Talking About Cannabis: Cannabis Facts – A critique

This is another blog entry about Talking About Cannabis,  what follows is a critique of the Talking about cannabis “Cannabis facts” page which has been re-written this week. It contains a lot of misinformation about cannabis and is seriously misleading. The information presented on Talking About Cannabis was written by Mary Brett apparently.

Talking About Cannabis – Cannabis Facts critique

The page start with two quotes, the first from Psychiatrist Robin Murray:

‘Five years ago, 95 per cent of psychiatrists would have said that cannabis doesn’t cause psychosis. Now I would estimate that 95 per cent of them would say it does’.

Now I’ve heard Robin talk about cannabis and psychosis on a number of occasions and I have never heard him make such a categorical statement. However, it was Robin Murray who helped launch the National Drugs Prevention Alliance campaign against the original reclassification to class C as this blog reported back in November and it was as a part of that campaign Robin made that claim. That isn’t to deny any relationship between cannabis and mental illness of course, but it would be interesting to hear if he was still of that view, we’ll come back to Robin Murray and his cannabis studies later.

The second quote is from the Chief Constable of Merseyside:

An elephant has walked into the room and nobody’s noticed; that elephant is skunk cannabis.

Ah yes, a man who would no doubt tell you that cannabis is a “controlled drug”. Interesting then that this change happened with, apparently, no-one in charge noticing.

The two quotes set the stage for the claims that follow.

It starts with a question: “So what is skunk cannabis?”

It is not the same stuff as you may have smoked at college in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and can have devastating effects on the young.

Utter rubbish. For a start, cannabis use – especially heavy cannabis use – by the young has always been a bad thing. The point is it didn’t used to happen, these days it does. There was always strong cannabis around back then, the likes of Thai sticks, although perhaps not widely  available certainly weren’t unknown. Cannabis was never this mild, weak substance, we used to get very very stoned back then.

THC (the ingredient that gives the high) has increased in the new super-strength cousin of cannabis – sinsemilla (called ‘skunk’ because of its pungent smell).

It’s called “Sensi”, with an “e” in cannabis circles. Sensi weed is weed grown without male plants and again is nothing new.  True Skunk is a cross breed of cannabis which can be grown in any way you like, it can indeed have seeds.

What is true is there has been the development of indoor cultivation, often using hydroponics  and growing strains which have been selected to grow well under lights. It simply doesn’t make sense to allow males to grow in this type of operation as males have no retail value. This type of intensively grown cannabis is known on the street as “skunk”, but in fact may be any one of a number of varieties.

The reason this has come about of course, is because of prohibition and the huge demand for the illegal product.

The average THC content of cannabis herb was around 1-3% (hardly available now). Today’s specially bred varieties have a THC content of on average 16%, and sometimes more. Hashish (resin) has always had THC content around 4-6%.

Oh dear. This is far too complex to go into here, but it simply isn’t possible to make such statements because the data simply isn’t there. Proper records of cananbs strength/potency have not been kept over the decades and there has never been a proper standardised way of making the measurments.  The recent Home Office study from 2008 is the best we have. A critique of the weak science that study was based on is here (THC, CBD and the misleading concept of “Potency”).

The mean THC concentration (potency) of the sinsemilla samples was 16.2% (range = 4.1 to 46%).
The mean THC concentration (potency) of the traditional imported herbal cannabis samples was 8.4% (range = 0.3 to 22%);
The mean potency of cannabis resin was 5.9% (range = 1.3 to 27.8%).

In truth, cannabis has always been a substance which has come in a wide range of strengths. Claiming “skunk” is something “new” is simply misleading and alarmist rubbish.

We are then told that – according to “police findings” – actually the Home Office cannabis potency study mentioned above –  how the cannabis supply in the UK is now dominated by criminal gangs running large scale “grow-ops”. This is basically true, except of course that it’s caused by the workings of prohibition which have both removed the previous supply of (supposedly) safer old style hash and thus left the huge consumer demand to be filled by organised crime. The cause of this situation isn’t mentioned of course.

