How drugs work – cannabis
BBC 3
available for a few days on i-player here

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Back in July 2010 UKCIA was informed about plans to make a TV programme about the effects of cannabis. The original request was posted to the Dope smoker website and also posted to the UKCIA forum.

Do you smoke cannabis regularly?
Maybe you cook with cannabis?
Do you use cannabis for medicinal purposes?
Have you registered for the new spray, sativex?
Are you a female cannabis user?
Perhaps you’re trying to give up cannabis?

Whatever your story we are interested in hearing from you.

Pioneer Film and Television Productions are producing a new 3 part series about drugs for the BBC and are looking for people to take part in the series as contributors that we follow over a relevant period of time.

The use of recreational drugs is widespread and growing, this series is an honest and non judgmental look at drugs and the impact they have on the human body. Combining the testimony of cannabis users, medical experts and cutting edge CGI we will explain how drugs create the effects they do.

Please only contact if you are over 18 and based in the UK.

(SNIP contact details)

FYI: We are governed by strict guidelines and have a responsibility towards the people that appear in this programme, a key element is to ensure that anyone taking part in the programme is made fully aware of the potential legal implications. It is not our intention to misrepresent or take out of context any of the events that we film.

Now experience has taught many of us on this side of the cannabis law reform debate to be wary of anything connected with BBC 3, there having been some truly awful programmes put out by that channel in the past, but none the less UKCIA was happy to carry the request for people to help in the hope that just for once we might help create a good, balanced report. It has to be said that reaction received at UKCIA and posted to various forums has not been good, although LCA spokesperson Peter Reynolds seems very impressed:

Well done to the BBC for its programme “How Drugs Work – Cannabis” tonight.  It was a well balanced and wide ranging examination of the subject.  Inevitably it looked at extreme cases and was sensational in parts but I thought it was fair.

I could pick at details.  It certainly didn’t provide any comparisons against other drugs.  It should have clarified how dramatically more dangerous is alcohol and with many fewer benefits but overall it was a good job, well done.

I am encouraged by this well produced treatment of the subject.  We may well be making progress!

The truth is somewhere between the two extremes, it is true that the programme tried to present an informed view, but it also repeated some unfounded scares and stated things as fact with simply aren’t, as well as skating over one or two very obvious complications.

‘How Drugs Work – Cannabis’ was broadcast last Thursday and the promised “cutting edge  CGI” (computer generated imagery) was pretty good – if a little on the gory side in places but it showed what happens when you ingest cannabis, how it gets in to the body and what happens when it gets there in a pretty clear way.

In true BBC 3 style the programme starts off by telling us what we’ve about to see, this is becoming a standard production technique which is really a bit pointless because we’re about to see it. The programme promised to show us what happens when you get stoned and to confront the myths. Perhaps in typical BBC3 style it promised to use

cutting edge research to discover “once and for all” if this is a harmless herbal high or the ultimate bad trip

If only things were that simple! Interesting to note here the use of the term “Bad trip” which belongs to the realm of LSD and has a quite specific meaning which can’t really be applied to cannabis in all honestly.

We’re told that cannabis is the most popular illegal drug and that in the last month around 1.5 million people will have used it despite it’s illegality.

First off we’re introduced to Imagin, a 26 year old professional urban dweller who uses cannabis to relax and deal with stress who is packing ready to move house.  We’re then introduced to Mike who is described as a “straight A’s” student waiting for his results, Mike is described as a less frequent user who enjoys getting stoned with is mates in the local wood.

The programme then asked

But why is it appealing and how does it work?

So we get the first hit of CGI as the computer graphics show the (tobacco contaminated) smoke being breathed in and down into the lungs. Here we get the first bit of suspect information :

holding the smoke doesn’t increase the high but does increase the amount of tar to 4 times that given by a cigarette.

CGI then shows how the tar damages the lungs accompanied by suitable gloomy music. We’re not told anything about the smoking methods here, although as the four times the tar claim is made we are shown an image of a pure grass pipe being smoked, although before that it had all been tobacco joints. Does the smoking method make a difference? Of course it does but this isn’t mentioned. It would have been a really good time to have mentioned the tobacco issue here – after all it’s not just the tar issue with tobacco but it wasn’t mentioned.

Then we are told that after smoking the blood vessels dilate, so more blood flows which produces the red-eye often seen in stoners. We are also told that if the blood pressure drops too much it can produce a “whitey” – a loss of consciousness and perhaps vomiting – or at least a head rush. We are told this all happens immediately, but that is actually not really true. Although smoking is a quick way to get stoned, it actually takes a little while before things really start to happen, the immediate head rush is probably more a tobacco hit.

