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Updated 8th May 2008

BBC responds to the complaint about "The Cannabis trade"
Author Derek Williams
29th February 2008

On January 2nd 2008 a complaint was made to the BBC regarding the two part series "The Cannabis Trade" aired on Radio 4 on December 20th and 27th 2007. Read the full text here

A reply was received from the producer of the programme on 5th February, however it began:

This response is going to you on a private basis and I do not give my permission for it to be added to your website.

I will of course respect the producer's request for privacy and will not reproduce or refer to the reply she sent, suffice to say it did not address the points I raised in any meaningful way. In any case, as the complaint was made to the BBC through their public complaints procedure in which I made it clear that the issue was highlighted on UKCIA, a private reply was simply not acceptable. The BBC is a publicly funded and accountable body, such issues belong in the public domain.

I therefore replied explaining that I wanted a formal reply on behalf of the BBC

Friday 29th March the following e-mail arrived. I have added my comments in green:

Dear Mr Williams,

Many thanks for the further information supplied regarding the BBC series,
The Cannabis Trade. I am happy to have this opportunity to answer the
additional points raised. Once again, this response comes from the BBC and
it is not appropriate that it is displayed on any website which provides
ordering services for seeds, equipment or information aimed at assisting in
the cultivation of an illegal substance.


I do not accept that restriction nor the producers right to impose it. The BBC's response to a complaint is a matter of public record.


You made the following additional points - which I have included and will
deal with below: "I made the point that the dangers we see and which you
described - indeed the whole nature of the trade - are caused by the
illegality of cannabis, the policy of prohibition. My complaint is centred
on the fact that you ignored this causal factor entirely. It's as if a
programme made during American alcohol prohibition about the dangers of
moonshine ignored the role of prohibition in the creation of the mob."

The series did not set out to address the question of whether cannabis
should be legalised. That is not to say that there isn't a valid debate in
the issues you raise but it does not form part of a series on the Cannabis
Trade. Unfortunately the issue of decriminalising cannabis does not enjoy
much public support: The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the
independent body of experts examining cannabis classification, commissioned
a MORI poll which shows that fewer than 10 per cent of the 1,000 people
questioned thought Cannabis should be legalised. The overwhelming response
is that Cannabis is rightly criminalised and penalties should remain in


This is not addressing the issue at hand. Whether or not cannabis law reform is popular or not is irrelevant to the fact that the illegal trade we see is a direct result of prohibition.


Obviously this does not accord with your own view but the Home Office
invites comments from all of those in society and if you feel the law is
wrong then there are routes for trying to change it. Drug laws will always
involve some of problems you refer to - the prohibition of alcohol caused
problems, but also brought health benefits and those issues are debated
long and hard by those studying the prohibition years. You could say that
with 4,000 British people dying each year through alcohol related liver
disease there is a very valid question over its use in society but again,
this was not the focus of our series.


Again, irrelevant to the point at hand


With relation to the information on the supply of Cannabis you make the
point: "The phenomenon of large scale cannabis "grow ops" is down to the
exploitation of the demand for cannabis. The market is huge and very
profitable and the gap in the market caused by the government's policy (and
that of the UN which our government supports) has created the opportunity
for the trade we now see. It is the simple laws of supply and demand in
operation in an unregulated framework, a typical problem caused by

Once again, the series examined the trade and the many problems faced
through large scale illegal cultivations but it did not deal with the issue
of drug legalisation. It would not be reasonable to deal with the subject
as you propose - in the same way that programmes on theft do not take as
their starting point whether or not the activity should be legalised, even
given the appetite for cheap stolen goods. No one disputes that there is a
demand for the drug - the young users on the series talked of wanting to
take it but it is not legal and the supply of it involves illegal acts
which cause many problems for police and the wider society.


Again, an irrelevant comment. The cause of the situation is prohibition and the way the resulting illegal trade works. This was not addressed in the series.


You make the point in relation to the Canadian approach: "The message from
the Canadian initiative is surely that law enforcement had failed and the
new, non criminal methods were proving effective?" As we said in the
programme, the fire safety initiative was proving extremely effective and
was compared in academic research to more traditional routes of law
enforcement. The Canadian Government does not support a policy of
legalisation of Cannabis and that issue does not form any part in judging
the effectiveness of this approach to domestic cultivation.


