BBC Sussex – skunk panic!

The BBC has been at it again, local radio this time, BBC Sussex. The item was also published on the BBC news website here “Skunk cannabis addiction ‘growing’ across South East” this could have been a very useful investigation as they went out to buy samples of street cannabis which they then got analysed. What makes the news story is that the cannabis they bought off the street had very low levels of CBD. This blog has covered this issue in some depth before and the issue of THC:CBD is summarised here.

Now, there are two distinct issues here: One is whether or not the claims of a causal link between high THC cannabis and mental illness are true and the second is, if the claims are true, how does this happen and what to do about it?

The BBC Sussex angle on it all was that the mental health of young cannabis users was at risk due to the type of cannabis on sale.  Not once did they look at the effect of prohibition or the debate over law reform, control and regulation of trade or anything like that, it simply wasn’t on the agenda. Instead the programme stated as a fact a claim made by Marjorie Wallace that 20% of the population is at risk from so-called “skunk”.

Part 1 – (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)

The programme started with the claim that the “New” forms of cannabis are creating a risk to mental health. A report follows of the BBC buying cannabis around Brighton. As in most parts of the UK, it’s clearly not that hard to buy “on the street” – they claimed to have bought it in parks and on the beach – this despite the 40 years of prohibition, although, of course, no criticism of the failed regime was even considered. When the samples were analyses it was found that the THC content varied from 3 – 11 percent, but the CBD content was near zero. Note the use of doom-laden music in this report behind the description of the high THC cannabis at 2 mins into this clip. Use of mood music on a news report is a highly suspect technique, clearly designed to raise emotions.

Marjory Wallace was interviewed and made the usual sort of claims she always makes, including that 20% of users will be harmed. This figure was repreated many times as a fact by the presenter throughout the programme. Interestingly Ms Wallace knew the young person used as an example in  the BBC online news report mentioned above  of someone suffering from their use of cannabis, so it’s highly likely she provided that example.

Pt 2 ((MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)

A short link where the announcer clearly “goes fishing” for tales of harm from cannabis. He claimes his daughter knew people who had been harmed by cannabis and gave an example of someone who had become a slower typer, forgetting the letters she was typing as she typed. This is a very loaded commentary, far from an objective examination of the issue.

Part 3 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)

Again the announcer “goes fishing” for stories of harm and makes the claim that “skunk” cannabis “can cause schizophrenia” and again the claim that 80% of the population aren’t at risk – implying that 20% are.

Part 4 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)

We now have a recap onthe atory and an interview with Dr Di Forte, who’s research was mentioned above.  She actually gives a measured reply, claiming that high CBD levels can actually “abolish” the psychotic symptoms. The announcer makes the point that when buying cannabis “on the street” you don’t know what content you’re getting, and Dr Di Forti agrees, saying “because we don’t have access to the black market like we do with alcohol”. However, the argument that a properly regulated trade – impossible under prohibition of course – would solve that problem wasn’t considered.

Dr Di Forti claimed that the only previous study of cannabis potency was done in London in 2008 in East London. If she means the Home Office Potency study, that was in fact nationwide, but she’s right, we really don’t know what’s out there in terms of cannabis potency, all caused by prohibition, although of course, that wasn’t mentioned.

The announcer then “goes fishing” again for tales of harm from cannabis, repeats the 20% at risk of harm claim and calls the 80% “the lucky ones”.

Part 5 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)

The 20% at risk claim is repeated. The original report is rebroadcast (along with its mood music). A person who claims his cannabis smoking caused his psychosis is bradcast and a text from a “concerned mum” about a son who claimed he was made schizophrenic by his skunk use. Again the announce goes fishing for more stories of harm and repeats the 20% harm figure.

Andy Winter, Chief Executive of the Brighton Housing Trust re-enforced the “skunk makes you mad” line and dismissed “decriminalisation” as a way to solve the problem. Apparently “skunk” is the drug of choice “because it’s more potent”, rather than simply being all there is. “It’s becoming clear to those of us who work in mental health that skunk cannabis is a really really dangerous substance” he said.  A He referred to Dr Di Forti’s research without crediting her as proof.

Again, more fishing by the announcer for stories of harm.

Part 6 (MP3 file – if it doesn’t play, right click and download)

One phone call from Rose who described how “cannabis caused” schizophrenia in their child, which demonstrates how emotive and upsetting this issue is and it was just the sort of story the programme had been calling for throughout the broadcast.

Of course, there has always been schizophrenia, even before skunk came along. However,there is clearly a correlation – a link – between schizophrenia and cannabis use and high potency cannabis does seem to be especially damaging, but this is far from evidence of a causal role, whereas several proper studies have failed to support such a claim – for example here.The figure of 20% is pretty obviously fiction.

Peter Reynolds made it on to the programme and made some good points, but didn’t get to say how regulation could improve things.

A final appeal for stories of harm and that was that.

Quite why BBC Sussex picked up on Dr Di Forti – who has only published one small study, but didn’t consider the many other studies which have shown either no increase in psychosis or no proof of a causal link between cannabis and psychosis isn’t clear, but would seem to be lazy journalism and probably the result of relying on one source (Marjory Wallace?). The use of mood music in the report is very underhand and obviously designed to raise emotions – music has no place in news reporting – and the constant  20% level of harm figure was constantly repeated as fact. No consideration of the role or effect of the legal regime was given.

