12 July 2007

Speaking Frankly! - frank confused on cannabis

At the end of May 2007 FRANK published their Action Update, "Cannabis Explained." It was made available as a hard copy, distributed to DATs and drugs services, and available as a download from the Home Office website.

At the end of June, a month later, the document was withdrawn from print and off the Government websites. This withdrawal was not accompanied by any notification or official explanation. Indeed, if you didn't know that the document existed, one might not have known that it had ever been there. But the short life of the "Action Update" and the tale of how it came to be removed from circulation raises some important questions about Quality Standards and accountability at Frank.

When the Action Update came out, KFx, alongside other organisations such as the UKCIA noticed some rather glaring errors. These are discussed here. Now while we would accept the interpretation put on Frank to be partisan and loaded, we don't expect it to be factually wrong. But on this occasion there were a number of errors and ommissions which were both obvious and serious. So for example, the document misrepresented the law on cannabis as applicable to under 18s; it said that smoking cannabis in a joint was the least hazardrous, and it didn't mention cannabis contamination at all.

We, alongside the UKCIA and others made representations to the Home Office about these errors and ommissions. And a long and fairly convoluted process began.

For the first couple of weeks, the document remained available on the Home Office website; although serious concerns about its accuracy had been raised, there was not attempt at this stage to suspend distribution while it was reviewed. Given that at least two of the errors were so obvious and so easy to check, this seemed inexcusable. All we got was reassurance that it was being looked at.

A phone call to Frank at this time was illuminating: The initial call handler referred the case swiftly to her senior call handler. The senior handler didn't know about the Frank Action Update, and was unaware of its content. He was suprised at what the action update said about spliff smoking and said that was different to the information on his screen. He said I should contact the Home Office to discuss this.

Frustrated by lack of action - and that the Home Office still hadn't retracted the document, we followed up the initial emails to the Home Office with a phone call. As a nice factual example of a serious inaccuracy, we used the coverage of under 18s and the legal process in relation to cannabis. This was a fairly charged discussion, with the contact at the Home Office not understanding the legislation and explaining that the relevant section had been "signed off" by a Senior Police officer and so had to be right.

Undaunted, emailed to the PA of the senior police officer in question; this email was forwarded to several officers in the relevant force until a helpful Officer emailed me back. after a couple of to-and-fro emails he emailed me back, confirming that he thought the position in the Frank document was wrong.

Back to the Home Office with this information, and after a short delay, they came back describing this information "of concern" and suspending distribution from the website. But in practice the update could still be found after a quick Google search.

A week later, the person in the Home Office wrote back again; this time, followig feedback from the Department of Health, they said

"In the interest of ensuring FRANK provides up-to-date and credible information, DH have recommended that some of the contents of the pack be amended or the issue explored further...As you are aware we have suspended distribution of the pack and removed it from the drugs.gov.uk website. We intend to re-issue the pack later in the year."

This was the right decision by Frank, and should be applauded. But it was a slow decision and an unpublicised one. While the LCA issued a press release about the withdrawal FRANK didn't. Unfortunately few agencies picked up on the LCA announcement. Unfortunately the Daily Dose, who now receive sponsorship from Frank, either didn't get it or didn't consider it sufficiently newsworthy.

There are a number of things about this story that cause concern. How did this flawed document slip through various proofing stages, why were the Home Office so slow to suspend distribution, and why was the suspension so low key when they did decide the document was flawed?

Authorship of the document is not clear; some of it appears to be cut and pasted from other sources. It has the same spellings (and even the same typo at one point) as other FRANK written documents so it suggests that some of the information has merely been recycled from other sources and not been reviewed.

One would hope that a final draft of the document would then be passed to others for scrutiny but clearly this didn't happen or if it did, the scrutiny was severely flawed. The information that we have gleaned suggests that the senior police officer would have understood and checked about the new ACPO guidance on cannabis - which was accurate, but wouldn't have checked the sections on Under 18s and processes under the Crime and Disorder Act, which were wrong.

But most worrying, we would hope that Frank would have a rapid and effective method of first suspending distribution and then informing readers of their errors. They were slow to do the first; they simply didn't bother to do the second.

Despite the branding and publicity material, FRANK is merely a vehicle to distribute drugs information. This epidode has demonstrated that the arbiters of this content are the Home Office. And on this occasion the Home Office have demonstrated their difficulty in commissioning and distributing accurate copy on an important subject.

And let's be clear, this is not the first time that FRANK's content has been found to be wanting. The initial content of the FRANK website was riddled with factual inaccuracies. The revised information still has many items which are of dubious accuracy. So, as one correspondent to KFx noted, if you go to DF118s you get taken to information on Methadone. Different compounds, different information?

FRANK urgently needs to review how it manages content. Remember that the FRANK image includes marketing and branding "experts" who know nothing about drugs. There's the call handling service, which knows something about drugs but has a tendency to regurgitate what is on the screen. And there's the Home Office and DoH which so far haven't managed to produce the level of accuracy that users and workers need.

Perhaps Frank would be best served bringing together an independent panel which could proof, review and advise on their output. That, and an improved system for responding to serious errors, would go some way to ensuring that they do not spend their million-pound budget distributing factually wrong information.

KFx: 12.7.06

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