Then we return to the work of Professor Robin Murray:

Professor Robin Murray and his team at the Institute of Psychiatry are conducting research whereby healthy volunteers with no history of mental illness are given THC. All have had psychotic symptoms, proving we now know that THC causes psychosis – it is just a matter of the amount given.

This is very, very wrong and is a gross distortion of Prof Murray’s work. For any study to be carried out on Humans the researcher has to be pretty sure no ill harm will come to his subjects. Debra Bell made this claim some time ago in the Guardian Newspaper and was slapped down by Professor David Nutt, the Chairman, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who wrote

In its recent assessment the ACMD considered all the latest research, including studies focusing on THC and psychosis. Those studies do not provide evidence of a significant or extensive causal link between cannabis use and persistent psychotic symptoms or schizophrenia. Moreover, the fact that such research has ethical approval indicates that the researchers and their regulators are confident that this is not going to happen.

That would seem pretty clear.

Back to the page under discussion:

Panic attacks, paranoia (excessive fear and anxiety often of a perceived threat) and acute psychosis (loss of contact with reality) can occur almost immediately.

It is true that some people react badly to cannabis and paranoia is a part of that. However, to suggest  the above happens is lets say “over egging the pudding” more than a little. Again, this is just alarmist.

Cannabis can affect lungs, cardiac, immune and reproductive systems and impairs driving – if you smoke a joint today you should not be driving tomorrow.

Lungs – this is a smoking issue and we’ve been through that many times before and there are plenty of options  for safer use campaigns. Cardiac issues are clear enough in that people with heart problems are best advised to avoid cannabis, along with too much exercise because cannabis does raise blood pressure, albeit only temporarily. Damage to the reproductive systems is a bit OTT, certainly cannabis users are able to breed normally and have normal enough children.

As regards driving – which really isn’t a health issue – well, there are enough studies to conclude that although cannabis does impair driving ability it’s effect is mild. See the UKCIA research library or read the Transport Research Laboratory research study from a few years back here. Sensible advice is not to drive stoned, but the next day after one joint is fine.

Next we get some kiddy stats:

Government findings: Latest figures (2007, from ‘Smoking Drinking and Drug Use’, Home Office) show that the age of first use is falling – the age of beginning is as low as 10.

Regular drug use is rising among 13-15 year olds.
Cannabis is the drug of choice for 14-15 year olds.
Only 1 per cent of parents think their child may be using drugs.

The Home Office study ‘Smoking Drinking and Drug Use’ is online here. It’s a big document but we can quickly pull this from it:

ten per cent of pupils said they had taken drugs in the last month, down from 12 per cent in 2001

25 per cent of pupils said they had tried drugs at least once. 17 per cent of pupils reported taking drugs in the last year. These proportions have fallen since 2001 when they were 29 per cent and 20 per cent respectively

Of course cannabis is the (illegal) drug of choice for most people who take drugs, so obviously it’s going to be the drug of choice for children. But of course, these figures are deeply worrying as children using any drugs is clearly wrong, indeed it would seem they are doing so massively out of proportion to adults. If that is true, it’s yet another indication of the failure of prohibition.

Talking About Cannabis goes on

Drug Education: current drug education is principally one of Harm Reduction (children are going to find and use drugs so our duty is to ensure they do so more safely and give them ‘informed choice’) even for children as young as 7.

As far as cannabis is concerned the amount of harm reduction education given is practically zero.  This, of course, is a swipe at harm reduction as a philosophy, Talking About Cannabis is a prohibition supporting site, as such it opposes harm reduction in favour of zero tolerance and just say no. This is why, despite pointing out the effects of prohibition, no honest link of cause and effect is made.

There is a case to be made against drug education of any type in schools however in that it runs the risk of doing “product placement” – effective long term advertising in fact and that doesn’t matter if its say “no” or “know”.