Then it goes a bit gloomy as we’re told the smokers might be putting themselves in danger:

the risk of having a heart attack increases 5 fold because the blood pressure is lowered so the heart beats faster increasing speed by up to 50%

Which is alarmist rubbish.The “5 fold” claim is pretty meaningless really – 5 times not very much is still not very much and it’s very doubtful if the heart rate of stoners  increases by 50%, that would be a truly massive increase in heart rate and you would certainly know it if it were to happen. It must be remembered of course than the heart rate does increase with exercise, which is normally regarded as a good thing. The programme warned that this increase in heart rate makes smoking cannabis “a bad idea” for everyone, which is clearly wrong unless they also advise against exercise, although it may be for those with a history of heart trouble but such people are probably advised against strenuous excercise anyway.

We’re told – correctly – that cannabis has been documented for 5,000 years, but are then told that

Cannabis affects us more more than any other drug

Which is plainly daft and simply wrong. How cannabis can be claimed to affect us more than alcohol – never mind LSD for example – simply defies logic.

We’re told that it wasn’t until 1988 that scientists discovered that our bodies are

hot wired to react to cannabis

Actually the THC molecule is partly shaped like a brain chemical Anandamide which allows it to block receptors, this is explained in a way the Daily Mail would have been proud of

cannabis penetrates the brain and hijacks the nervous system – like a herbal terrorist

and we’re told

THC seizes control of receptors and controls the way they work

All this makes it sound rather premeditated and deliberate and is true tabloid rubbish. It should be noted here that all drugs – and some things that aren’t drugs like chocolate – do not dissimilar things in the brain, this isn’t something restricted to cannabis.

We then look at some young cannabis users who have made it a big part of their lives. They tell us how cannabis “enhances the senses”, “puts them in a bubble” and that there is a strong and vibrant “cannabis culture”. One of the lads told how he got a bit carried away with cannabis and had to row back from a pointless existence of endlessly getting stoned, it has to be kept as a fun thing, which is true.

We are then shown the lads making hash flapjacks, which they take into the woods to eat. More CGI shows what happens when cannabis is eaten and the dubious claim is made that eating cannabis doesn’t make it stronger but does make it longer lasting. I have to say that in my humble opinion that simply isn’t true, eaten hash can be very much stronger than the same amount smoked. It does last longer though and, as they say it does take longer to kick in.

The programme makes the point that eating hash is more dangerous than smoking because it’s harder to gauge the dose. This is true, but only because of prohibition which makes it impossible to know how strong the initial sample is.  No mention was made of the dangers posed by contaminants, another hazard caused by prohibition. Indeed, at no time were any of the prohibition dangers mentioned.

We’re shown some shots of the kids enjoying the woodland they’ve got stoned in and the programme asks why this is happening. We’re then shown some clips of old science studies and introduced to Ravi, a 23 year old post grad student who only smokes at the weekend who is taking part in some research at University College London (UCL).

Ravi is given a dose of pure THC via a vapouriser and given a memory test which gets off to a bad start when he forgets David Cameron in now Prime Minister instead of Gordon Brown (this was filmed just after the election though). We are told how THC acts on the hippocampus region of the brain which is apparently responsible for selective memory. THC is said to disrupt this function, which explains the short term memory loss which often happens when people get stoned.  We are introduced to Dr Celia Morgan of UCL who explains that there seems to be little long term damage and indeed this might explain how cannabis leads to inspirational thought in users who make connections between thoughts as the flood of new information is reduced by the effect of THC. This is often stated as a positive effect of cannabis use by artists, computer programmers and musicians for example.

Back to the stoned kids in the woods who are now having trouble crossing ditches and making other spacial judgements.

Then we return to Imagin who has been packing and now stops for another joint.  We’re told that she thinks it is a relatively safe natural drug but the more she smokes the more she needs to smoke to feel its pleasurable effects – so the big question is – is it addictive?

Experts agree that especially heavy users can become dependent on cannabis

There is no explanation of the difference between physical and psychological addiction as we are introduced to Chis who has a cannabis problem and wants to stop. We are told that

Cannabis is the second most common referral drug to rehab clinics after heroin

Which of course ignores alcohol so is obviously not true. Celia Morgan explains that cannabis withdrawal doesn’t lead to dramatic cold turkey but can lead to sleep loss, anxiety and decreased appetite. The we’re told that

Experts believe increasing addiction is due to super strong skunk

Cue shots of police kicking in doors and taking away bags full of home grown cannabis. We’re told that

police seizures show increase in skunk prevalence form 10% 1990s to 80% last year

but of course aren’t told that the clamp down on imported hash from North Africa caused by prohibition caused the market conditions for the home grow industry, nor that really we don’t know what is being sold as cannabis because of the workings of prohibition. We are then introduced to the mental health debate with images of doom laden TV clips which end with one which asks

why is it so strong and potentially dangerous

With added doom laden echo for maximum effect. We are then told that

Skunk is the name given to genetically engineered weed designed to deliver the maximum does of mind altering THC

Which frankly is inexcusable. “Skunk” – whatever it is – is not genetically engineered, it’s selectively bred in the same way that all the food we eat has been selectively bred. In any case, as is explained shortly the real issue isn’t the dose of THC, but the ratio of THC to CBD.

