, Mackenzie recounted running a story about Elton John which then resulted in The Sun paying out £1m in libel damages. He said “So much for checking a story. I never did it again. Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in.”

He’s not the only one.

In an interview with Vice, former tabloid journo Graham Johnson said “There’s a whole culture of faking stories for tabloid newspapers. I remember thinking what would make a good story would be to link the sale of ecstasy tablets to a football tournament which was Euro 96 at the time.  So I got some ecstasy tabs and asked a mate of mine to paint ‘euro 96’ logos on the tablets and then presented them to the paper as a new tablet being sold to football hooligans.”

So, why do journalists do it? Many don’t. Some are certainly worse for it than others. There are plenty of journalists with passion and courage, still fighting to get their hard-hitting, genuine reporting out there. With perseverance, their voices break through, slowly turning the tide against the violence of lies. But freelance journalists and editors are paid so poorly these days many feel they have but to work to the tone that sells, be broke, or change careers. A Journalism UK survey found 30% of freelance journalists work another job to make ends meet. NUJ research revealed more than half of freelance journalists have suffered financial hardship.

We have social media to contend with too. You might hope that, given that these are public platforms, the narrative might be less censored. But, as anyone working in the cannabis industry will attest to, this is not the case. Being ‘shadow-banned’, is a very real thing and, despite the drastic changes in cannabis legislation around the world and the popularity of CBD products, cannabis content is monitored and censored. This was even boasted by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg. In 2019, he showed off his AI photo scanning system, demonstrating how Facebook’s AI could flag a cannabis image, remove it and shadowban the offending account. Most social media platforms have very strict guidelines surrounding any drug content – not pharmaceuticals though.

While almost everyone would say that the Reefer Madness material of the 1920s is quite clearly ludicrous, we’re still battling the same stigma today, just in a contemporary form. Our mainstream media isn’t going to change any time soon – it will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the elite owners, to keep the masses believing whatever they want them to believe. 

It’s time we recognise our national newspapers aren’t always the source of trustworthy information that so many of us still assume they are. 

Ruby Deevoy is a U.K. cannabis journalist with years of experience covering CBD and cannabis in mainstream publications such as The Independent, The Mirror, The National, Elle, Red, Top Sante and Natural Health magazine. She’s also the U.K’s only CBD columnist, writing monthly for Top Sante magazine, cannabis agony aunt for Leafie, writes the Indybest CBD product lists, is founder of The CBD Consultancy and is the primary press member for The Cannabis Industry Council.
Ruby works closely with members of The Cannabis Industry Council and Women in Cannabis Leadership to stay up to date on all the latest information emerging in the cannabis sector. Tweets @RDeevoy

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