Now we go off topic a bit and get warned about “drugs” in general:

Treatment: September 2008, Mike Trace (CEO of RAPT) spoke of the urgent need for residential centres for young addicts (under 18s). Only 20 per cent of residential rehab beds in the UK are for adolescents and there is little provision for emergency intake.

Rehab referrals from GPs rarely occurs.

Earlier this year the National Treatment Agency published the figure of 25,000 young people under the age of 18 getting treatment for drug and alcohol problems – up 8,000 on figures produced 18 months before. (NTA, ‘Getting to Grips with substance misuse amongst young people’ 20008).

We seem to be talking about all drugs here (including alcohol) and the report mentioned ((NTA, ‘Getting to Grips with substance misuse amongst young people’ ) is online here. The NTA claim that

there is little evidence to support the perception that drug and alcohol use is spreading among young people.

and go on to say

it is true that substantially more young people are receiving specialist treatment and support for drug and alcohol misuse, and the problems related to it.This is because the availability of specialist misuse services has expanded dramatically in recent years, along with the efforts of mainstream children’s services to screen and identify young people for substance misuse.

So while it’s clear this is another example of Talking About Cannabis cherry picking stats and failing to back claims up with proper references, we do have a problem with children and drugs. All harm reduction can hope to do is to do what it says on the tin – reduce harm. It can’t minimise it of course without the proper controls only a legal regime can bring.

However, back to the killer weed:

Long-term Effects: Cannabis users can develop an overpowering craving for the drug. This is psychological dependence. These cravings can persist for a long time and come back again after a person has stopped, even the sight of drug equipment may trigger them.

There is no craving with cannabis, at least not in the way there is with tobacco. Psychological dependence is an association of place or activity with the use of the drug, so if you’re used to getting stoned when you sit in a sunny field, you’ll feel like getting stoned when you try to sit in a sunny field having given up.  Many things work like this – not al of them drugs and psychological addiction can be hard to break, but again, it’s not going to make you climb the curtains in the way that a tobacco craving will do.  At the very least, this is badly overstated.

It should be noted that physically addictive drugs also cause psychological addiction. Quitting tobacco of course involves breaking both types.

Physical dependence happens when cannabis takes the place of the natural neurotransmitter anandamide, in the brain. Because the cannabis is substituting this chemical, production of the natural chemical is greatly reduced.

Well, not quite. In fact the problem is the brain compensates for the blocked receptors – essentially by making new ones.

When the drug is stopped the receptor sites are left empty. They have to be filled otherwise withdrawal set in with all its distressing and uncomfortable feelings of irritability, tiredness, restlessness, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and sometimes violence (especially with ‘come down’ or withdrawal.)

Withdrawal leaves an excess of receptors and hence an apparent lack of messenger chemical. Again, the brain will compensate, but it takes some time. This is where the slow release property of cannabis comes in:

Withdrawal from cannabis is not as dramatic as that from heroin, as the water-soluble heroin leaves the body quickly – a fix is needed about every 4 hours.

Indeed – and for most people withdrawal from cannabis is pretty mild even after long term use, usually it means vivid dreams and maybe disturbed sleep, but little more. There are no heroin type withdrawal symptoms.

It is estimated that of those who try cannabis, 10% will become addicted.

Or alternatively it is estimated that of those who try cannabis, 90% will not become addicted. Of course, we don’t know who estimated this addiction rate, Talking Aobut Cannabis doesn’t tell us. A non-addiction rate of 90% is pretty low really.

More youngsters are being treated in the USA for marijuana addiction than for alcohol.

More youngsters in the USA are refereed to treatment via the criminal justice system for cannabis than for alcohol. The USA of course, is the home of prohibition and has amongst the highest rates of cannabis use anywhere.

Anxiety, depression, apathy, decline in academic performance, negative impact on cognition, and opting out are all common because of the long-term persistence of THC in the brain cells, all the neurotransmitters in the brain are impaired.

