The Talk to Frank cannabis page has been updated following the move from class C back to B, so it’s time to take a look at the latest version of the truth as presented by the government’s anti drug advertising campaign. Sadly this version of the truth is by far the worst yet.

Critiques of the previous versions of the Talk to Frank cannabis information can be seen in the “Government on drugs” section of the main UKCIA site; June 2003, December 2003 and January 2006 and July 2007. It’s interesting to see how the government’s agenda on cannabis has developed over that time.

Before the critique proper, a word about the website design again.

The recent update is supported by the “Cannabis messes with your mind” campaign, outlined in last weeks blog. As explained last week the existance of the “Mind” campaign makes getting to the cannabis page somewhat complicated, but as I knew what to do this time, all I had to do was wait. The Talk to Frank site uses Flash, which is fine if you have all the latest updates and – seemingly – a good enough machine. On the media machine I use for video editing and such like the site works fine, but on this (otherwise pretty good) old windows 2000 machine it’s a totally different story.

Arriving at the Talk to Frank page we’re presented with the “cannabis messes with your mind” campaign, so I clicked the A-Z of drugs link beneath it. The index page loaded instantly, then went off, the “mind” intro briefly loaded again, then vanished leaving a blank frame. I waited for over a minute for something to happen, when eventually the A-Z contents frame loaded again. Once there it was possible to click on the “C”, find cannabis and click to the information. This is, quite simply bad – no, not bad, it’s appalling website design. It is the role of any webdev worth his or her salt to make a site available – in some accessible form – as quickly as possible.

Anyway, once past the annoying contents page things settle down a bit and we get to the information proper. To save time, you can click this link to get to the Talk to Frank Cannabis page:

Talk to Frank comments are in quotes, UKCIA comments follow.

UKCIA critique of the latest cannabis information given by Talk to Frank

Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in Britain. Made from parts of the cannabis plant, it’s a naturally occurring drug.

The Talk to Frank site makes highly questionable use of the English language and this is one such example – in the first paragraph as well. Cannabis isn’t “made” from the parts of the plant, it IS a part of the plant. This is important as “made from” implies a manufacturing process of some kind, which isn’t the case.

It is a mild sedative (often causing a chilled out feeling or actual sleepiness) and it’s also a mild hallucinogen (meaning you may experience a state where you see objects and reality in a distorted way and may even hallucinate).

Well, no, not really.

Some strains of cannabis which contain certain ratios of active ingredients can be soporific, approaching “sedative” perhaps, but this is not true for all strains. Some can be very “uppy”, compatible with dancing for example – again this depends on the composition of active chemicals. As for being a mild hallucinogen, well perhaps. Cannabis certainly alters – many would claim enhances – the appreciation of music and alters (heightens) certain other aspects of the senses. Whereas it can be argued that it causes the user to see objects and perceive reality in a distorted way, it is not known for producing full-on hallucinations in the way of seeing things that aren’t there.

In truth it’s hard to pigeon hole cannabis in the way other drugs can be, the simple reason for this is that the cannabis experience in not the product of one single drug, but rather the result of a balance of many active ingredients of which THC is but one. It’s important perhaps to point out that this variation in effect is predictable and not at all random – providing you know what strain of cannabis you have. However, under prohibition of course, this is almost impossible. Frank does not draw any attention to this level of uncertainty nor the reason for it.

The main active compound in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Well, sort of. See above.

Slang: Street names for drugs can vary around the country and with different forms: Bhang, black, blast, blow, blunts, Bob Hope, bush, dope, draw, ganja, grass, hash, hashish, hemp, herb, marijuana, pot, puff, Northern Lights, resin, sensi, sinsemilla, shit, skunk, smoke, soap, spliff, wacky backy, weed, zero. Some names are based on where it comes from… Afghan, homegrown, Moroccan etc.

Some would say that the huge number of names we have to describe cannabis is an indication of just how familiar we are with it of course…

The effects

Well, as already noted, the effects of cannabis can be quite varied due to the different strains of the plant.

* Some people may feel chilled out, relaxed and happy, while others have one puff and feel sick.

Frank has this thing about cannabis making people sick. This is simply wrong, unless it’s taken in a very large dose all at once, after consuming a fair bit of alcohol or perhaps smoking it in a joint rolled with Old Holborn, it simply is not known for making people sick.

Actually, cannabis is an anti emetic and has an acknowledged role in preventing nausea in chemotherapy patients

* Others get the giggles and may become talkative.

