Words change meaning all the time. Once upon a time (actually not that long ago) to be gay meant to be happy, carefree and jolly. Now of course it means to be homosexual. These days we are proud to talk about “gay rights” and so forth, the word has changed its meaning and most of us are quite happy about it. Some aren’t of course, but well, that’s life, get over it. There are many, many examples of such changes in the English language, it has always happened and will continue to happen.

A word which has recently changed its meaning is “Skunk”. Originally of course it meant a cute but smelly little animal, then the name was taken up as a strain of cannabis with a particularly pungent smell. It then became a term used by the media to describe the domestically cultivated weed sold “on the streets” which was blamed by the prohibition movement for causing a flood of mental illness amongst young people. Hence we have the current “Skunk” panic.

A little bit of history would be good here:

Cannabis has long been accused of causing mental illness, the old Reefer Madness film is a well known example and for many years this remained little more than something to be laughed at. Then in the early noughties the Blair government downgraded cannabis from Class B to Class C and useless at this change was, the prohibition movement freaked.

Now up to the mid-1990’s, most of the cannabis consumed in the UK came in the form of hashish smuggled in from North Africa – Morocco – or Lebanon mostly. This is the old style cannabis the prohibs tell us used to be so safe. Sadly the war on drugs was ratcheting up and by the mid 90’s imports from these countries were being restricted more and more, aided by crop eradication in the producer countries. The result was that by the late 90’s street hash was getting pretty nasty. “Soap bar”, the most common form of hash sold became a dirty word and was often contaminated with unknown stuff.

At the same time something was happening however, a revolution was taking place in the way cannabis was produced. Indoor cultivation, hydroponic growing and suchlike became possible and suddenly, just as the hash situation was getting desperate a new source of cannabis became available; domestically grown herbal cannabis. It was a far higher quality than the “kakbar” hash and so of course it very soon all but displaced the hash trade.

It was higher quality, but many of us at the time lamented to loss of hash, herbal cannabis just wasn’t the same in terms of what it did. But first part of the prohibitionists argument had come true – the nature of cannabis sold in the UK had changed.

THC / CBD and potency

Now it is true that these “new” strains are cannabis, they are not genetically engineered or changed in any Frankenstein sort of way, but there is a big difference with the old style hash we used to get and it’s all to do with something called “Potency”, which is not the same thing as strength*.

As well as many trace compounds, cannabis contains two important active chemicals (drugs); THC and CBD. THC produces the basic “high”, some describe the effects as psychotic like. CBD does the exact opposite and acts as an anti psychotic. The old hash we used to get contained roughly equal amounts of THC and CBD, the new herbal strains were much higher in THC and lower in CBD. Some strains are claimed to be almost devoid of CBD. So the change that happened was that cannabis didn’t just change from hash to grass, it changed in potency.

OK a quick reality check, there has always been very potent cannabis, but it only accounted for a small part of the mass market in the past. Now it’s dominant apparently.

In the early 00’s there was some research published which claimed to show a link between cannabis use and mental illness and the fact that THC levels had increased was jumped on by the prohibitionists. It is now, they said, a very much more dangerous drug than it used to be and therefore any moves toward legalisation must obviously be resisted. Thus began the “Reefer Madness V 2.0” hype we’ve seen over the past 10 years or so, most enthusiastically promoted by gutter press tabloids such as the Daily Mail and groups such as “Cannabis Skunk Sense” to name but two.

Now let’s be clear about this: Severe mental illness is horrible, a devastating illness but it’s not new. It’s always happened and it’s always affected the same group of people – mostly males in their late teens to early 20’s. Also the amount of psychosis hasn’t changed much if at all over the years despite huge increase in cannabis use and the move to “skunk”.

But there is some evidence linking the use of high THC cannabis to schizophrenia. The work “linking” is important, it doesn’t mean “causing” necessarily, but there is a correlation. There is evidence which is supported by some well respected scientists that, at the very least, high potency cannabis used heavily by vulnerable people may possibly “bring on” a serious mental illness in someone who maybe wouldn’t otherwise have suffered it and that it makes an existing condition worse.

So the prohibition movement and the tabloid press struck gold, they had a fearsome weapon against those of us pressing for the end to prohibition. The reaction amongst cannabis campaigners was, on the whole, to dismiss the claims which of course was just used by the prohibitionists to paint law reform campaigners as irresponsible.

Very few if any of us are qualified to dismiss these arguments, but there is a huge weakness in the prohibitionists case. Indeed it’s a weakness so huge that it totally undermines the case for keeping cannabis illegal.

Let’s assume they are true in what they say: Using a lot of high potency cannabis increases the risk of developing severe mental illness for young people and in recent years cannabis has increased greatly in potency.

1: Why did this come about? It’s simple demonstration of the law of supply and demand; if there’s a demand, someone will supply that demand. As stated above it was a market driven change caused by the deteriorating nature of hash in the mid-90’s. That deterioration came about because of prohibition efforts to both restrict imports and to eradicate the crops in the producer countries. So it’s true to say this was a change brought about in the first place by prohibition; they took a substance which they claim was mild and safe and provided the conditions for the trade in something they claim is dangerous to flourish, a true own goal.

2: This all happened in the late-mid 90’s, but the government didn’t notice the market change until 2008, when the Home Office carried out a survey into what was actually being sold **. Yes, it took 10 years for the authorities to notice the change, yet cannabis is supposed to be a “controlled drug”, you couldn’t make it up.

3: There is absolutely nothing that can be done about the problem under the current regime. The only tactic available to the authorities is what they’re doing already, ie the highly ineffective regime of busting people and trying to stop the supply, which has clearly been a miserable failure for the past 50 years or so.

4: Under prohibition there is no control over the trade in cannabis. We have no idea really what is on sale, no idea how strong it is, what potency it is, how pure it is or even if it is actually cannabis. There can also be no restrictions on sales to young people. To call a regime like that “drug control” is nothing short of a downright contemptuous lie.

So that’s the argument: If cannabis is as dangerous as they claim it is, for the reasons they tell us, then the present system of prohibition is especially unfit for purpose. The only way the necessary controls can be put on the supply side trade is through a properly regulated, legal, regime. It really is the only solution.

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* There is a huge difference between strength and potency, take a look at this UKCIA blog from 2009 THC, CBD and the misleading concept of “Potency”.

** Home Office Cannabis Potency Study 2008 (PDF)