My point was indeed that a law enforcement approach - as we have in this country - didn't work in Canada, whereas a civil approach seems to, albeit in a restricted area. The conclusion from this can only be that a move away from an enforcement lead approach would also work here, but that point wasn't made.


In addition to dealing with the comments above I have referred to the more
detailed critique posted on your web site and the documents you refer to.
It would have been inconceivable that this series would have mentioned the
warning you reference on batches of herbal and skunk type Cannabis
"contaminated with microscopic glass like beads." As the Government makes
clear in that same document: "Cannabis is a substance harmful to health"
and their advice could not be clearer: "to avoid the risk of contaminated
Cannabis completely patients should be advised to stop smoking cannabis"


Except for the fact that perhaps 4 million or so people do not heed that advice and are therefore at risk, and that the danger is created by the uncontrolled nature of a prohibition market. This situation of contamination only exists because of prohibition. It is highly relevant to any discussion about the nature of the trade.


Regarding the issue of strength and in particular the work of Dr Les King
on cannabis potency, he has found that over 80 per cent of Cannabis tested
from police confiscations was found to be the higher potency sinsemilla -
these findings are broadly in line with research undertaken by Peter Clark,
Marc Brown and David Potter. This research forms part of the data being
submitted to the Advisory Council and whilst surveying potency levels of an
illegal substance will have difficulties the efficacy and the methods used
by Dr King are not disputed by those on the ACMD. Dr King will also be
analysing the CBD content of the material seized.


Actually the shortcomings of the way the data is collected were acknowledged in the recent ACMD public meeting in London (I was there). Specifically, the way the samples are being collected is hardly statistically valid.. Also, as this data is being compared to older data in order to determine a change over time, the reliability of the older data is also important and there is surely no dispute that is unreliable.


You make the point that CBD concentrations in cannabis have never been
routinely measured. We would refer to the study undertaken by Dr David
Potter on the cannabinoid content of the different forms of illicit
cannabis. In the paper, "Potency of Cannabinoids in Cannabis published in
the Journal of Forensic Science in January 2008. He details his analysis of
452 samples seized by police during 2004/5 and concludes by saying: "The
current trends in cannabis use suggest that those susceptible to the
harmful psychological effects associated with THC are at ever greater risk.
This is due to the combined rise in potency and popularity of sinsemilla
and the absence of CBD in this product"


A study of 452 samples in 2004/5 is not going to give an indication of the change in CBD concentration over the past 10 or more years. In any case, CBD has not been routinely measured, if it's been measured at all, that is a fact. But as the above comment implies, the level of CBD may well be a very important issue. The reason it's changed of course - if it has - is due to prohibition.


Finally you refer to the series as "a promotion of the present government's
agenda regarding prohibition. " This is not just our government's agenda
- the view that Cannabis is a dangerous drug has shaped laws across the
world. Our series did not deal with this issue and we appreciate that you
would have liked us to. The Cannabis Trade was a well researched and well
received series which shed light on the dangers posed by the increasing
domestic cultivation of Cannabis.


The point stands. At no time has my complaint been based on any claim that cannabis is "safe", simply that the regime we have now makes it more dangerous and has created the situation the programme claims to be investigating.


Whilst I appreciate you continue to have concerns with this programme, if
you wish to pursue this complaint further, you can contact the
Editorial Complaints Unit. You will need to do this in writing to the
following address:

Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU)
BBC 5168 White City
Media Village
201 Wood Lane
W12 7TS.


Actually I phoned the contact number given on the BBC website and talked to a very helpful person who has taken the complaint forward to the "ESU" - escalative complaints unit. Apparently the ECU is the next step. The person I talked to agreed that the first reply I received, being of a private nature, did not constitute a formal BBC response.


Again thank you for taking the time to contact the BBC. Please be assured
your further concerns have been registered.

Thank you once again for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely

Sue Mitchell
Producer Cannabis Trade
Radio 4

So, a complaint was made to the ECU on 26 March 2008

The Cannabis Trade
BBC Radio 4
TX December 20th and 27th 2007.


Please note I would like to request all correspondence to this matter is
conducted via e-mail. I do not personally use paper-based communications.

I have been advised to bring this complaint to your attention having
already tried to raise it through the BBC complaints system.

I have received two replies in response to my initial complaint, one of
which was sent as a personal reply from the producer (who made a point of
stating it was her own view) and the second on behalf of the BBC. Neither
addressed the issue I was raising.

