Uniquely in the world, it seems, the word “skunk” in the UK means dodgy street weed which is super high in THC and causes mass bouts of serious mental illness amongst the children who use it in the playground it’s sold in. “Skunk” replaced the harmless, gentle relaxant sort of cannabis people used in the 60’s. At least that’s the Daily Mail version of things, a view seemingly shared by the government which uses this “skunk scare” to form its cannabis policy.

To be honest, there is so much hype and lies being told about this subject it’s difficult to know where to start, but as with all faux public health panics there is a basis of truth to the some of the claims, but there’s much more at the root of the problems few politicians seem to be aware of or dare admit to. So what are these concerns and what can and should be done about them?

Cannabis is illegal, well, you know what I mean

Pedants please note, only things humans do can be illegal, cannabis can’t actually be illegal itself because it’s a plant.

To be more precise cannabis is prohibited; meaning the trade in, selling and possession of cannabis is illegal. It’s not just here of course, the insane war on drugs is a global thing which is at the root of if not all then certainly most, of the problems related to cannabis.

The story of how this all came about is one of lies, deception and racism, if you’re new to all this take a look at Marijuana – The First Twelve Thousand Years by Ernest L. Abel, especially Chapter 10 onward.

Cannabis has a long history

Emperor Shen Nung

Emperor Shen Nung

People have used cannabis for a long time. The earliest recorded use of the plant is found in the pharmacopoeia of Shen Nung, 2,700 BC, ie nearly 5,000 years ago. There are archaeological records going back much further than that as well, but it makes the point that humans have – or should have – a lot of accumulated knowledge of the plant and it’s effects on anyone who consumes it.

When cannabis first became popular in the UK  it mostly came in the form of hash from Morocco and Lebanon with the occasional bit of herbal from Africa with the even more occasional treat from Thailand/India/Pakistan/Afghan to name just a few. This was all naturally grown product produced by cultures with a long history of cannabis use. But in typical western style and thanks mostly to the USA we decided that rather than learn from the knowledge these established cultures had acquired we should to do our best to eradicate it, which is what happened. So although we got a taste for the product, we were never allowed to learn the long established social norms that went with that use.

So as crop eradication and import restrictions began to bite the production of cannabis moved from long established producer areas to much nearer home. The organically grown varieties which had been carefully nurtured for hundreds and even thousands of years were substituted for new strains grown under lights using chemicals for nutrients and pest control.

Back in the late 1990’s the supply of imported hash to the UK was getting pretty nasty; full of contaminants street hash – “soap bar” as it was known – became something to avoid. When the new domestically produced cannabis hit the streets it found a ready customer base.

Without agreeing with a lot of the “reefer madness V2.0” hype, the new herbal varieties were different to the oldskool hash and this difference is down to the profile of the two main chemicals in cannabis, THC and CBD. The new strains are, in general, far higher in THC and lower in CBD than most of the imported stuff we used to get. This product is what the press and politicians term, incorrectly, “skunk”.

Now just in case anyone gets the wrong idea, these new strains are cannabis, they are derived from traditional strains through cross breeding, a process humans have been doing for thousands of years and which have resulted in the food we all eat. There is nothing artificial about the new strains, but what’s missing is the folk law, the social norms for use, the accumulated knowledge which would have moderated unwise patterns of use and – just perhaps – unwise promotion or over use of certain cross breeds by some people because we don’t know the signs of an emerging problem to watch out for.

Learning to walk all over again

When new things appear there is often a period where society learns how to deal with problems and we collectively learn from mistakes, which is how social norms develop. Societies are actually very good at this and it’s a large part of the reason humans have learnt to live in all sorts of potentially dangerous environments.

One of the really stupid aspects of prohibition is it prevents people learning from shared experience because it makes it very difficult for older users to share acquired knowledge with people new to cannabis. People who discovered cannabis back in the 60’s are very reluctant to discuss what they got up to with young people for fear of being accused of “promoting drug use”, especially if their experience was good and they enjoyed it, which is what happened in the main.

The only kind of “drugs education” young people get about cannabis from official sources these days is essentially designed to encourage them not to use. For those who decide to ignore that advice, for whatever reason, well they’re on their own. These new users of course are the very people who need guidance. Government sites like Talk to Frank are seen correctly as little more than propaganda and establishment bodies like the police become the enemy.