Hype and misinformation. A lot of successful people seem to use cannabis without a problem and only a minority have serious problems. This is another issue with prohibition, we really don’t know the profile of the user group and we can’t study it because of the illegality.Such claims are meaningless without solid data to base them on.

A myriad of new connections are made in the learning and memory processes during adolescence. So we can see that ading THC into a developing brain, even with one joint a week or even a month, can mean a permanent presence of the drug.

But not necessarily a diminution of the ability to learn. That said, there are plenty of reasons to keep kids away from all drugs. Sadly Talking About Cannabis isn’t campaigning for proper control and regulation of the trade however.

It should be remembered in all this that the vast majority of cannabis users are adults.

It is the possible link with mental illness that is probably most disturbing.

One in four of us carries a faulty gene for dopamine transmission (the neurotransmitter in the brain – the amount is increased). If cannabis is used in adolescence, if a young person has one copy of this gene the chances of a psychotic illness is raised by 5 to 6 times, if copies have been inherited from both parents, the risk is ten-fold. (Caspi et al 2005)

Beware of quoting science you really don’t understand! It was a nice, neat theory that the COMT gene was responsible for an increased risk of psychosis being caused by cannabis, but the COMT gene theory hasn’t stood the test of scientific examination. Brain studies are never written in plain English, but try this:

From Schizophrenia Bulletin
Is COMT a Susceptibility Gene for Schizophrenia? Hywel J. Williams; Michael J. Owen; Michael C. O’Donovan 2007

In this review, we consider the evidence for and against the involvement of COMT in schizophrenia. The current data allow us to virtually exclude a simple relationship between schizophrenia and the Val/Met variant previously thought to dominate COMT function. However, recent data suggest a more complex pattern of genetic regulation of COMT function beyond that attributable to the Val/Met locus. Moreover, it is also clear that there is a complex nonlinear relationship between dopamine availability and brain function. These 2 factors, allied to phenotypic complexity within schizophrenia, make it difficult to draw strong conclusions regarding COMT in schizophrenia. Nevertheless, emerging research that takes greater account of all these levels of complexity is beginning to provide tantalizing, but far from definitive, support for the view that COMT influences susceptibility to at least some forms of psychosis.

In plain English, there might be a role for the COMT gene, but it isn’t as simple as was claimed and isn’t just a matter of a simple variant common to perhaps 25% of the population as Talking About Cannabis suggests.

Schizophrenia is usually a chronic (long-lasting) or often lifetime condition. There is evidence that cannabis users increase their chances of developing this condition by two or three times. In scans of the brain, similar damage has been seen in the brains of daily adolescent cannabis users and adolescent schizophrenics (non-users). (Schizophrenics have an excess of dopamine in the brain, those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease have too little).

Oh dear. If this were true there would be a clear increase int he rates of psychosis by now and there are not. There has always been schizophrenia and it’s always affected the same age range – late teens early 20’s in the main, nothing has changed in that respect.

Now it is apparently true that ill people seem attracted to cannabis, it does, after all, work on the part of the brain affected by schizophrenia. It could also be that heavy cannabis use by young people is a danger sign and we should be making a lot of effort to keep kids away from cannabis and there should be age limits on sales.

The relationship of cannabis to mental illness is something we need to understand and to do that we need tobe able to study it and quantify it. While outfits like Talking About Cannabis treat the issue as a dark threat to be scared of, we’ll never be able to do that.

Schizophrenia has nothing to do with Parkinson’s incidentally.

Suicide and violent death: a Swedish study found more suicides among cannabis users than those who used other ‘harder’ drugs. (The manner of death was more violent. Jumping from a high building involved cannabis users only).

This is pure fiction, laughable.  How can anyone seriously claim that there are more cannabis users committing suicide than those of any other drug? Cannabis users are not known for jumping from high buildings. Total, utter, rubbish. Interestingly no proper reference is given for that and google didn’t find anything.

