Case Number: 2725

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2018

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage


Brian Hewitson objects to Stuff’s use of the term “synthetic cannabis” in two articles published online ( on September 21, 2018. The stories reported on multiple admissions to Christchurch Hospital linked to the toxicity of a “bad batch” of synthetic cannabis.

The first story was published at 7.07am on September 21, 2018 and featured comment from the Canterbury District Health Board and emergency medicine specialist Paul Gee.

The second story was published at 5.39pm on the same date and included content from the first story, and additional comment including a CDHB doctor, a former user of synthetic cannabis, police and Health Minister Dr David Clark.

Both stories quoted sources using the phrase “synthetic cannabis” directly and indirectly.

The Complaint

Mr Hewitson said Stuff published three stories about synthetic drugs, using the phrase “synthetic cannabis”. He did not identify the stories individually.

He said police, the Coroner’s office and NZ Drug Foundation have asked for the “erroneous” description to not be used. He said linking synthetic drugs to cannabis is “putting lives at risk by downplaying the danger of synthetics”.

He stated “Synthetic cannabis” is not an accurate description as synthetics are not actually cannabinoids.

Mr Hewitson said drugs like AMB-FUBINACA (a synthetic drug component) mimic the THC in cannabis but lack cannabis’s moderating anti-psychotic component CBD. He saidStuff should stop trying to convince the public that AMB-FUBINACA is related to cannabis, thereby inferring synthetic drugs are safe.

He notes it is against NZ Media Council rules to publish stories that are not accurate, fair or balanced.

The Response

Stuff deputy editor Keith Lynch responded by stating he was assuming Mr Hewitson was referring to twoStuff stories about “the spate of issues in Christchurch. He included the URLs of both stories.

He further said he was guessing that Mr Hewitson was also referring to a police press release (included in complaint documents) quoting police and the Chief Coroner.

Mr Lynch says the two Stuff stories were based on a CDHB press release, which referred to “synthetic cannabis”.Stuff accordingly used the term in good faith.

Mr Lynch says “the Drug Foundation clearly states these drugs are sometimes called synthetic cannabis”.

A document supplied by Stuff referencing the Drug Foundation states “sometimes called synthetic cannabis, these substances consist of dried plant material with a synthetic cannabinoid applied to it”. The document references the Drug Foundation as stating that cannabinoids identified in NZ include AMB-FUBINACA .

Subsequent correspondence.

Mr Hewitson responded saying Stuff‘s intention was to make natural cannabis look more dangerous than it was, which then made synthetics look less dangerous. He saidStuff buried positive stories around medicinal cannabis “quickly” and had “a bias in this area, as I am biased the other way”.

He did not believe Stuff had the right to “thrash” the term synthetic cannabis “given the danger this creates for people who do not know better”.

Mr Lynch responded that Stuff held no editorial position on cannabis, andStuff had not downplayed the risk of synthetics – on the contrary, Stuff had called them “killer chemicals”.

He noted that Mr Hewitson did not specify where police, the Coroner’s office and NZ Drug Foundation have asked for the “erroneous” description to not be used.

Mr Lynch quoted a NZ Police press release which stated “we are not calling it synthetic cannabis” and also referenced AMB-FUBINACA as the synthetic that ESR had identified. He noted “I cannot speak for the police’s motive in choosing this wording but AMB-FUBINACA is still an indazole-based synthetic cannabinoid”.

Mr Hewitson replied he was seeking balance in the terminology used. The constant use of the term “synthetic cannabis” confused readers and some may think “cannabis is more dangerous than it [is] but more importantly synthetics may be seen as safer.”

The Discussion

Mr Hewitson’s complaint indirectly references accuracy, fairness and balance - the three tenets that make up the NZ Media Council’s Principle 1.Therefore this decision considers whether Principle 1 has been breached.

The primary complaint he makes regarding the stories is the use of the term “synthetic cannabis”, for the reasons outlined above.

We find that Stuff fairly and accurately reported the term “synthetic cannabis” based on the comment and press releases provided by experts.

Mr Hewitson made specific reference to balance in that he was seeking “balance in the terminology used”. However he made no specific reference to imbalance within the stories.

The NZ Media Council does not consider that the articles published by Stuff are imbalanced.

The Decision

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – Not upheld.

Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.


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