The series of two programmes claimed to investigate the nature of the
commercial supply of cannabis in the UK. The core of my complaint is as

At no time did the programme make the point that nature of the trade is a
product of the legal regime concerning cannabis, ie the fact that it is a
prohibited drug. We know from past experience that this sort of trade is
created by prohibition.

The nature of the illegal supply side for cannabis is comparable to the
situation that existed in 1920's America when Alcohol was prohibited. At
that time the "mob" was in charge of the trade. They operated illegal
moonshine and bathtub gin production operations, often in residential
areas. There were many cases of fires and other injuries caused by the
manufacture of this bootleg alcohol and the product itself killed and
caused significant physical injury. The comparison to the situation with
cannabis today, where gangs are running large scale "grow-ops" in
residential buildings and producing a product of dubious quality is stark.

However the programme failed to mention this in any way at all and in so
doing seriously misrepresented the issue at hand. In doing so the BBC
clearly supported the government's position on cannabis policy and was
seriously remiss in not challenging that position. No views of law reform
campaigners, who would have drawn attention to this issue were sought or

This is particularly important given the political nature of the debate
surrounding the classification of cannabis at the time the programme was
broadcast, especially given the fact that the government was conducting a
public opinion poll regarding attitudes toward the possible
reclassification of cannabis to the more serious class B under the misuse
of drugs act.

Whereas the complaint is focussed on the way the programme ignored the role
of prohibition in the formation of today's commercial cannabis trade, I am
not suggesting it should have promoted the case for law reform, only that
it should have acknowledged the true cause of the problem because to fail
to do so misrepresents the actual real world situation. I believe this
misrepresentation was deliberate.


Derek Williams


And a reply, eventually, on 9th May

Dear Mr Williams

Thanks for your e-mail regarding BBC Radio 4 programme 'The Cannabis Trade.'

I can advise that our Editorial Complaints Unit have handed your complaint
back to BBC Information to handle, for the particular reason that the
explanation provided by Sue Williams as the programme producer explained
the premise of 'The Cannabis Trade' and the reasons for not including the
arguments for the legalisation of the drug.

Complaints Manager Allison Wilson also made particular reference to the
fact that just as news editors are responsible for making decisions about
what is or is not included in their bulletins, so producers of factual
programmes such as this one must use their editorial discretion to decide
the approach that programmes take to the subjects they examine.

Given that this approach has already been explained in-dept by the
programme producer, with specific reference made to the fact that your
objections regarding the content of the series were not consistent with the
kind of programme the producers set out to make and given that the series
was instead intended to examine the cannabis trade, a premise to which your
points would obviously represent a separate investigation, there is little
I can add in addressing this complaint other than to advise that I've
registered your further comments on our audience log.

This is a daily report of audience feedback that's circulated to many BBC
staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers
and other senior managers.

The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape
decisions about future programming and content.

Thanks once again for taking the time to contact us with your concerns.


Sean Moss
BBC Complaints


Which of course has totally failed to address the complaint. So a reply was sent immediately

Attention Sean Moss
BBC Complaints

Thank you for your e-mail. However, you have, again, failed to understand the reason for my complaint.

My original complaint was quite specific (it's attached at the foot of this reply). It stated quite clearly:

Whereas the complaint is focussed on the way the programme ignored the role
of prohibition in the formation of today's commercial cannabis trade, I am
not suggesting it should have promoted the case for law reform, only that
it should have acknowledged the true cause of the problem because to fail
to do so misrepresents the actual real world situation. I believe this
misrepresentation was deliberate.

Your comment that

I can advise that our Editorial Complaints Unit have handed your complaint
back to BBC Information to handle, for the particular reason that the
explanation provided by Sue Williams as the programme producer explained
the premise of 'The Cannabis Trade' and the reasons for not including the
arguments for the legalisation of the drug.

Does therefore not address the core of my complaint, and you have not addressed it at any level thus far. It is plain and clear that I am not suggesting the programme should have included an argument for legalisation of cannabis, simply an explanation of the root cause of the situation. That is a very simple complaint.

I request in the strongest terms that you address the actual complaint I'm making, and not the one you assume I am making.

I look forward to your considered and rapid response


Further updates will be made when they happen.

Feedback welcome


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