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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 13th May 2013

I don’t know if anyone will read this. That’s not the paranoia of the lonely blogger. I just haven’t decided whether I should publish what I’m about to write and I know I won’t be able to make a final decision until I’ve finished writing. I’m facing the conundrum about how to criticise a blatant self-publicist without adding to the publicity they are seeking.

Previously, I have written about Peter Hitchens’ shameless promotion of his own book and, on that occasion, the response I got encouraged me to write more about it the next day. But I wondered, at the time, if it was a wise thing to do and the fact that Hitchens' book has been pretty much of a failure doesn’t completely allay my fears about promoting tosh when criticising it.

What I have in mind, today, is nothing to do with Hitchens. It concerns a new book ‘Hash’ by Wensley Clarkson. Clarkson describes himself as ‘one of Britain’s most knowledgeable writers re the underworld’ basing that claim on being a journalist for over 35 years.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

(Normally, I would give a link to the origin of that claim but Clarkson’s website is about the most peculiar thing I’ve ever seen and I don’t think anyone would be grateful for being directed to it. There is a video running as the background thus making the text just about impossible to read. I’d nominate it for one of those ‘worst websites’ sites but that would be providing extra promotion.)

The Mail Online, and I assume the printed Mail on Sunday, gave Clarkson over 3,000 words with which to promote his new book. The beginning of the headline - ‘Britain's marijuana mafia’ really tells you all you need to know about the article and the book that is being promoted.

The full headline reads more like the sort of thing seen in ‘Hello’ or ‘OK’;

‘Britain's marijuana mafia: Two million users, £6bn worth of trade and 30,000 deaths. A leading author meets the men (and women) feeding the UK's terrifying addiction’

The book is, apparently, about those people who make their living by supplying an illegal substance and, of course, if the substance weren’t illegal these people wouldn’t be able to make their living selling it. But I’m not concerned with the central theme of the book and I do know that people who prefer making money illegally to working for a living would find an alternative crime. Instead, I want to look at a couple of things in that headline.

For the Mail any use of an illegal substance has to be ‘addiction’. But the six letters ‘addict’ do not appear anywhere in the article and references to consumers of Cannabis sativa, marijuana, are to ‘clients’ because the piece is written about the supply side of the business. Reference to ‘addiction’ is the fault of the headline writer and no blame attaches to Clarkson on this specific point. Its use is, of course, to appeal to the prejudices of Mail readers in the way the ‘News of the World’ used to headline its titillation pieces.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

The other problem with the headline the mention of ‘30,000 deaths’ does stem from Clarkson’s text. He writes;

‘It is also carcinogenic. The British Lung Foundation says smoking three joints a day causes similar damage to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. That would suggest that up to 30,000 people a year contract cannabis-related cancer.’

I’ve written about The British Lung Foundation’s claims about cannabis and cancer so I won’t rehearse the arguments that say the link between cancer and cannabis is somewhere between strongly disputed and disproved. The evidence is a very long way from supporting the notion that 30,000 cases of lung cancer per year are attributable to cannabis. But, in any event, 30,000 cases are not 30,000 deaths. Survival rates for lung cancer are poor, especially longer term, but around 1,500 of that mythical 30,000 would still be alive ten years after diagnosis. So, the Mail is wrong to take Clarkson’s 30,000 cases and make it 30,000 deaths in the headline.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of reaction on Twitter to the piece and equally unsurprisingly but nonetheless depressingly, some of that reaction was rude and abusive. I saw the response, polite but condemnatory, from the mainstream reform organisations and individuals so I didn’t go looking for the abusers.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

This morning, someone I follow retweeted this from Mr Clarkson;

‘Probably only way to stop hash underworld is to legalise cannabis, ironic considering pothead threats I've had all day’

Mr Clarkson is, of course, right to say that though, as above, you would expect an unknowable proportion of large-scale cannabis dealers to turn to other forms of crime. But, his piece for the Mail makes no mention of this, frankly, obvious conclusion. It would have had a lot more force if written from the view that the government, by refusing to reconsider its position on cannabis, is responsible for these crimes. With 3,000+ words at his disposal you would have thought he could manage one sentence about the only solution to the problem.

That is not an argument the Mail would be likely to support so you are left to wonder if Mr Clarkson was willing to set aside his belief in a change in the law rather than sacrifice the chance for self-promotion offered to him in return for a piece that fits the Mail's agenda or whether his Tweet was just to try and deflect the criticism he had received. Unfortunately, the promotional copy on Amazon is too brief to determine whether the book does have a legalisation message at its heart and Mr Clarkson’s own website doesn’t have anything other than an image of the cover. The publisher’s website only has the text used by Amazon so that is no help.

I have no reason to doubt the truth of what Mr Clarkson said in his Tweet so it appears that this is another instance of someone being afraid to say what they really believe for fear of damaging their own interests. We usually see that from former government ministers.

The problem about writing pieces like this is, it turns out, not the conundrum I began with about promoting a desperate self-promoter. Rather it is the profound feeling of sadness that I’m left with. I always say that conmen and scammers wouldn’t keep doing what they do if there was nobody stupid enough to fall for their schemes. The limitless hypocrisy of the Mail reflects more on the gullibility of those people who continue to buy it than on the paper itself.


Hi , just read your blog post with interest. I too have just read this book. My opinion is that there are a lot of good facts and interesting information in the book for those who are not au fait with the production and distribution of this product but quite a few glaring errors such as:

The prices he gives for UK home produced hashish (£20 a quarter oz) £20 a gram more like for stuff like that.

He described how one of the small eggs of caramelo hash burst its cling film wrapping just as the smuggler was reaching the end of his run and how the smuggler 'almost died' this is laughable

He also states that many people have died from hash packages coming open in smugglers stomachs, again laughable

In the end section of the book he conflates marijuana with hashish when discussing the Mexican tunnel to the States, Mexico is not known for hash production , It is known mostly for low grade , high volume cannabis production

The writing style is lurid, tweaked for  Daily Mailers, the cover is sensationalist again for those who find this sort of thing exciting. nearly every spliff smoked is 'massive' etc.

These glaring errors lead me to doubt the credibility of the rest of the book. A lot of it feels like facts lifted from Google and the internet stitched together with a threadbare narrative in which he ever so conveniently meets all these characters.

I am sure there is some truth in this book , but he lets himself down with a lurid style and schoolboy errors that lead me to question his credibility

I am about to read Mr Nice by Howard Marks as I am interested in comparing the two books.




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