Now add the chemicals

One of the developments which has made high intensity domestic cannabis production possible in recent years has been the development of herbicides. Plants grown intensively in confined spaces, with a high turnover, are extremely vulnerable to infestation.

There’s no doubt that some if not all of the large scale grow ops which supply the cannabis trade in the UK use high levels of Organophosphate (OP) pesticides. OP’s are derived from nerve gas and are very toxic, see this page on wikipedia.  OP’s were never meant to be smoked of course, so it’s anyone’s guess what the health effects might be.

Being an illegal business, there is no regulation over the cannabis grow industry, the only concern of the growers is to maximise the crop yield and it is almost certain that much of the street cannabis contains high levels of OP pesticides.

We have no idea of the extent of this problem in the UK, the government doesn’t monitor the situation and doesn’t even seem to acknowledge it. However in the US where cannabis is legal, the situation is very different and pesticides are, rightly, a real issue now. See The Black List: Pesticides for cannabis grown legally in the US.

All this from an industry worth billions run by criminals who aren’t afraid to use violence to settle scores and to protect their patch. The grow industry is well known for its role in child exploitation in the form of slave labour and much more besides.

Not all cannabis growers are members of organised crime syndicates of course, there is a small army – maybe not so small – of hobby growers who on the whole take a pride in their product. However even these guys are likely to be using pesticides, often believing that flushing the plant at the end of its grow cycle will remove the traces, which is not true.

Contamination V2.0

Finally of course, what’s sold as cannabis may not actually be cannabis – or at least may be contaminated with a whole range of things, in the past we’ve seen glass beads sprayed onto bud to add weight and now there is the very real risk of SCRA’s – the so-called legal high “fake cannabis” being sprayed onto weak weed in an effort to give it some kick.

Prohibition; didn’t it do well?

So to recap:

We haven’t been allowed to develop social norms around cannabis use over the past 40-50 years.
We’ve been denied thousands of year of accumulated knowledge from cultures with a long experiences of cannabis.
There is no education provided to young people (or anyone else) as to how to use cannabis as safely as possible and how to avoid the pitfalls.
Older people aren’t allowed to talk freely of their experiences with cannabis
The long established strains we used to enjoy were replaced by new strains cross bred to grow well under prohibition conditions.
Violence is common within the illegal trade
Pesticides are a very real and unquantified health hazard.
Contamination is an ongoing serious health risk, again unquantified.

So all in all there’s a lot to be concerned about with the cannabis on sale in the UK that goes way beyond a simplistic “skunk scare”, we’ve got some serious issues to sort out.

The solution

So, what to do about these problems?

The first step is to stop making the problems worse and to do that we have to end prohibition, but simply ending prohibition would not be enough.

The stated aim of drugs policy is “drug control”, but the only way to control drugs is to control the trade in them and prohibition utterly fails to do that. Controlling the trade means controlling – ie regulating – what is sold and where it’s sold from. What forms these controls should take are open to debate but under a legal regime pretty much anything is possible. If it is believed very high potency (high THC) cannabis is dangerous then a minimum level of the anti-psychotic CBD can be enforced. At the very least cannabis sold can be properly graded so you actually know what you’re buying.

It should be noted that the “Reefer Madness V2.0” claims about so-called “skunk” are a very powerful argument – if they are in any way true – for a properly regulated trade and are a very strong argument against the current prohibition regime.

By the same token people who sell cannabis should perhaps have a certain level of knowledge about the plant and its effects on people. They should certainly be accountable, perhaps in the same way as people who sell alcohol.

A lower age limit for buying cannabis could be enforced in the same way as for buying alcohol – 18 seems sensible – which would go a long way to preventing kids from getting hold of it.

Probably most importantly though is accepting people will use cannabis and to stop treating them as criminals. Instead reach out to them with factual non value laden information, explain the risks and how to reduce them, including information on safer ways to consume cannabis.

Nothing on earth is totally safe, perhaps especially things we enjoy doing for fun, but ignorance and secretive behaviour can only increase the potential for harm. The law should always work so as to reduce dangers and this is impossible under the current prohibition regime. We should deal with society as it is, rather than trying to reach some cloud cuckoo drug free world, which is never going to happen.

Do all this and most of the problems attributed to cannabis will either be solved or at least greatly reduced. Of course under a fully legal trade we wouldn’t be guessing about any problems and their cause, we would know because it would all be in the open and everything would be measurable, unlike now.