All together a very bad, blatantly propagandist broadcast, utterly lacking in objectivity, seemingly no alternative views were sought and really, given the way the supposedly 80% of “lucky” people were constantly described, was it sought.




Complaint sent to the BBC regarding the article on BBC News

“Skunk cannabis addiction ‘growing’ across South East” This report
stated opinion as fact, backed up by police claims, one cherry picked study and one anecdote. In doing so it
obscured the real story; that of an uncontrolled  cannabis trade created by prohibition easily accessed by

The article quoted one scientist – Dr De Forti – who published one study in 2009. This study was of a very small sample of 454 people and failed to control for several confounding factors, notably the use of tobacco. Oddly the finding of this study that the age of first use of cannabis had no effect on the observed outcome was not reported.

Worse, no reference was made to the much larger studies in recent years of which there have been many that failed to find any evidence either of an increase in the rates of psychosis or of any causal link between cannabis use and psychosis. References can be provided on request.

However, assuming these claims of harm from so-called “skunk” cannabis are true, the cause of the market shift was the closing down of imports of  hashish from North Africa due to the war on drugs, which created the market conditions for the “home grow” trade we see today. The fact that the trade is uncontrolled and unregulated meant
that this market shift went unnoticed for nearly 10 years. Cannabis, therefore, is clearly not a controlled drug. As this has only happened since the drug war took effect and had never happened in the 50000 years of recorded history of human involvement with cannabis prior to the war on drugs, surely the true story here, if these claims
of harm are true, is that the present drugs policy has turned a safe, almost benign drug into a dangerous substance?

However instead of an objective, critical look at the situation, the BBC simply reported the police view as fact and chose to promote the claims of reefer madnes



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.

7 thoughts on “BBC Sussex – skunk panic!

  1. Great work Derek. I agree with all your points. I worked with Colin Campbell the journalist on this and tried to influence him to some efefct. In particular, on the main TV report, he spoke two or three sentences which were directly my words about regulation. I was on BBC Radio Kent twice and BBC Radio Sussex once.

  2. What more could we expect from the BBC?. National Propaganda broadcaster. If we are too look to the main stream media we’ll find it hard to get any common sense spoken. It’s actualy quite sad in fact that no arguments for reason and claim thinking ever enter these so called Progarammes. They dont suit to rock the boat. just fan the flames off fear and ignorance on the subject. Shame on the BBC!.

  3. If you’re watching TV you’re probably missing something better on radio.

  4. regarding the false notion put about that “skunk” is somehow unprecedented, see the following from my recent correspondence with Paul Flynn MP:

    As you say, the press did largely ignore Charles Walker’s speech. I just wish they would do a better job of turning a deaf ear to Mary Brett and Cannabis Skunk Sense. One of her achievements has been to elevate “skunk psychosis” to the level of an unquestioned fact in British public discourse. For example, earlier this month, when Richard Branson spoke out in favour of reform, he could in the same breath say that “skunk” was dangerous stuff to be avoided, as if all right-thinking people take this for granted.

    In point of fact there is nothing about the cannabinoid content of “skunk” that differentiates it from the traditonal Thai, Colombian or South Indian herbal cannabis that it is alleged Mr. Branson was or is rather partial to. Traditional “ganja” (herbal cannabis) cultivars from India, Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world are all “high THC-no CBD” just the same as “skunk” and they have been grown and smoked in Asia for at least 400 hundred years, possibly for millenia. The LGC recorded 17% THC Thai cannabis being imported into the UK in 1975. There is, in this respect, nothing new or unprecedented about the cannabinoid content of modern cannabis strains.

  5. Landrace strains are the strongest, fact. Skunk is just a word used to good affect to fan the flames of ignorance and fear. Regulate the trade of Cannabis and all this crap goes away. Its that simple. You do have to ask yourelf sometime why even after logic has been well documented we still go around in circles. Sadly the BBC are just rehashing the same old reefer madness arguments, which can be blown out off the water at this stage.

  6. Skunk again….These people need education man…..It,s like buying cheap whisky for £5 ltr or buying a quality scotch for £40 a ltr(thats cheap)Its just better quality!!! And don’t use kid’s as an example( what do they know)good question…They know what the BBC say……. that makes it sound bad… so they do it(tell a child thats hot it will burn and they will still stick their finger in it)Education again….Was it not a bbc prog i saw recently….showing us where they grow in this country to produce sativax, and the guy was saying how they had been researching this (reefa maddness crap)and that the cure was CBD oh…where is that found????oh yeah in the cannabis( scared of how useful cannabis/Hemp really is)so many industries would fail, alcohol consumption would fall/ so would tobacco consumption (the biggest killers), no need for rubbish lies why we are in the middle east(all about the oil)Hemp fuel, we could produce it ourselves( no need for outside intervention)so if we are not in the middle east less chance of terrorist attacks in the UK, all this seems like positive stuff to me, but all the old farts sitting in the positions of power would not like it…..Remove the crime element, regulate and all will be fine. Prohibition don’t work…How long do you want to bang your head against that wall? As a medical user It works for me much better than the four years of meds they gave me( i have smoked some killer bud, but it never messed me up…not like the Legal crap they hand out like sweets, 3 stone in weight increase, loss of memory(cannabis has never done this)I have been using it for 29 years now….For joy, for pain, to stop mania and depression( I have bipolar ).
    I could be here all day…

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