Some also become quiet and contemplative, of course this isn’t always a good thing and can result in vegging out to daytime TV or worse.

* Hunger pangs are common and are known as ‘getting the munchies’.

Yes this can happen, but it isn’t a major feature of getting stoned.

* Users may become more aware of their senses or get a feeling of slowing of time, which are due to its hallucinogenic effects.

Indeed, and for many this is the main attraction and use of cannabis. It makes listening to music a whole new experience, especially if you’re free to dance with some of the more “uppy” strains.

Stronger ‘joints’ (e.g. typically when skunk or sinsemilla is used) may have more powerful effects.

Now this is a complex issue in which “strength” and “potency” are confused. A fuller examination of the issue can be seen on the past UKCIA blog entry “THC, CBD and the misleading concept of “Potency”.” Suffice it to say that lower potency joints can be very strong and have powerful effects, albeit very different to so-called “skunk” joints. This issue is complex, but it does no favours to anyone to over simplify it to this extent.

Some users may moderate this effect by actually inhaling and using less strong cannabis; but others may find it becomes tempting to ‘binge smoke’ them.

Interestingly this bit has been re-worded and somehow doesn’t read right. It used to say (July 2007 version)

Clearly a stronger ‘joint’ (e.g. skunk or sinsemilla) may have more powerful effects, but users may moderate this by inhaling and using less.

It’s clearly had a re-write to give a more negative message. Is there any evidence that people are tempted to “binge smoke” the stronger varieties?

The regular use of cannabis is known to be associated with an increase in the risk of later developing psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia.

This is both alarmist and wrong, it is not “known” to be associated with any such risk. Indeed, research carried out for the Home Office by Dr Martin Frisher, of Keele University pharmacy school last year seems to indicate that (From The Guardian Friday 4th April 2008)

Their confidential paper found that between 1996 and 2005 there had been significant reductions in the incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia. From 2000 onwards there were also significant reductions in the prevalence of psychoses.

The authors say this data is “not consistent with the hypothesis that increasing cannabis use in earlier decades is associated with increasing schizophrenia or psychoses from the mid-1990s onwards.”

This research has never been made public by the Home Office.

There is an important message to get across however, which is that young people under the age of around 15 or so are well advised not to use any drugs including cannabis. Young brains are still growing and developing and drug use can disrupt that process. Talk to Frank fails to give this important advice, instead loses credibility by making unsupported if not false claims.

If the recent increase in availability of stronger forms of cannabis does lead to an increase in total use by some people, this might also lead to an increase in their future risk of developing mental health problems. Nobody knows the answer to this question yet…

Since when has the concern been about stronger forms leading to an increase in use by some people and this in turn leading to future mental health problems? This is a total distortion of the situation.

The concern – whether true or not – is that cannabis with high levels of THC relative to CBD may present an increased risk of mental health problems in those susceptible to them. It may also make such illness worse in someone who already has it.

This section is appallingly bad and fails to communicate a potentially important message accurately. It should be amended urgently.

Chances of getting hooked

Oh dear, “hooked”.

Talk to Frank used to advise (July 2007 version)

There is some psychological dependence with cannabis (where there is a desire to keep taking the drug even in spite of possible harms) and this occurs in about 10% of users. There are no physical withdrawal symptoms from cannabis use.

It now says:

As with other drugs, dependence on cannabis is influenced by a number of factors, including how long you’ve been using it, how much you use and whether you are just more prone to become dependent.  You may find you have difficulty stopping regular use and you may experience psychological and physical withdrawals when you do stop. The withdrawals can include cravings for cannabis irritability, mood changes; appetite disturbance, weight loss, difficulty sleeping and even sweating, shaking and diarrhoea in some people.

Another example of the re-write adding more alarmist mis-information. It is true that cannabis can be psychologically addictive and that this can be difficult to break, but it is not physically addictive to any extent and whilst there may be mild withdrawal symptoms – most notably disturbed sleep and vivid dreams – most of the other claims made here are close to fantasy.

If you’ve only been using for a short while there should be no problem stopping but with continued regular use of cannabis, this can become more difficult. You’re also at risk of getting addicted to nicotine if you roll your spliffs with tobacco.

You are far more likely to get seriously addicted to the tobacco than to the cannabis – both physically and psychologically. The important advice not to smoke cannabis mixed with tobacco is not mentioned once.

