British Cops: Marijuana Smell "Causes Cancer"

By Tony O'Neill 03/08/12

An embarrassing piece of misinformation from police and journalists is unraveled by a dogged scientist.

Dangerous? Not really. Photo via

Denver DEA head Barbra Roach’s recent attempt to demonize marijuana growers with some mold-related scaremongering raised the bar. But not to be outdone, UK police apparently made an even more outlandish claim: that the very smell of mature marijuana plants is “carcinogenic.” This revelation appeared in a Harborough Mail story entitled “Drugs Factory Raided.” The “factory” in question was a home in the village of Cottingham, Yorkshire, where police seized 90 cannabis plants. Slipped into an otherwise-mundane report was a jaw-dropping claim: "Police are warning that when cannabis plants reach the final stages of maturity the odour they release has carcinogenic properties. Officers who deal with the plants use ventilation masks and protective suits and people who have plants in their home, especially anyone with young children, may be exposing their family to a health risk." No officer’s name was attributed to this, nor was a journalist’s name attached to the article.

The alert Dr. Ben Goldacre, academic, broadcaster and author of Bad Science, did some digging over at his blog. The real fun comes as Dr. Goldacre posts his email exchanges with both the editor of the newspaper and Andy Roberts, a “communications officer” from Northamptonshire Police, prompting an impressive display of blame-shifting. After a few rounds of “he said, she said” Roberts—who says the police originally issued the claim to the newspaper with the caveat that it should be investigated by a medical expert—states: “I have asked Inspector Gary Williams to ask his local officers where the 'carcinogenic' link has come from and I am waiting to hear back. I suspect this may be an urban myth and, should this be the case, I would be happy to address it.” Well, they do say that the first casualty of war is the truth.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.