Charles Walker MP – More skunk madness from Mary Brett.

The drugs debate is getting really interesting now, or it should be. On the one hand are the growing calls for change on the basis that the war on drugs has failed and on the other, the prohibitionists who are arguing that we can’t legalise drugs because cannabis has mutated into skunk and its a highly toxic drug that’s driving our kids insane. Instead of opening up to a full and frank examination of where we’re at, it’s a depressingly sorry debate made worse by ill-informed politicians.

Charles Walker MP
Charles Walker MP

The prohibitionists hype was trotted out again last week by yet another Tory MP;  Charles Walker MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire who has been schooled by Mary Brett, the self-appointed cannabis expert and spokesperson for of  “Europe Against Drugs“. Mr Walker introduced a short “adjournment debate” in the House of Commons on 9th June entitled “Cannabis and Psychosis (Young People)“. He stood up and ran through the usual claims used by the likes of Mary Brett to justify cannabis prohibition:

It is appropriate that my debate follows an informative debate on child protection.

Child protection is supposed to mean protecting children of course, something the war on drugs famously doesn’t do.

Up and down the country, too many families are suffering the torture of watching their children squander their futures—bright children who have so much to live for ending up with so little. All too often, that is brought about by an addiction to skunk cannabis—a drug that is ruining young lives.

Now, the obvious thing to pick up here is that the MP is claiming there is a problem with children using cannabis. In this he is right, since the misuse of drugs act the age of first use of cannabis has dropped greatly and now it is indeed not uncommon for children to be using it. This, of course, is the result of the uncontrolled nature of the cannabis trade – a point Mr Walker doesn’t seem to understand.

Even worse, it’s not as if we haven’t been here before.

"Save the children"
"Save the children" - a slogan used to end alcohol prohibition in the US

“Save the children” was a slogan used to end American alcohol prohibition, when the exact same thing had happened and alcohol was being used by children with much the same results as Mr Walker is now warning about with cannabis. Seems he hasn’t learned  from that experience…

He is building a case based on the claim that in recent years cannabis has changed from being the mild drug that it was before the Misuse of Drugs Act onto the new mutant variety. As we know it’s uncertain if this claim is true (to be diplomatic), but if it is even remotely true, Mr Walker doesn’t seem to understand why it has come about.

THC— Tetrahydrocannabinol—content of skunk cannabis is now six times higher than it was in the cannabis of the ’70s and ’80s: 18% compared to 3%.

So now the THC levels are six times what they used to be according to Mr Walker. It would be interesting to know where he gets this figure from because the Home Office  “Cannabis potency study” that tried its best to look into this issue in 2008 , albeit based on Micky Mouse data collection methods, came up with a lower estimate. Weak as this study is, it’s the best indication of what’s happened to cannabis strength/potency over the past 50 or so years we have and according to them modern sensi cannabis is 2 – 3 times stronger than oldskool hash on average – not 6 times. In any case, there’s a wide spread of strengths available out there, and there has always been strong cannabis available.

The CBD—Cannabidiol— content of skunk cannabis, which is the bit of the chemical that counteracted the psychotic effects of THC, has now been removed from the drug.

It isn’t “a bit of a chemical” and it hasn’t “been removed”, but there may be less of it in some strains that there used to be in the hash from North Africa we used to get before the Misuse of Drugs Act and the wider prohibition efforts closed off the supply and caused the market shift to the herbal varieties grown herein the UK.

The MP then tries to explain how cannabis works in the brain. Quite honestly it’s always a good rule of thumb not to try to describe a process you clearly know little about, but that didn’t stop Mr Walker explaining how cannabis affects the Dopamine balance in the brain and hence

creates a sense of euphoria, but it also has many side-effects—hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, attention impairment and emotional impairment.

Yeees as Jeremy Paxman might say. He goes on to warn

The problem is that young brains do not properly form in adolescence; they do not do so until they are in their early 20s.

In essence he is right in this, except of course a child’s brain is still developing, rather than not having been formed properly. He seems unaware of the fact that any drug use by kids is possibly going to disrupt that growing/learning process, it isn’t something restricted to cannabis or even the “new skunk” varieties. Children should not be using drugs, that is a simple fact that I’m sure he would agree with if he thought about it. The fact that they are using cannabis shows there is something wrong, or it should do, but Mr Walker concludes that the problem isn’t the regime surrounding cannabis, but the emergence of the “new skunk” types.

