“Skunk” is not “genetically engineered”

A few weeks ago this blog carried a critique of a BBC programme about cannabis called “How drugs work” – read it here. The programme contained a misleading and wrong claim:

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

This is going further than “genetically modified” which is a description that has been used quite a lot recently to describe “skunk” type cannabis and has even found it’s way into peer reviewed scientific papers. One such paper was written by Dr Celia Morgan, a Research Fellow in the Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit of  Clinical Health Psychology at University College London. She used the term in a paper entitled Cannabinoid combination affects cannabis-linked psychological symptoms, reviewed here in April 2008

there are higher levels of D9-THC in ‘skunk’ or genetically modified strains of the plant.

This, along with other issues raised in that paper lead to an exchange of e-mails between Celia and myself which produced an interesting result. Regarding the GM claim the exchange was as follows:


As an aside I am also somewhat surprised to see your use of the term “Genetically modified” in relation to cannabis. You should be  aware that no cannabis is genetically modified and I’m simply amazed that error wasn’t picked up by peer review.

Celia replied:

In relation to your second point, the term ‘genetically modified’ was not meant in the way it is used in the media today, i.e. in relation to the so-called franken foods. Farmers have been ‘genetically modifying’ crops i.e. cross-breeding them to get better strains, for centuries. We meant to imply that skunk is a cross-bred plant, which may possibly have been bred to have a higher THC content. This, in scientific terms does constitute genetically modifying something, as you are indeed modifying its genetics.

I replied:

Sorry to come back on this point again, but it is very important.

(snip the text above which I quoted in the e-mail)

But the plant is still cannabis, all of the genes it contains are cannabis genes.

To my surprise GM doesn’t in fact appear to be a very scientific term. I looked for a definition in several genetics text books in the library at work and couldn’t actually find one. I did though find this definition from a google search for ‘define: Genetically Modified’:

> A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism in which the
> genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur
> naturally by mating and/or combination.

Several similar definitions are also given for GMO.  That being the case it would seem to support my view that the term GM specifically does not include selective breeding.

I hope you can appreciate why this is important and is not just a matter of semantics. Over the past few years there has been much mis-reporting in the tabloid – and even quality end – of the press and if such terms as GM are used in scientific publications without being challenged the press will feel justified in doing likewise.

I would like to ask that you correct this unintentional error please.

To which Celia replied:

Hi Derek,

I see your point now and agree that describing cannabis as ‘genetically modified’ could be used negatively in the media. I will write to the journal and ask them to print and erratum.

Very best wishes


What makes this interesting is that the claim that “skunk” is “genetically modified” was made in the BBC programme at around the point where Celia Morgan was interviewed, although the claim was not attributed to her.

A contributor to another cannabis forum has made a compliant to the BBC regarding this use of the term “genetically engineered” and has had a reply from the BBC

“The ‘How Drugs Work’ production team have confirmed that having discussed this issue with the experts who helped with the progs, we can say that ‘Skunk’ has been grown from strains inbred to produce increased levels of THC.

This involves genetic changes, therefore it is genetically modified though not in the sense the term is used for foodstuffs. This research has been reviewed by a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and Professor of Psychopharmacology.”

The term used in the programme was “genetically engineered”, which certainly implies human interference with the genetic code. But in any case  selective breeding does not bring about genetic changes, this is simply wrong. It can add nothing to the plants genes which is not already there, it is, as the name indicates, simply a process of selection. As Celia was involved in the programme and the explanation given by the BBC is so similar to her explanation to me in 2008, it would seem a  fair bet she is the origin of that claim, but of course we have no way of knowing.

The issue is not simply one of semantics however, as Celia seems to have accepted in her e-mails to me. Genetically modified is a highly emotive term, implying the use of a technology which is widely mistrusted by the public. It’s inclusion in a supposedly factual programme like this is bad enough, if it’s being done under the guidance of a respected expert in the field is especially worrying. This is even more so as it’s used to underline the claims of harm to mental health from cannabis use, adding to the reefer madness scare.


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.

10 thoughts on ““Skunk” is not “genetically engineered”

  1. Finally someone with more credit to the cannabis movement has made this more public. So far I’ve had to correct many people who tried proving to me that “skunk” had unnatural genes and was man made plant. All this media’s reefer madness is getting on my nerves.

    Peace and Harmony

    P.S. There is a documentary called “should I smoke dope?” UKCIA, if you’ve seen it please give me some of your views on that. I thought that this woman was bold enough to show the real side of cannabis and how it should be consumed and sold.

  2. Excellent point, Derek! “Genetically engineered” (rhymes with”weird”, “sneered” etc.) is prohib scare propaganda, but “genetically selected” is just good old darwinizing as generations of humans have done.

