Britain's regional newspapers have a strange fixation on encouraging readers to grass up their cannabis-smoking neighbours.
Google the words "what to do neighbours smoking weed" and you'll find a stream of articles – published by outlets from Somerset Live to the Lancashire Evening Post__, the Hertfordshire Mercury to Wales Online – advising readers on the best steps to take if they suspect their neighbours of smoking the wretched herb known by some as "bud" or "marijuana" in the privacy of their own homes.
Each one of these articles follows a similar format: a light introduction about "neighbours from hell", then a series of answered questions such as, "Are people legally allowed to smoke cannabis at home?" (no) and, "Will the neighbours find out it was me who reported them?" (also no). The first time one of these was published appears to have been in April of 2017, on the Daily Mirror's website. Near-identical articles have followed on other sites ever since.
Let's take this example, published last Sunday in the Yorkshire Evening Post (YEP). It hits all the usual markers: the title is "This is what to do if you think your neighbours are smoking cannabis during lockdown", the advice being: report your neighbours to the police. "People smoking cannabis in their own homes continues to cause problems in some communities across Yorkshire," it reads. "Especially when we're all packed together and staying home right now."
I contacted the South Yorkshire Police to ask about the social problems outlined in the article. Surprisingly, since they were directly quoted, they knew nothing about it. "This is not something that we are currently aware of and have not been approached to make a comment to the YEP," a spokesperson told me. He added: "Having looked into this story, the reporter has not approached us and it appears to be a story that the Sheffield Star originally ran in 2018 and has simply been reissued again in the YEP."
Next, via Twitter, I contacted the journalist whose byline appears on the article, but he declined to comment. I asked if he had investigated the matter at all, by looking at relevant statistics or speaking to the authorities before claiming that people smoking cannabis in their own homes is continuing to "cause problems in some communities across Yorkshire". Unfortunately, he blocked me before I had the chance to ask a follow-up: why the exact same article had been published word-for-word by the Sheffield Star in December of 2019.
Instead, I reached out to Laura Collins, editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post and Head of Content at JPIMedia, which owns both the Post and the Star. She wouldn't say whether the issue had been investigated, or explain why a similar story has appeared again and again on various websites. However, she did say: "At the Yorkshire Evening Post we believe in providing relevant, unbiased news for the communities we serve, and know from research that our journalism is highly trusted. We stand by the story concerned."
It's an understandable response; I'm sure the overwhelming majority of what the Yorkshire Evening Post publishes is relevant, unbiased and trusted by its readers. But it doesn't explain the origin of all these stories encouraging people to call the police on their neighbours.
VICE's Global Drugs Editor, Max Daly, has also noticed the "repeat story" appearing periodically on the websites of regional newspapers across the country. In fact, he touched on the phenomenon in an article a couple of years ago about the relationship between drugs and the media, noting that rather than having anything to do with the police, this content is delivered again and again because it gets a load of clicks.
"The public loves it," a Trinity Group employee told him at the time (in 2018, Trinity Group – which owns the Daily Mirror and over 100 regional titles – rebranded as Reach PLC). "They click on these stories like crazy. It's why virtually every regional newspaper in the UK run by the Trinity Group has reprinted the same two drug stories – a creepy one about what to do if your neighbours are smoking cannabis, and an out-of-date, debunked story about how cocaine will rot your flesh – multiple times over the last two years."
This doesn't appear to be a trend exclusive to Reach PLC – both the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Sheffield Star are owned by JPIMedia – but I spoke to a current employee at a paper owned by Reach PLC, who asked to remain anonymous, and he backed up what the Trinity employee had told Max. "It's definitely not sponsored content [from the police]," he said. "The rehash line is 100 percent [correct]. It's just because it picks up well on socials."
"I think they do it for SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] too," added the employee. "[For SEO], obviously you think about questions people would google, and that, sadly, is one. To be honest, I reckon the police probably think [the articles are] annoying as fuck. I can't imagine they want to be contacted about something they can essentially do very little about."
So there you have it: these sites appear to be publishing very similar stories again and again for the clicks – and in a media landscape reliant on an ever-diminishing amount of advertising cash, you can't really blame them. But if you do come across one of these articles, just remember that people smoking weed in their front rooms isn't necessarily causing any "problems" at all, at least in the eyes of the police.
A number of police forces have publicly stated that they no longer bother going after weed smokers, while figures obtained by VICE show that those that haven't aren't making the policing of cannabis much of a priority, with arrests for growing weed falling by more than half since 2012.
Reach PLC declined to provide a comment for this article.