07 Mar The ‘Skunk’ Scare Is The Best Argument For Legal Regulation Of Cannabis

Daily Mail to the Rescue?

The recent ‘skunk’ scare” promoted by some world-respected scientists and the Daily Mail was, I suspect, seen by at least some of them as an argument for continued and stronger prohibition. But perhaps they’ve scored an own goal, opening an argument which has the potential to be devastating for the continued prohibition of cannabis.

Now one view of the study by Sir Robin Murray and others – which really set all this off – is that it’s just a load of tosh, not far off cod science in fact. It depended on asking people to remember what type of cannabis they used over an extended period and made an assumption that there were only two types available; the Daily Mail’s dreaded mind warping ‘skunk’ and the much milder form known as ‘hash’. The assumption being that anyone who used ‘skunk’ was smoking cannabis with very little CBD and anyone smoking ‘hash’ was smoking cannabis with a lot of CBD (the constituent of cannabis which has anti psychotic properties). That is a huge assumption to make. It also assumed that the results of the seven year old 2008 Home Office Cannabis Potency Study were both accurate and still current, two very big assumptions given the laughable data sampling the study used and its age. For all it’s limitations, that study is where they got the ‘fact’ that ‘skunk’ constitutes the majority of cannabis sold on the street. So there are a great many grounds for criticism.

However, given the nature of prohibition which really makes any serious scientific study of the cannabis using population pretty much impossible to do, it’s difficult to see any other way to get at the data.

To be fair to the researchers though, they never claimed ‘skunk’ caused psychosis, this study could never do that, all they claimed was there seemed to be an association between the use of cannabis with high levels of THC and low CBD content.

But the study did not show the same correlation with the use of ‘hash’, which wasn’t associated with an increase in psychosis and this is the really interesting finding.

The Daily Mail and it’s prohibitionist friends are keen to highlight this and can also point to the recent (very much more balanced) “Drugs Live” Channel 4 programme which added weight to the idea the ‘skunk’ is bad.

Before we go any further, let’s try to narrow our definitions a bit:

‘Skunk’ is taken to mean high THC /Low CBD herbal cannabis

‘Hash’ is taken to mean hashish with a reasonable balance of THC and CBD.

The Channel 4 programme gave its subjects a dose of ‘skunk’ and ‘hash’ type cannabis as defined above, plus a placebo dose, which at the very least did not contain THC. Jon Snow’s experience of the “skunk” was widely publicised:

“I’ve worked in war zones, but I’ve never been as overwhelmingly frightened as I was when I was in the MRI scanner after taking skunk. I would never do it again. I can fully believe this week’s figures that tell us that 25 per cent of all psychosis treated in Britain is associated with smoking skunk. I had no idea it could be so powerful and terrifyingly mind altering.

Yet again, the high CBD hash was shown not to produce this frightening effect, even with the same dose of THC.

So seeing as these nice people have put so much effort into identifying a fact – or something which has widely become accepted as a fact – who are we to oppose them? Especially as it gives us such a wonderful opportunity to make a simple but powerful argument for law reform. It is, indeed a very powerful argument.

We have now established something important about cannabis which is no longer in doubt: it isn’t a simple drug. It isn’t really even possible to talk about “cannabis” as a drug because it isn’t a single drug, it’s the combined effect of two major and many minor drugs and the outcome of using different strains can be as different as chalk and cheese. With other ‘street drugs’ it’s simply a matter of dose or strength. Cannabis, however, can vary from hemp at one extreme to strains very much stronger than ‘skunk’ or even the ‘haze’ which the Channel 4 programme actually used. We can all agree on that, even CLEAR and the Daily Mail. What the Channel 4 programme and the rabid prohibitionists have unwittingly done is to demonstrate that high CBD hash doesn’t carry the psychosis risk of ‘skunk’. It is, therefore, in our interest to use this as an argument for a properly regulated supply, providing the millions of cannabis users with a safe form of cannabis.