    Example: DOG (Canis) has been “genetrically selective-bred” for many milleniums and now you can get anything from a 2-pound Pekingese adult to an adult St. Bernard 200-pounder, which no one finds surprising. Well surely there’s nothing more starling* oops sorry startling about breeding DAGGA (Cannabis) for say 2% thru 20% thc range between varieties?

    1, From the demonizing of “skunk” you can tell they are taking HOT BURNING OVERDOSE $IGARETTE PAPER smoking methods (which may contain tobacco admixtures)for granted, i.e. the high thc is being blamed for effects of

    a. heat shock

    b. carbon monoxide

    c. 400 combustion toxins

    d. nicotine addiction.

    2. Doing the math: if the 500-mg. papergiant (“joint”, get it?) is replaced by one or two 25-mg. single tokes in a screened midwakh (see Wikipedia: One-hitter (smoking)), then a 10- to 20-times ratio increase in THC strength of the cannabis is compensated for on the spot. (The same only better goes for a GBP400 vapouriser, but you can make your own one-hitter for pennies.)

    Thus after eliminating the $igarette paper format (a bum wRap) which was invented to trick nicotine addicts into buying the most possible tobacco, all concerns about “strength” of the cannabis are moot.

    What stands in the way? The MONEY power of the tobacco lobby to fund lies out of political mouths, but you knew that already.

    *In 1784 Wolfgang Mozart succeeded in training a starling (“Star” in German) to sing or tweet the following tune

    ” BC|D D D G|`F#F#`G G|`A A ABCA|B – – ”

    i.e. 17 notes, or 20 if you count three grace notes (`). (Wolfgang used the tune (expanded to 8 phrases total) for the final Variations movement of Piano Con. in G #17K453.) Before he could use that Bird to develop a “GENETICALLY SELECTED” strain of music Stars oops sorry starlings, it died (1786).

    In 1791 he adapted the same tune into the Magic Flute aria “Der Vogelfaenger bin ich ja” where the buffoon Papageno identifies himself as the famous birdcatcher. If you wanted to use the term “engineered” it could apply to the technical changes made in that music to transfer it from concerto to opera setting.

  3. And the choice that people rightly demand to be able to smoke however they damn feel?

  4. Skunk has been “Selectively Bred”. Just like every other crop plant; every racehorse; every pedigree dog…

    I don’t understand Dr Morgan’s use of “genetically modified” it is not relevant in this case. But she is Psychologist not a Botanist so we shouldn’t be too hard on her she was just trying to make good copy.

  5. By their Logic. Ak47 is being imported by the Taliban!. Its the usual way cannabis is reported. In a foolish attempt to sigmatise it.
    Same old same, just different tactics. Rehashed if you will. now if that rehashed was growen in Pakistan we are funding someone else at odds with the system. Skunks has been around over 20 years . Its Propaganda we really have to remind ourselves and others. Cannnabis is the future of this speck in the universe. I think of it this way. The boy with his finger in the hole in the Dyke. No hope, if another hole appears. We are sick of the lies stigma, the sick going without a natural medicine on and on we can go. Skunk is today’s Reffer Madness story thats all lets put it in its place and move on. Please. Landrace Cannabis is the strongest on earth were it still remains, Skunk is a word. Its like living in the Truman Show, The games up. Society needs to move on really.

  6. you define GMO as:
    > A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism in which the
    > genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur
    > naturally by mating and/or combination.

    If ‘Skunk’ has been bred under high ultra violet radiation from artificial lights, and thus THC/CBD levels have been altered in a way that would not otherwise be possible in nature, then isn’t that GMO?

    I stick with %100 pure african landrace all the way… i find natural genetics to be WAY more medicinal then skunk varieties… in fact anything thats bred indoors seems to lacka COMPLETE medicinal effect.

  7. Hi Guerrilla

    No, it’s not GM. The genes in the plant are still 100% cannabis genes, how you grow them isn’t going to change that.

  8. Thank you. As someone who has moved here from California where the term “skunk” is used as a modifer (e.g. skunky) to describe cannabis with a particularly pungent aroma that is somewhat tinged with ammonia, thus reminiscent of the scent sprayed by literal skunks, it has long drive me nuts that this word has been mis-applied and turned into the new bogeyman to describe super-strong mutoid weed. It’s ridiculous. Horticulturally it just refers to a savita-indica cross, but this does not guarantee a higher THC content. Rather, the reasons for cross-breeding are to do with what the connoisseur might call “the stone”, getting the type of stone just right. Some pure Indicas have higher THC content than some “skunks”. That programme was absurd and I also wrote a very long letter to them critiquing a lot of the loaded language and scaremongering featured. I never sent it because I got bored but seeing now that people have gotten responses, I think I will go ahead and finish and send. By the way – please sign the petition to Keep Experts on the Drugs Advisory Council. Not gone live yet, edits to preamble to be published tomorrow (May 21st) , but the petition is accurate text. http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/keep-experts-on-the-drugs-advisory-council.html

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