If a youngster smokes skunk cannabis, at best their academic performance will be retarded. So many teachers have told me about young, bright children getting to a certain age and then their academic performance just goes backwards—not slowly, but rapidly, as they go from being at the top of the class, to the middle, to the bottom and to not turning up in class at all. That is a tragedy; a young mind is a terrible thing to waste.

What’s happened is that kids are using drugs now, they didn’t used to; that is the change we should be concerned about, not that kids are suddenly using a new form of something they’ve always been using which Mr Walker seems to be implying is the problem. He then brings up an old chestnut:

One in four of us carry a faulty gene for dopamine transmission. If a youngster has that gene and smokes skunk cannabis, they are six times more likely to get a psychotic illness than the average youngster out there. If both parents give them two of these genes, they are 10 times more likely to suffer a psychotic incident and suffer long-term brain damage.

Again, it really isn’t a good idea to try to explain something you clearly don’t understand.Now I’m no brain surgeon either, but he is talking about the COMT gene theory which went something like this: The gene comes in two variants, the VAL and the Met form. When babies are made, both parents give half genes – from the  mother and father – which combine to produce the genetic make up of the baby, so a baby can have either met-met, met val or val met (which is the same thing) or val-val  versions of the COMT gene. The Val-val type was thought to be a “faulty” combination and a possible route by which cannabis could cause schizophrenia which 25% of us would have. However research which set out to look at this didn’t support the theory and concluded:

Schizophrenia risk is not influenced by variations in the cannabinoid receptor (CNR1) and alpha7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (CHRNA7) genes, say UK researchers. They also found no evidence for the purported effects of cannabis use on schizophrenia according to variation in the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene.

The COMT gene mechanism was only ever a theory, Mr Walker seems to think it was a fact.

He then read out a series of stories about parents who have had teenagers suffering from psychosis/schizophrenia which he put down to their cannabis use. Now as we’ve noted many times in this blog there is an correlation with cannabis use and mental illness, that isn’t in doubt, but a correlation is not a cause. Teenagers have always been the group of people who go down with this terrible illness and when they do the stories are often much the same – with or without cananbis use. We also know from the Keele Study of 2009 that the incidence of psychosis hasn’t changed, despite the increase in cannabis use and the arrival of so-called skunk.

The most parsimonious explanation of the results reported here are that the schizophrenia/psychoses data presented here are valid and the causal models linking cannabis with schizophrenia/psychoses are not supported by this study.

Small details like this don’t seem to matter to Mr Walker however. He has no evidence to base his claims on, no real understanding of the science behind it, yet still feels able to stand up in Parliament to pursue up an illogical argument. He was asked a question as to whether he wanted the drugs laws toughened up, his reply included

Drug education works, but we need to educate the educators. They need to be aware of the research that shows a strong causal link between skunk cannabis, psychosis and schizophrenia.

Even if it doesn’t? He admitted (in so many words) that he has used prohibited drugs in his younger days – as many of us have. He should therefore know that prohibition doesn’t work because it didn’t work for him. MP’s are strange people, they never seem to learn from experience as we observed above – it seems to be a precondition for the job.

He also made this strange comment, presumably based on reports of cocaine snorters damaging their noses

will just say this, however: it is a lot easier to repair a septum in one’s nose than to repair a brain.

He seems to be of the impression that cannabis is more dangerous than cocaine, which is the thrust of the message put about by the likes of Mary Brett of late. If that was his message, he is wrong – seriously and dangerously wrong.

He finished with this remark:

Skunk cannabis has changed over the past 30 years. It is a major public health risk. It is robbing thousands of people of an opportunity to live fulfilled lives. I have worked with the Minister, and she has been fabulous up to this point, and I am sure she will continue her efforts to get this topic higher up the Department’s agenda.

If he really believes this, then he should be prepared to look at the reasons this could have happened. According to his argument cannabis was a safe drug, then it was made a prohibited drug, then it became dangerous, there is a simple cause and effect relationship at play there he doesn’t seem to want to see. He says it became dangerous because CBD was “taken out”, then doesn’t it make sense to ensure it’s “put back in”, is he aware that is a very easy thing to arrange? If he’s worried about children getting hold of cannabis, why doesn’t he call for a properly regulated trade, with age limits and properly targeted laws to protect children?