A cannabis personality is characterised by becoming inflexible, having fixed opinions and fixed answers to questions. Users often find it difficult to express themselves, can’t take criticism, blame is often placed everywhere but than with themselves, and find they can’t plan their day. They can become precociously independent, and attempt ‘adult’ ventures when still immature.

I’m sure all of use have met some cannabis users who fit that description, but we’ve also met loads who don’t, we’ve also met loads of people likehtat who have never touched cannabis.

Again, no research or study is quoted because non exist, these outlandish claims are just stated as fact. They are not. The claim that cannabis users become “precociously independent, and attempt ‘adult’ ventures when still immature” is just plain strange.

Often young users put themselves in dangerous situations and at risk, this is because cannabis can adversely affect the area of the brain that keeps you safe, which develops after the area that can cause recklessness.

Actually, cannabis does the exact opposite. If anything it makes users paranoid of doing things and far less likely to take risks than they would do sober. This effect was observed especially clearly in the driving tests mentioned above.

They can suffer from violent mood swings and their emotional development ‘frozen in time’.
Meaningful communication is often almost impossible.
At the same time users may feel lonely, and depression is common.

References? Studies? No, didn’t think so.

At this point we are just about half way down the Talking About Cannabis “Facts” page. From here on it changes to advice on how to spot cannabis use in your child and what to do about it, it’s worth mentioning that signs of cannabis use specifically do not include:

Sensitive eyes, runny nose, sores and burns on flesh, clothes, sheets.
Blood on sheets.
Burns around the mouth, rash around the mouth.


Keeping arms covered.

Perhaps we will come back to the rest of the advice on this page another day but that’s more than enough for one blog entry, suffice to say that Talking about Cannabis is not only factually wrong, but might actually be dangerous in the way it’s misleading people. Be careful out there.

UKCIA risks section

6 thoughts on “Talking About Cannabis: Cannabis Facts – A critique

  1. Ah, no wonder they’ve so much fervour with regards to cannabis prohibition, they seem to think it’s heroin?
    I love the way you guys deal with all this BS that’s posted from the other side on this issue. It’s just a shame that the people who really need to understand this stuff will probably never come to this site.

  2. This armchair approach from ill-informed moralists has always muddied the waters in terms of treating and helping people who may incur a problem through their drug usage. I work with the treatment for addictions and I find this fact sheet offensive and problematic to the work I aim to do.

    The author of these “facts” clearly has no understanding to how “facts” are obtained and supported by providing evidence – not just merely the retelling of urban myths and wild moral outrages from armchair meddlers.

    It always surprises and upsets me when people within Drug and Alcohol regurgitate wild and misleading information like this hideous supposititious list masquerading factual information. That is the most damaging and upsetting aspect of this list.

  3. I was under the impression that, typically, cannabis lowered blood pressure when you’re standing (increasing cardio/respiratory rates), and raises blood pressure when lying down (decreasing cardio/respiratory rates) etc etc.

    Well, it appears to do that to me anyhow. And pure sativas harvested early will elevate cardio rates significantly.

    Anyway, the most dangerous thing about cannabis is that we do not have a public domain research facility – the relationships between cannabinoids and cancers are well known for example.

    In the not too distant future we will all be taking a pill that contains aspirin, statins and cannabinoids.

  4. Signs of cannabis include ‘keeping arms covered’ ….. and not that the UK can be a tad on the chilly side?!?!?

  5. A few points:
    There have been extremely good records of cannabis potency from imported materiel because the Laboratory of the Government Chemist kept data and indeed samples from the early 70s (though samples decay over time).

    I do not support some of the wild claims about cannabis potency, mostly from my side of the debate (though Rose Boycott also got it wrong) and have had substantial disagreements with Mary Brett on this very issue. You might well find I agree with many things you say.

    There was I agree, always strong cannabis available (THC content) in the UK in the 60s, 70s & 80s. Cannabis strength possibly tended downwards actually as Morocco became the main supplier, often of inferior quality soap bar.