For the record, that is a very easy thing to do if cannabis were legalised – simply licence the growers to produce cannabis with a defined minimum ratio of CBD. It is of course, impossible under prohibition. As things stand, you get what you’re given with no idea of the CBD balance or anything else.

There could actually be something in this of course because CBD does have antipsychotic properties, it isn’t entirely groundless cod science. There is a very good harm reduction case to be made and this is what has been made so much easier.

The best bit is the media is all behind this narrative and all the signs are they intend to keep plugging away at it, that being the case, all we have to do is quote them.

Of course the alternative is to try to argue against it, but that is, in my opinion, futile. We aren’t world-respected psychiatrists, we don’t have the media influence of Channel 4, Jon Snow or the Daily Mail. We can’t argue against the likes of David Nutt or Wayne Hall. But we can understand their arguments and use them. Indeed, it fits nicely with our aims and principles which include

To introduce a system of regulation for the production and supply of cannabis based on facts and evidence

From a personal perspective, it makes sense. What the Daily Mail and the prohibitionists do not want to acknowledge however, is that they caused this market shift and here I think my personal experience is relevant:

Although I no longer use cannabis personally and haven’t for 10 years, I was a regular consumer between 1973 and 2005 (yes, it does show my age!).

I remember the hash of old – weak it wasn’t but lovely it was. Back then getting stoned was a wonderful experience, music sounded great, you were relaxed yet stimulated in the head. Then during the mid to late 90’s the quality of the hash deteriorated to such a level as to provide the business opportunity for the domestic growing industry. Around that time the global war on drugs hit Morocco with widespread crop eradication and customs were actively working to stop imports, all at the time when cannabis use was growing in popularity. This is what the prohibitionists are desperate to deny, but it is what happened and this market shift was caused by their actions. ‘Skunk’ is prohibition cannabis, akin to bathtub gin or moonshine. It was produced to look good, to grow well under lights and be very strong.

The quality of this new source of ‘grass’ as we called it – we never used the term ‘skunk’ – was so much higher than the terrible ‘soap bar’ hash we had been enduring, so we all migrated to the new supply. It worked, it got you very stoned, but it wasn’t the same, not nearly so nice and to be honest, I’d say close to being not nice at times. The new cannabis wasn’t laid back and dreamy, it didn’t have that wonderful effect on music. It was edgy and a bit ‘trippy’. While we appreciated the high quality of the new supply, we did miss hash. It wasn’t a change of supply many of use would have chosen had we been given the choice, I firmly believe that given the choice now most people would buy the oldskool hash.

Of course, there is personal preference involved here and no doubt many people will disagree with me. But there is also some good science to explain what happened with the move from a high CBD product to a low CBD product. Cannabis isn’t just cannabis and it shouldn’t be talked about as a simple ‘drug’, different strains are different.

In a similar vein, this article by Peter Reynolds, written four years ago, is worth a read

The Street Dealer – Unaccountable, no idea what he sells, doesn’t care.

It seems to me that our case is served well by arguing for a regulated commercial supply specifically to produce cannabis with a good amount of CBD, it’s quite simply a better, more enjoyable product as well as, apparently, being safer. We can now use the arguments produced by the Daily Mail ‘skunk’ scare to justify it. They have, indeed, done all the work for us. I think we should say thank you.


Despite the definition given above, ‘hash’ can mean a lot of things. Whereas it’s true that the traditional imported product from North Africa was high in CBD, that isn’t true for all hash. Indeed, hash can be made from ‘skunk’ plants, in which case it has the same profile as the plant it came from. Hash from other places around the world may also have very high THC and low CBD levels.Cannabis doesn’t contain high CBD just because it’s in the hash form.

We’ll also acknowledge the fact that cannabis is not just THC and CBD, different strains contain many different cannabinoids and terpenes which contribute to the overall effect. So different strains of cannabis with similar THC/CBD ratios will have subtly different different effects. This is why a legalised regime for cannabis would move it from being a ‘street drug’ to something more akin to a fine wine.

And yes, I know ‘skunk’ in reality is a specific strain and that there are far more potent versions around.

But for the sake of the media, let’s keep it simple.

Derek Williams

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