The reason, of course, is he is putting the argument of Mary Brett. How do we know this? Because he closed his speech with the words

Finally, I want to pay tribute to my enormously good friend, Mary Brett, a former teacher who has worked for decades in the interests of young people and their welfare.

Mary Brett may be well intentioned and is no doubt a tireless campaigner, but she is also dangerous. She has the ear of several MP’s and has made a good job of spreading her twisted views around the places that matter. The fact that she is so utterly wrong in many of her assertions and conclusions is no consolation.

Charles Walker is also probably well meaning in this respect, but he doesn’t seem to bother checking things he is told as fact. He should do so, especially when the source is Mary Brett.


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.

15 thoughts on “Charles Walker MP – More skunk madness from Mary Brett.

  1. When are such politicians going to be held account for spreading such poisonous rubbish?

    It’s a shame the majority of MPs don’t share (and voice) the views on prohibition that a lot of lords/ladies/baronesses do.

  2. Derek I think your critique of Walkers speech is mostly sound – but there’s a personal edge to the critcisms of Brett that I dont think helps your case; Re ‘self appointed’ – well, most of us in NGOs are. I think judge people on the merits of their work. Re ‘the likes of Mary Brett’ – this also has a slightly pejorative tone too it. I would just point to EURAD or WFAD (people can make their own minds up). And finally Id find a different word than ‘twisted’ which has a nasty tinge to it.

    Im glad you said that her intentions are good (even if reform advocates rarely recieve the same courtesy). They are – which is why its such a shame really that she (and WFAD etc) doesnt grasp that we all want the same thing re children and drugs – and that the war on drugs is harming, not protecting them.

  3. Steve – Sorry if some of that sounded personal. I have never met Mary Brett and can only go on what I read from and about her.

    I think the problem I have with her is that she not only puts herself up as an expert but is often promoted as such by her supporters. Fact is she is no expert, she is first and foremost a drug prohibition campaigner.

    She has written a number of supposedly authoritative documents about cannabis which are anything but and she clearly influenced this particular MP.

    I do believe she is honest in her intentions, but her logic is twisted in that it promotes illogical conclusions.

    That she is influential is beyond doubt though and this adjournment debate illustrates just how influential she is. I say dangerous because the prohibition policy she promotes is, as you know, creating so much destruction and mayhem around the world.

  4. One important quote that you missed is from one of the stories

    “has no qualifications and will always have to fight to overcome his criminal convictions”

    SO its not bad enough that he suffers from delusions but he also now has a criminal record that furthur negatively impacts on his life.

  5. what qualifications does this man have regarding alternative medicines? he is basically following all the other clowns that think as soon you mention cannabinoids shits themselves and thinks you are a serious problem to society.Your theories and misconceptions are offensive. I dont’t smoke dope or take any other form of cannabis, but if I thought it would help or eleviate any of the problems it say it does would certainly give it a go. Wake up idiot just becauause we have a scientific community that has sold its soul to pharmaceutical whores does’nt mean that what has been here for thousands of years and has been used by many a so called backwards cultures means it is crap!!!!

  6. I sent him this last weekend – he didn’t reply.

    Dear Mr Walker

    Re your speech in Parliament “Cannabis and Psychosis (Young People)”

    I didn’t hear your speech live, but have now read the transcript on your site. I do not doubt your sincerity but I feel you are somewhat badly informed both about the cause and nature of the problem you identify.

    First of all, you claim a six-fold increase in the strength of cannabis. This is an overestimate and, largely, irrelevant. As you go on to point out the major issue is the possible drop in CBD content over the past few years. You should be aware however that there has always been low CBD cannabis, this apparent drop is in relation to the hashish we used to import from North Africa. Hashish is actually a more concentrated form of cannabis than herbal (it is the resin without the plant material). To talk of “strength” is therefore pretty meaningless.

    Traditional hashish was close to 1:1 ratio THC:CBD and this might indeed be important for people suffering from mental illness as CBD is an antipsychotic.

    The problem is, of course, that our policy of drug prohibition closed off the supply from North Africa and created the market conditions for the new home grow industry. I assume that being a Conservative you will understand the workings of the market economy and will have no problem understanding why this should have happened. It should also be noted that because of prohibition this market change went unnoticed by the authorities for the best part of 10 years, quite how prohibited cannabis can be called a “controlled drug” is frankly beyond me. Prohibition also makes it impossible to know what strain (and hence CBD content) is being offered for sale, this would be a very simple thing to regulate if cannabis were properly controlled and regulated.

