Prohibition is harm maximisation of a sort not limited to the problems of gangland violence, it adds the sort of dangers only an unregulated and uncontrolled trade under the constant threat of disruption can produce; that of contamination.
It almost seems another world now, but in days gone by one of the things that could always be said about cannabis was that being a natural product, it didn’t suffer from the problems of contamination common to white powder chemical drugs. How things have changed over the past decade and a half.
It was a few years before the turn of the millennium, during the tail end of the 1990’s, that UKCIA along with other unofficial media picked up on the “Soapbar” scandal and issued its first contamination warning. Soapbar hash (so called because it looked like a bar of soap, albeit brown soap) was by far the most common form of hash on sale in the UK back then when it suddenly dropped in quality. There was a period in the late 1990’s when the hash supply consisted largely of nasty hard dark brown stuff that gave off an acrid black smoke, the problem of contamination had arrived big time.
It was around this time a contributor to UKCIA witnessed a sample of soap bar added to boiling water which turned the water a foul yellow colour. The remaining powder did at least look like cannabis, whether it had the desired effect when smoked is uncertain.
What was going on back then of course was the result of imports of hash from North Africa becoming restricted by the actions of various governments including our own in pursuit of the global war on drugs. This happened at a time when the popularity of cannabis was growing, providing the situation for a perfect storm. What supplies there were were bulked up and quality dropped through the floor.
This situation of course created the market for “home grown” cannabis, the so-called “skunk” varieties and the market shifted rapidly away from soapbar to the new herbal sources and the UK cannabis culture converted en-mass from hash to grass. Something like 10 years later the market shift had become a major issue and even the enforcement authorities eventually noticed, but that’s another story.
What was (and still is, because the stuff is still on sale) in Soapbar is very much open to question, according to Talk to Frank
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.
This describes the situation quite well, we know there’s nasty stuff in some of these so-called “hash” samples, but we don’t know what it is, no-one does.
Since then of course the situation has got a lot worse with some samples of herbal cannabis being cut with all sorts of additives from glass beads to lead, again Talk to Frank mentions this:
The Department of Health has recently received information suggesting that batches of herbal and ‘skunk-type’ cannabis have been contaminated with microscopic glass-like beads (or possibly ground glass).
Interesting they don’t say where they received the information from, suffice it to say you probably read it here (and on some other cannabis sites) first, or saw it on Youtube:
Yes, I am that Derek. Since then of course it’s all got a lot worse as this blog has documented.
Interesting then this week to see a report on the contamination issue from the Center for Public Health at John Moores University entitled ‘A Guide to the Adulterants, Bulking agents and other Contaminants found in illicit drugs’ (read if here, PDF).
It has this to say for cannabis:
So according to this report contamination of cannabis found in this study adds the risks of abdominal cramps, anaemia, nausea, fatigue, polyneuropathy, smoking related adverse effects, sore mouth, mouth ulcers, chesty persistent cough, tight chest – oh and toxic effects, seizures, coma and death. To what degree these dangers actually affect cannabis users is unknown of course because we don’t know how common the various forms of contamination are. But of course what is obviously true is that these dangers are in addition to anything the pure plant product could do and in the case of “toxic effects, seizures, coma and death”, far worse.
All this of course in in addition to the
henna, turpentine, boot polish, animal poo, and even tranquillisers.
the government’s own Talk to Frank warns us about.
As the Transform blog points out
If there is one shortcoming in the report is its failure to state that these issues are unambiguously and entirely the fault of prohibition and the illicit production and supply infrastructure it has created.
Actually the failure is a little worse than that, because this contamination isn’t only the unambiguous result of prohibition, but is actually the deliberate result of the policy and is used as an indication of success by the government for the prohibition policy. This situation is not an accidental by-product of enforcement, but is an intended result of that policy.
This report is valuable however because it provides us with something we have so far been lacking; hard evidence that contamination is a serious health issue. Because cannabis is illegal we’ve never been able to simply produce samples and get them analysed although that would have been very easy to do, prohibition has been very effective at keeping this scandal off the mainstream media.
As Transform put it:
The recommendations in the report – whilst obviously pragmatic and sensible – limit themselves to symptomatic responses within the existing legal and policy framework.
This really isn’t good enough, unless the cause of the problem is addressed the problem itself will continue. Prohibition supporters justify their policy by highlighting the claimed dangers of drug use, we should also start looking seriously at the dangers prohibition causes. At the very least, we deserve to know the extent of the problem, but prohibition prevents us even knowing even that.