The kids in the woods tell us how they regard the use of the word “skunk” as scaremongering but we are then told

grown under hot lights in enclosed spaces  the female plants are kept in a state of sexual frustration – they over produce THC to attract pollen from male plants that don’t exist.

There is so much wrong there it’s hard to know where to start. Suffice it to say that GW Pharms who produce the SATIVEX cannabis drug grow their plants in exactly this way, one strain of which is a “skunk” type high THC Sativa, but the other is a low THC Ruderalis variety. The intensive growing of sensi (seedless) weed maximises the yield but it does no more than that, the plant genetics determine what the THC concentration is.

In the hothouse environment levels of thc can soar to 5 times that of ordinary cannabis

At least they didn’t claim 50 times THC levels, but in all honesty this section of the programme is wrong and misleading, at the very least it was badly researched at worse it intentionally mislead the viewers. It then asks So how strong is the mental illness link with skunk? – not how strong is the claim of a link which would have been a better way of phrasing the question. We are introduced to Robin Murray who believes there is a link. We’re told that Robin has been

Studying it for the past 8 years

In actual fact he’s been around a bit longer than that, he became a high profile voice back in 2003 which was 8 years ago. He says that many of the people he sees are heavy skunk users and it seems to lead to a condition called psychosis. The programme tells us that

psychosis is the ultimate bad trip – an altered mental state that can include hallucinations and severe paranoia

That bad trip phrase again. We are then introduced to 31 year old David who is shown smoking a cigarette – in a way which is typical of people with severe mental illness he’s puffing frequently, no mention of the tobacco connection is made here and it should have been.  He describes his cannabis experience – and the extreme reaction he had to smoking. He’s been smoking regularly since age 13 and before long started to have strange experiences. No mention was made of the fact that he took to cannabis like a duck to water could have been a danger sign of an emerging problem, but we were told that after 3 months of cannabis use his paranoia spiralled out of control. Cue the mood music. We are told he spent 10 years in psychiatric unit. So how much is cannabis to blame?

Robin Murray explains that schizophrenia develops from a combination of risk factors which can include family history and childhood trauma – which both applied to David. Robin Murray also thought that cannabis is a risk factor.

We were told that David’s father had killed himself because of his mental illness – he had never taken cannabis of course. We are left with the statement that the link between cannabis and psychosis remains unclear.

Back to the kids in the wood who are now showing mild signs of paranoia, the programme explains

THC puts brain onto high alert – makes thing seem more meaningful than they are 1 in 10 cannabis users experience paranoia

The unspoken assumption is that this is always a bad thing, in real life of course it may not be. Unlike drunks, cannabis users don’t take silly risks for example.

We are told that the risk of mental illness might be genetic vulnerability, but we’re not told that equally it might not be. The theory that the COMT gene was linked to the risk of developing mental illness that Robin Murray was promoting a few years ago hasn’t been supported by further research.

Robin speculates that cannabis may be bad for young people under about 15 as their brains are still developing and this seems reasonable, it’s certainly a good argument for age limits and a controlled regime for sales – as is the concerns over so-called “skunk”. This point however isn’t made.

Catherine doesn’t like skunk and she takes part in another experiment by Celia Morgan at UCL. She smokes some of her own weed and answers questions designed to measure her reaction. Here we are at last introduced to the fact that different varieties of cannabis contain different amounts of the two main ingredients THC and CBD. Amazingly this is the first time CBD has been mentioned.

Catherine’s weed is analysed and is found to contain 7% THC and 0.4% CBD, which is classed as high CBD (actually that’s not very high).

She is then given some pure THC which we are told is the

lab equivalent of skunk

and the tests this time show increased levels of paranoia. But it should be noted that as UCL is giving human volunteers pure THC at recreational doses so they can’t be too worried about the causal links to psychosis, it would after all be regarded as unethical to give people “bad trips”.

We are told that

cannabis should be high in CBD – like hash or normal weed

Which is possibly true, but put like this misleading; hash made from “skunk” will be “skunk” like in composition. Of course, because of prohibition there is no way to know the composition of the cannabis on sale, if this is a real problem this point really should have been made.  But we are told

So here in the UK cannabis comes with health warnings and a possible prison sentence of up to 5 years for possession  but in US its a whole different story California

and we are shown a very different world, yet still there is no highlighting of the dangers posed by our regime.

The programme ends with a quick look at medical cannabis use and it is pointed out that medical users are treated as criminals here, yet people do get relief from cannabis. We’re shown SATIVEX in use and we are told – correctly – that it is cannabis and is legal although not that it is still classed as having no medicinal value.

So in summary perhaps not too bad for BBC 3, certainly not as bad as some of the rabid rubbish we’ve seen over the years but it was spoilt by being seriously wrong in places and sadly the programme even perpetuated some of the myths it promised to dispel. Better than some of the rubbish we’ve seen maybe, but still a long way from being good.