    The thrust of your concerns seem to be the use of cannabis by children. I would disagree that so-called “skunk” has made the situation worse, I would argue that children should not be using cannabis of any kind. That children are using cannabis however is not in doubt, however I would argue this is another by-product of the anarchy produced by prohibition. Cannabis is a massively popular drug and there is a huge trade in it which is totally unregulated and unrestricted. The only proof of age needed to buy cannabis is a £10 note and that is the cause of the problem you identify. The same thing happened under alcohol prohibition in the USA and the slogan “protect the children” was used in the abolition campaign.

    What it comes down to is you are concerned about the effects of prohibition, not of some mutant variety of cannabis.

    In your speech you stated that there is a genetic link to psychosis in 25% of the population. This is a theory regarding the val-val version of the COMT gene put forward a few years ago but which has not been supported by subsequent studies – have a look at this medwire report Mental illness is a very complex thing and there are no easy answers, it does no-one any favours to pretend there are. You should also be aware of the Keele study of 2009 which the Home Office commissioned which showed no increase in psychosis and came to the conclusion that claims of a causal link to mental illness from cannabis use were not supported by the evidence – read that paper here

    I do appreciate that your friend Mary Brett is a highly dedicated campaigner for what she believes to be the truth, but she is, I’m afraid, dangerously wrong in much of what she claims. The problem you have identified is entirely caused by prohibition, our current drugs policy.


    Derek Williams

  7. Here , Here . Well put Derek. I personaly have a fear which isnt good for me. The cynic in me thinks that even with truth we stand on a brink off some kind. Something has to give. Banning anything increses it price. It doesnt deal with why people injest plants. Its insane. Yet madness does prevail. Long live the sprit off freedom. Once again Well said Derek.

  8. Great letter and blog post Derek.

    As you say, Mary Brett clearly has good intentions, but she is doing so much harm by her anchored methods and non-science.

    I hold fears that she has such sway within the halls. On any given subject, this is concerning.

  9. I’m not sure Mary has good intentions, she is a puritanical killjoy of the worst kind who is happy to spread lies and misinformation to further discrimination against pot smokers. In any case, she is a highly dangerous woman who should not be taken seriously under any circumstances and certainly should never be cited as a credible source. Sadly the nonsense she spouts is often reproduced by both the media and idiot MPs such as Charles Walker.

  10. I do worry about this reticence to fight against the liars and propagandists. We already occupy the moral high ground and we should not descend to their level but neither should we pull our punches when we are fighting for a just cause – in this case for the health and wellbeing of children.

    I’m quite prepared to accept that Mary Brett and Charles Walker started off with good intentions but they are both dangerous and have got to be stopped (although Charles Walker is doing the campaign the world of good at the moment!).

    Steve, your comment reminds me of Paul Flynn who, while I respect him for his long record, said to me recently “I prefer to work towards building a consensus over time”. No, I can’t accept this is a workable strategy.

    We need to FIGHT!

  11. much as I admire the work of Steve Rolles and Transform, I’m going to have to differ on this one

    I think Charles Walker’s recent vote to oppose a smoking ban pretty well gives the measure of his sincerity about cannabis as a public health issue

    sure, being shrill never helps the cause, but I thought Derek’s tone was admirably measured, particularly given that cannabis prohibition alone accounts for a staggering amount of death, mass incarceration etc. etc. (60% of the 34,612 deaths in the last four years of the Mexican drugs war can reasonably be attributed to it)

    taken together, the following two studies deal a pretty devastating blow to any attempt to create a public health scare out of the rise of “skunk”

    “Assessing the impact of cannabis use on trends in diagnosed schizophrenia in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2005″ by the Department of Medicines Management, Keele University.

    Potency of D9-THC and Other Cannabinoids in Cannabis in England in 2005: Implications for Psychoactivity and Pharmacology”

    those two papers put a close to the Robin Murray line that many have toed on “cannabis without CBD” being the problem

    any attempt to raise the specter of a “skunk psychosis gene” has been foiled by the Cardiff University paper you mention

    so there really is no scientific basis for this resurrection of the Reefer Madness nonsense — it belongs in the bad old days of racist 1930s America

    I’d like to hear more about Mary Brett if you have more info on the damage she is doing

    many thanks

  12. Im not opposed to passion and committment – or a fight – but tone and presentation of arguments is hugely important. I say that based on experience 12 years on the front line of this debate, witnessing the successes and failures of our own, and others efforts.

