“Skunk”, Reefer Madness, legalisation. Stuff like that.

The word “skunk” being used to describe the dodgy, supposedly high THC potency herbal cannabis being sold on the streets in the UK is very unpopular with cannabis law reform activists, although it’s widely understood to mean dodgy street weed by the general public thanks to a relentless media campaign over the past 10 or so years.


Sir Robyn Murray

If any one person can be credited with promoting – some would say inventing – the term “Skunk” as used to describe street weed, it’s Prof Robin Murray of London’s Kings College. Prof Murray was one of the prime movers in the re-launch of the reefer madness claims – reefer madness V2.0 – in the early 2000’s, exactly one year after cannabis had been downgraded from class B to C by the Blair government. It wasn’t only Prof Murray of course, the prohibition lobby jumped at the chance to spread the fear of a coming mental health catastrophe caused by the dreaded “skunk”. The key claim made by Prof Murray and associates is that so-called “skunk” contains very little CBD and CBD is important in protecting against mental health problems.

As a propaganda offensive, reefer madness V2.0 and the “skunk” panic have been very successful. Mental illness is one of the few remaining taboos for most people and even though the message has softened over time to reflect a truer situation the media still plays on the fears of “skunk” and madness.

Don’t get the idea I’m accusing Robin Murray of being a prohibition mad liar, I’m not. He is a highly respected scientist and his arguments, along with several other highly regarded people in the field have provided a degree of authority on which the mental health claims have been made against so-called “skunk” and frankly few if any cannabis campaigners are qualified to dismiss this work, no matter how much we disagree with the claims.

So where does this leave those of us who want to see cannabis legalised? Surprisingly perhaps, in an amazingly strong position; it gives us an argument which shakes the very foundations of prohibition, it gives us an agenda which is being taken seriously by an ever-increasing number of people because it is based firmly on using the warnings given to us by these respected scientists; it’s the agenda of demanding a controlled cannabis trade.

In the past this desire to see a regulated trade was something many cannabis campaigners simply wouldn’t accept. “Cannabis”, they argued “had to be free”. Regulation was seen by many as a form of partial prohibition. This schism split the cannabis law reform movement and set the campaign back badly, which was no doubt the aim of the prohibition campaigners.

Before Reefer Madness V2.0 the idea of how to regulate the trade was very vague, but now, thanks to the work of people like prof Murray, we can say exactly what it means. The more the idea that high potency so-called “skunk” is dangerous and likely to cause mental health problems becomes established, the easier it becomes to demand a regulated trade to control the Potency of commercial cannabis. By “potency” of course, we mean the THC/CBD ratio

But isn’t cannabis a controlled drug already?

Cannabis is called a “controlled drug” by the government. It’s “controlled” by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which is the act that prohibits the possession, trade in or cultivation of cannabis. In short, the act defines “control” as meaning “prohibited”. The trade in cannabis isn’t supposed to exist and the only tool the government has is the one they already use; to try to stamp the trade out wherever they find it and to be fair, this hasn’t been entirely successful.

The result is the trade that does exist – actually a multi billion pound industry reaching into every city, town and village in the country – is not actually controlled in any way at all. Indeed there’s no way to ensure that what is being sold as cannabis is even cannabis let alone anything else. In short, it’s not difficult to argue that the one thing the present drugs policy is not is drug control, at least in any plain English use of the word “control”. The foundation the present drugs policy is built on a lie and that is a very powerful argument.

So thanks to Prof Murray and associates we have an important reason to control the cannabis trade, they’ve even explained at length what is needs – some kind of check on the THC/CBD ratio of cannabis – and this can only be done under a legalised regime.

We don’t have to agree with the claims made by people like Prof Murray, we just have to take his warnings seriously, use the concerns he and the media have so painstakingly cultivated and point out the brutal truth that if they are true, there is only one thing we can do about it.

So is the street trade really dominated by so-called “Skunk”?

Well, there’s no doubt that domestically cultivated weed (as opposed to imported) is very common and the the market changed very rapidly in the late 90’s. The cannabis trade moved from being based on imported hash made from plants that had been grown and used for thousands of years, to a market dominated by strains produced from cross breeding which have only been in mass circulation for around 40 years or so at most.

To date the only attempt to study the nature of street cannabis was carried out for the Home Office in 2008. Now from a scientific perspective, this study verged on cod science. The way the samples were collected was laughable and as any scientist will confirm the way data is collected is vitally important for the results of any study, the maxim being garbage in = garbage out and this data was garbage. Far from using a form of randomised sample collection, the samples were collected from police seizures and the method described in the study is as follows:

For operational reasons some forces chose to send in material from only one Borough Command Unit or from one of several forces collection points. Some forces experienced internal logistics problems; others were very enthusiastic and sent in everything received during the trial period.

