15 Feb Daily Mail Highlights the Prohibition Nightmare (albeit unintentionally)

skunk panic

The aim of any government policy should be to reduce the potential for harm. That is really a non-negotiable first principle and as such is something we all have a right to expect. It has, however, long been the charge of drug law reform campaigners that prohibition flies in the face of this basic principle.

Prohibition as Harm Maximisation

Prohibition, we have long argued, is harm maximisation because it actually sets out to make knowledge of such things as dose impossible to be certain of. In addition it uses a commercial trade supplying a highly variable product with high levels of contamination as a measure of “success”. Indeed, it’s as a direct result of this deliberate consequence of the current drug laws that we have seen so many deaths caused by fake ecstasy pills, or genuine ecstasy pills with sky-high doses.

The government of course denies this reality, claiming that the drugs themselves represent such a high level of danger that no “safe” dose exists. This is the great faith myth that underpins prohibition and is very hard to argue with because it simply refuses to deal with the real world situation.

But this is going over old ground.

Prohibition As The Cause of New Dangers

Thanks to the Daily/Sunday Mail – the British newspaper answer to the American Fox News TV station – it looks very much as if we are going to get some actual scientific proof that the prohibition regime doesn’t only make things more dangerous, it actually creates dangers where non existed before.

The Sunday Mail today (Sunday 15th February 2015) carried a classic reefer madness story story headlined “Scientists show cannabis TRIPLES psychosis risk: Groundbreaking research blames ‘skunk’ for 1 in 4 of all new serious mental disorders“.

The story centered around a research paper that is yet to be published and which has been “leaked” to the Mail and it

is set to reignite the debate around Britain’s drug laws, and will add weight to calls for a tougher stance towards those caught dealing or in possession of cannabis

Now it’s impossible of course to critically examine the paper as it isn’t actually published yet, but according to the Mail it claims (so-called) skunk cannabis

is so powerful that users are three times more likely to suffer a psychotic episode than those who have never tried it.

As we don’t yet have the study, we’ll have to assume the Daily Mail has been totally honest in it’s reporting of this, however unlikely that actually is. So, for the sake of debate, let’s assume that it is as claimed and (so-called) skunk cannabis really does cause serious mental illness.

The same report also carries this all important tit-bit of information from the same study:

They will reveal there is a key difference between potent skunk strains and ‘hash’. Those who used these ‘weaker’ forms did not seem to suffer the same increase in risks.

Again, taking the report at face value and without questioning any aspect of the study or the conclusions it reached, what could have happened to bring this about?

Prohibition and the Coming of “Skunk”

It is true that the cannabis generally on sale via the black market these days is different to the cannabis sold up to the mid-90’s. Before then, cannabis was mostly in the form of hashish, principally from North Africa (Morocco). This cannabis wasn’t – as is so often claimed – weak, it had high levels of CBD, the constituent of cannabis with anti psychotic properties.

From the mid to late 90’s the supply changed so that by around 1998 or so, decent hash was hard to get and what was on offer was nasty stuff, the infamous “Soap bar“. Cannabis consumers the length and breadth of the country were screaming out for a higher quality supply and as usual, the forces of supply and demand which power our free market capitalist society obliged and so came about the domestic cannabis growing industry. This form of cannabis – the Daily Mail’s dreaded “skunk” – has very much lower CBD content.

For an explanation of why this might be important, see this page

Why Did this Happen?

The important thing to understand is why this happened. The answer is twofold: One was the effort of customs to seize imported hash cargoes and the other was crop eradication efforts in the producer countries. Both elements of course were a part of the same prohibitionist effort, the UN’s goal of creating a drug free world by 2008, which sort of remains the goal although the timescale has slipped a bit.

So the strangling of the imported hashish supply was deliberate, although the creation of the domestic cultivation industry apparently wasn’t. It’s just one of the many “unintended consequences” of the war on drugs of which there have been many.

So we have the suppression of a form of cannabis not apparently linked to mental illness being substituted by a form which, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, is. All as a direct result of policy implemented and supported by our government.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 2008, a full 10 years after the market change had happened that the government finally realised when the Home Office commissioned a study called “The Home Office Cannabis Potency Study 2008“. Despite lamentable data collection techniques, based as it was on police seizures:

For operational reasons some forces chose to send in material from only one Borough Command Unit or from one of several forces collection points. Some forces experienced internal logistics problems; others were very enthusiastic and sent in everything received during the trial period.

It did finally establish that the UK cannabis market had changed and that the change had resulted in a drop in the levels of CBD in commercially produced cannabis.

Now, seven years after the Home Office Study and 10 years after the prohibition created market change actually happened, the Sunday Mail tells us that this disruption of the supply side, coupled with a total lack of control over the supply industry that comes with the prohibition policy made a safe product dangerous. This study looks like it gives cannabis law reform campaigners the critical evidence we have so far lacked.

This is a very serious charge and if there is even the remotest possibility that these claims are true, far from “adding weight to calls for a tougher stance” it is by far the most powerful argument in favour of cannabis law reform made thus far. If this is true, then prohibition has directly caused a danger that did not previously exist in the 4000 years or so of recorded history of cannabis use. That is inexcusable. If it is true, then cannabis really does need to become a properly controlled and regulated drug.

In an editorial in the same paper cannabis law reformers are told

Those who advocate decriminalisation should suspend their campaign, respect the science, and support further and deeper research. To do anything else would be deeply irresponsible.

No-one is asking for “decriminalisation”, cannabis law reform is all about full legalisation with proper control and regulation of the commercial trade. It is precisely because we do respect the science that we call for an end to this drug war anarchy.