    If we want to broaden support for reform beyond the historically quite narrow constituency we need IMHO to avoid more personal attacks and stick to to the issues and facts. Instinct and emotion play a riole but have to be filtered though political pragmatism. The arguments should win on their own merits – not because we can shout loudest in the room. When we consider the facts we also have to try as far as possible to not be the sort of propagnadists we rally against (Peter – thats why the cure for cancer thing caught my attention).

    I think its fine to critique what Mary says (i fyou think its important – personally i think it isnt), but id always say the ideas are dangerous, rather than her personally.

  13. Many good points above, but perhaps I am conspiratorial for I see a tobacco industry agenda in this “skunk” scare campaign.

    If as estimated by WHO on May 30, 2011 “tobacco” (meaning almost entirely cigarette smoking) kills 6,000,000 a year, or 40% of all addicts die prematurely as attested by qualified medical opinion, then it is surely of importance to press for more research into the disaster of mixing cannabis with tobacco (read Derek’s TOKEPURE section).

    Media (especially movies) always seems to see cannabis through the lens of “roll a joint” and in Europe of course this joint rolling often means combined with tobacco (Derek’s figure is 2/3 of all users in UK). (It costs money to make movies and tobacco companies have lots of money to invest in servile “directors”, heh heh.)

    Another reason is the faulty belief (almost a superstition) that you are supposed to be “smoking” the herb; therefore the big priority to get it burning, and especially with hashish the tobacco admixture is recommended to youngsters for that purpose.

    Zip– hooked for life! More profits for the shareholders in a few oligopolistic corporations, more premature deaths (and toward the end, catastrophic medical and pharmaceutical costs– who do you think pays that $4 billion a year for LIPITOR?).

    Now here’s Walker– and a few weeks ago Cameron something similar– on the dangers of “too strong” skunk! Have you noticed– these pols are playing the game for Big 2WackGo by providing another “reason” to mix with tobacco (and risk addiction)– you’re supposed to “cut” the cannabis with something milder. The tobacco is thus being promoted as something to increase the “safety” of smoking cannabis!! Children trying cannabis the first time, or first few times, don’t know why the tobacco seems “milder” than the cannabis– they think this is because of the excessive strength of the cannabis. Cameron et al. said so. (Actually the companies add many unnamed drugs to make the tobacco taste and feel “milder”, to suppress coughing, chills, nausea, dizziness, faintness and all Nature’s other warning systems/symptoms about the danger of tobacco, to mess with your mind and get you HOOKED.)

    We need to educate the public that we are now living in the vapouriser age, there is nothing in “smoke” (combustion effluent) worth inhaling; it is not necessary to get the hashish burning at all, there is a proper temperature (200 C) to which to heat cannabis in order to harvest vapours. (In a bad hot-burning overdose system such as a “joint” the burning does cause some vapours to escape from a narrow zone immediately adjacent to the part that is burning, but a high percentage of the cannabinoid is de$$troyed unvapourised by hurried combustion.)

    Another thing that escaped everyone’s notice till the vapouriser age is that any one-hitter— a pipe NARROW enough to control the temperature of heated air entering upon the herb– is actually a CONVECTION VAPOURISER! The key is to hold the flame far enough away–usually about 2 cm– to AVOID setting the herb on fire BUT heat it enough to vapourise out the cannabinoids. (Are you patient enough to try that? Worth practicing, it will teach you philosophy along with the physics.)

    I myself do lack patience in some areas, especially diplomacy, so hopefully Derek or Peter can write the letters that need to be written to wise up these pols to their own ignorance and get them off the PRO-TOBACCO bandwagon before millions more kids get hooked on the #1 disaster that can happen to a person in modern life. Good luck, everybody!

  14. Dear Steve Rolles,

    you wrote:

    “I think its fine to critique what Mary says (if you think its important – personally i think it isn’t”

    If you can explain why that is, I’m listening.

    One of the achievements of Mary Brett has been to elevate “skunk psychosis” to the status of an unquestioned fact in public discourse in the UK.

    (tell that to people in the US and the response is “that’s so 1930s”)

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