A full critique of all this can be seen in a blog from the time here, the Home Office study is laughably bad in some respects, but it did confirm what most of us already knew, the cannabis sold on British streets had changed.

Oh and I nearly forgot, this all happened some 10 years after the market change had taken place in the UK. They call this “drug control”, really, you couldn’t make it up.

So the answer to the question “So is the street trade really dominated by so-called “Skunk”?” is “probably”, that’s the best they can do under prohibition.

So there in a nutshell is the way forward for the campaign which can be summarised simply:

Under the present drugs policy, cannabis is not a controlled drug: If some forms of cannabis are as dangerous as they tell us they are, then this is an argument for a properly controlled legal trade rather than the continued prohibition which exercises no control over the trade.

That will not go down well with some people in the cannabis campaign, but it has a hell of a lot going for it. Firstly of course, it’s true; if some forms of cannabis are dangerous then surely drug policy should do what all other forms of government policy do and work to reduce that danger, at the very least by providing consumers with the information they need to select less harmful types. It simply cannot be acceptable to have a regime that leaves consumers unaware of what they are using and that works so as to prevent any proper monitoring, let alone control, of the trade.

The thing is we don’t have to make the argument, it’s been done for us and the government and media have bought into it. All we have to do is to point out how easy it is to solve yet utterly impossible if the government carries on as it is.

Of course, it’s not the only argument we can make at the same time. We have another problem which, if it hasn’t happened yet is probably just about to; the threat of contamination of cannabis with SCRA chemicals. SCRAs are the ‘Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonist’ chemicals (meaning they act on the same receptors in the brain as does cannabis), the so-called “legal highs”, Spice, mamba etc. These drugs come in liquid form and can be sprayed over “rubbish weed” to give it a kick. SCRAs are strongly associated with addiction and mental health problems, they are truly nasty drugs and they are supplied by the same criminal outfits that now supply most of the street weed on sale.

Under prohibition of course, there is no way to stop this happening and no way to know if it has happened until we see the results.

Street cannabis is grown under dubious conditions. Apart from the well publicised issues of violence, people smuggling, funding organised crime and the high risk of fires, street weed is probably full of nasty chemicals, the result of the over-use of pesticides. Crim grows are high intensity outfits, tens, maybe hundreds of plants grown in confined spaces with a high turnover. This provides ideal conditions for infestation and the only way to control it is with high levels of pesticides. These chemicals (OP pesticides) are derived from nerve gas and were never designed to be smoked. Pesticide levels are a huge issue now in US states that have legalised, here it’s never mentioned.

Actually an important point, what effect does smoking nerve gas derivatives have on mental health?

Lastly, seeing as we’re building a case for law reform based on harm reduction, we need a safer use campaign – specifically one aimed at encouraging cannabis consumers to stop mixing cannabis with tobacco.

So there we are, this is what I would like to see us do: the cannabis law reform campaign should work to bring the commercial cannabis trade under proper control and regulation using the “skunk scare” arguments so painstakingly prepared for us by eminent scientists like Prof Murray. It’s a long way from the old “free the weed” mantra, but it’s far more in tune with the agenda most people understand for cannabis, the hard work has all been done for us and we should be using it.

By all means grit your teeth when you talk about “so-called “skunk”” and do your best to talk about “street weed”, but remember that propaganda turned and used against its originator is deadly.


All the above refers to the trade in recreational (non-medicinal) cannabis supply. Medicinal use under the direction of a doctor may well make use of 100% THC products. We’re talking about cannabis sold for non-directed use for, in the widest sense of the word, fun.


UKCIA is a cannabis law reform site dedicated to ending the prohibition of cannabis. As an illegal drug, cannabis is not a controlled substance - it varies greatly in strength and purity, it's sold by unaccountable people from unknown venues with no over sight by the authorities. There is no recourse to the law for users and the most vulnerable are therefore placed at the greatest risk. There can be no measures such as age limits on sales and no way to properly monitor or study the trade, let alone introduce proper regulation. Cannabis must be legalised, as an illegal substance it is very dangerous to the users and society at large.

3 thoughts on ““Skunk”, Reefer Madness, legalisation. Stuff like that.

  1. What’s commonly referred to as ‘skunk’ is almost exclusively a connoisseur item, restricted to experienced private growers and their friends, and rich punters.

    Cannabis found on the street might be higher in THC than cannabis of old, but it’s nowhere near the THC levels reported by the media.

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