The law

The site then deals at some length with the consequences of getting caught under the new regime. As we’re considering the health information here, this section is of no interest other than to point out the true function of the Talk to Frank website – that of promoting the government’s prohibition drugs policy.

Did you know?
* Drug driving is as illegal as drink driving. You could go to prison, get a heavy fine or be disqualified.

Fair enough

* Allowing people to take cannabis in your house or any other premises is illegal. If the police catch someone smoking cannabis in a club they can prosecute the landlord, club owner or person holding the party.

Ah yes, section 8 of the misuse of drugs act, a section that only applies to cannabis and which the government tried to extend to other drugs in 2005, but was unable to.

* Using cannabis to relieve pain is also an offence. Possession is illegal whatever you’re using it for.

True, and perhaps the sickest and most inhumane part of this government’s policy toward cannabis users.

Appearance and use

Cannabis comes in different forms.

Hash is a black or brown lump made from the resin of the plant. It’s quite often squidgy. In the past, this was the commonest form of cannabis in the UK, but this is no longer the case.

Sadly true. The reason for the decrease in supply of hash from producer countries is not explained of course, neither is the resulting commercial pressure which created the “skunk” market which now dominates.

Much less common is cannabis oil, made by separating the resin from the cannabis plant using various solvents. It is a sticky, dark honey-coloured oil.

Interestingly “oil” is a manufactured drug – being, as Frank says, an extract made by an industrial process. Some forms of hash (such as “bubble hash) made from processes such as ice extraction are also available at a price.

Herbal cannabis (grass or weed) is made from the dried leaves and flowering parts of the female plant and looks like tightly packed dried herbs.

If you ever buy cannabis containing dried leaves, take it back. Herbal cannabis is – or should be – the flowering heads. The only leaves you should get are the small ones around the flowers.

Recently, there has been an increased availability of strong herbal cannabis, containing on average 2-3 times the amount of the active compound, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, as compared to the traditional imported ‘weed’. This strong cannabis includes:‘sinsemilla’ (a bud grown in the absence of male plants and which has no seeds); ‘homegrown’; ‘skunk’, which has a characteristic strong smell; and imported ‘netherweed’. Strong cannabis is grown through processes that can include selective breeding, use of hydroponics and special heating and lighting techniques.

Actually it’s known as “Sensimilla” – or “Sensi”, but never “Sinsimilla”. The term Sinsimilla comes from the original Spanish meaning “without seeds”, but that’s not how it’s used in cannabis circles, the term is most defiantly “Sensi”.

Most people mix cannabis with tobacco and smoke it as a spliff or a joint. Some people put it in a bong or a type of pipe. And others make tea with it or stick it in food like cakes or ‘cannabis cookies’.

Of course, eating (or drinking) cannabis is – or would be – the safest way to consume it, if it were not for the extra hazards created by prohibition such as wildly varying doses and contamination. Smoking cannabis without tobacco is perhaps the most important bit of harm reduction advice that needs to be given. This section should be expanded and taken far more seriously than it is.

Cost

Prices can vary from region to region. The prices given here are an average of street prices reported from 20 different parts of Britain.  Grass is usually more expensive currently between £90 to £130, with resin (hash) at around £50 per ounce.

Of course, it’s free if you grow it yourself…

Purity

When thinking about the purity of cannabis, we can consider two separate areas: first, the ‘strength’ of the unadulterated product (ie how much THC it contains), and second how much it is ‘cut’ or contaminated:

Pardon?

Purity means how pure the product is – in other words how much contamination has been added.

As a cannabis user, it may not be possible to tell whether a particular sample of ‘skunk’ or ‘homegrown’ or ‘sinsemilla’ will have a higher potency than an equal amount of traditional herbal cannabis – because the actual potencies of different products overlap substantially.

Who writes this? In other words there’s no real difference between cannabis of any origin in terms of strength. As anyone who is familiar with such products as Thai ganja will know. But that’s nothing to do with how clean the sample is.

From a health perspective, it is important to understand that the long term impact of smoking these higher potency forms is not yet clear, but might include an increase in the risk of later developing psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia or possibly an increased risk of developing dependence. Nobody yet knows the answer on these points.

Despite us having several thousand years of experience to draw on. Honestly, if we don’t know by now, we never will. But this is still nothing to do with contamination.

The potency of herbal cannabis decreases over time in storage and is affected by what parts of the plant have been included in the product. Hence, a user has little guarantee about the ‘intensity of the high’.  The intensity of the smell of skunk or its appearance may not act as  reliable guide to the actual strength either.