    You have though, written the whole article without mentioning the low CBD in many modern strains of cannabis, I have always thought that was a big issue in the potential for mental harm of cannabis and that is indeed what was indicated to the ACMD (who despite your comments were not unanimous about leaving cannabis at C). The decsion was not clear cut and government must always err on the side of safety.

    You also ascribe too much importance to the TAC campaign in changing government policy though of course it did raise public and media awareness.

    The prime drivers of the change back to “B”, have been Mental Health professionals including the Governments own Chief Mental Health advisor. That and the fact that when downgrading was allowed through on the nod by an otherwsie preoccupied Blair, many in government, including probably Brown, disagreed with the move and disagreed with/resented the parliamentary whipping.

    Certainly Blunkett had not had time to be read in to the subject when he made his announcement to the HASC so it did not seem to have been well considered.

    So ill considered was it, that the penalties for traficking all Class C drug had to be raised otherwise the politically unnacceptable situation would have been higher penalties for smuggling tobacco than for cannabis.

    Apart from changes to the product (higher THC & low CBD), the big diferrence between now and the 60s & 70s cannabis scene, in my view, is age at first use and age at first regular use. This is a social change brought about, in large part, because of proselytysing about cannabis use and the downplaying of the potential for serious harm from it.

    A failure to achieve educational or other human potential through cannabis use, in early teens or before, is, for many young people, a whole of life affecting event.

    The battle about cannabis classification and even legalisation has probably been put to bed in the UK. I suggest you get over it. I do not regularly read your site so if you want me to respond again to anything you will need to e-mail me.

  6. David

    Readers might not recognise the name, but I assume you are the David Raynes of the National Drug Prevention Alliance.

    Welcome to UKCIA.

    First I would challenge your claim that “extremely good records of cannabis potency from imported materiel” were made. There was certainly no effort to ensure the samples tested were selected in any statistically valid way for example. Proper statistical sampling is essential for any scientifically valid record keeping.

    Secondly, the CBD content of seized cannabis was never routinely measured. Simply measuring the THC level is close to pointless as you seem to appreciate.

    I’m glad to hear you distance yourself from the more extreme claims made about cannabis potency and especially from the statements made by Mary Brett. You should perhaps be concerned that “your side” of the debate is very much in the hands of people like Mary Brett these days.

    As regards the issue of CBD, I suggest you read a bit more of UKCIA – both this blog and articles on the wider site. If you do, you will see it’s an issue that has been examined in some depth.

    On the claim that modern strains are very low in CBD, there may be some truth in this, but it’s also likely to be a feature of cannabis being grown to be used as herbal, rather than hashish. Indeed, a presentation at the second cannabis and mental health conference in London in 2007 (the one you didn’t attend) the claim was made by a speaker that South African Dagga contains almost no CBD. I can’t verify that, but if true that would mean “traditional imported herbal Cannabis” would often have been very low in CBD.

    Unless a proper study is done of traditional cannabis to discover the ratios of THC to CBD we will never know the answer to that claim.

    Also if you care to read the wider website, you will see the cannabis and mental health issue is one UKCIA has been following with some interest.

    You will be aware that many of the claims “your side” made have not been supported by further research and that also several leading psychiatrists have called for proper controlled legalisation of the trade because of their concerns, Zerrin Atakan and Jim Van Os for example.

    Again, if you care to read the site you will see that UKCIA did not support the reclassification to C. It was, for many reasons, at best pointless and at worse quite dangerous. The need for law reform made here is based on arguments which can be summed up by the phrase “cannabis is not a controlled drug”.

    You are correct to identify the issue of children and cannabis. This is a direct result of the uncontrolled and uncontrollable mess prohibition has caused, the very policy of course that your organisation supports and promotes.

    The whole situation is clearly not sustainable and the debate a long way from being resolved. I fear that far from being over as you claim, it will run and run for some time yet.

    Derek Williams

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