The user has no guarantee about anything because of the policy of prohibition – cannabis is not a controlled drug and thus is unpredictable. A situation which is created by government policy and need not be happening.

In recent years, herbal cannabis with a gritty texture was found from suppliers who had sprayed glass on the product, possibly to alter its look and weight.

Ah, at last, a warning about contamination caused by the disruption of the trade by the police action against growers. This contamination is used as a measure of “success” by the police and government of course, as it indicates a high level of disruption to the market.

The health risks of such additions are not always clear

Contamination is a totally unknown quantity and is something any sane drugs policy would be designed to eliminate. However, as already stated, high levels of contamination are a desired outcome for the present policy. Cannabis users are being put at an increased risk caused solely by prohibition.

Cannabis resin sold as hash, especially the ‘Soap Bar’ variety, is usually cut with other substances to increase the bulk and thus to increase the supplier’s profit.  The contaminants may include a variety of substances, with reports of henna, turpentine, boot polish, animal poo, and even tranquillisers. These impurities are then smoked and inhaled  along with the cannabis resin.

Isn’t prohibition wonderful?

It can be argued that the risk caused by this government created hazard far outweigh problems caused by a properly controlled and regulated legal supply. The fact that Talk to Frank presents this information in this way is quite disgusting.

The risks

* Even hardcore smokers can become anxious, panicky, suspicious or paranoid.

If you get an bad reaction to cannabis, such as feelings of paranoia or anxiety, treat it as a waring that cannabis isn’t for you. Don’t try to carry on in the hope these feelings will go away.

that said, some strains high in THC but low in CBD may be more likely to cause bad reactions such as this. Prohibition makes it impossible to avoid such strains.

* Cannabis affects your coordination, which is one of the reasons why drug driving is just as illegal as drink driving.

Don’t drive or operate machinery when you’re stoned.

* Some people think cannabis is harmless just because it’s a plant – but it isn’t harmless. Cannabis, like tobacco, has lots of chemical ‘nasties’, which can cause lung disease and possibly cancer with long-term or heavy use, especially as it is often mixed with tobacco and smoked without a filter. It can also make asthma worse, and cause wheezing in non-asthma sufferers.

Although THC is known to reduce some kinds of cancer growth.

Certainly smoking is not recommended however, the best advice it to breath in as little smoke as possible: Never smoke cannabis with tobacco and avoid smoking methods with “shot holes”.

Whilst smoking does make asthma worse, cannabis itself is well known for its medical effects in reducing Asthma.

* Cannabis itself can affect many different systems in the body, including the heart: It increases the heart rate and can affect blood pressure.

If you’ve had a stroke or suffer from heart problems, it’s probably best to avoid cannabis.

* If you’ve a history of mental health problems, then taking cannabis is not a good idea:  It can cause paranoia in the short term, but in those with a pre-existing psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia, it can contribute to relapse.

* If you use cannabis and have a family background of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, you may be at increased risk of developing a psychotic illness.

Ah! there’s the real advice about mental health – hidden way down here near the end. Why isn’t this more prominent?

* It is reported that frequent use of cannabis can cut a man’s sperm count, reduce sperm motility, and can suppress ovulation in women and so may affect fertility.

Although cannabis users still seem to be able to breed easily enough. Are they really suggesting cannabis makes it harder to have kids?

* If you’re pregnant, smoking cannabis frequently may have some association with the risk of the baby being born smaller than expected.

Pregnant women should avoid all drugs during pregnancy ideally.

* Regular, heavy use makes it difficult to learn and concentrate.  Some people begin to feel tired all the time and can’t seem to get motivated.

Whereas others use it for its creativity enhancing effects. It is true though that cannabis can fit the “lay back and slob out” lifestyle.

* Some users may want to buy strong herbal cannabis to get ‘a bigger high’ but unpleasant reactions can be more powerful when you use strong cannabis, and it is possible that using strong cannabis  repeatedly could lead in time to more users experiencing harmful effects such as dependence or being more at risk of developing the mental health effects.

Repeated from above and just as badly worded.

In previous critiques of Talk to Frank Cannabis information it’s been obvious that the need to uphold the policy of prohibition has caused the site to be less than open about the information it gives. This latest version is quite disgusting in the way it presents false claims as fact. Talk to Frank is now no more than a drug war propaganda site, just what it promised it wouldn’t be when it started out.