22 Feb Mail On Sunday Reefer Madness Policy Gamble

Clever teenagers most at risk of ‘skunk’ psychosis as cannabis expert reveals super-strong strain is linked to permanent schizophrenia

The Mail On Sunday, Feb 22nd 2015

The Mail on Sunday picked up from where it left off last week with it’s latest version of the “Cannabis makes you mad” hysteria. We should take note of this, perhaps it’s showing the tactics the prohibition lobby will be in coming months, faced as they are with the global collapse of prohibition.

The article, along with psychiatrists, police and politicians use the word “skunk” to describe the form of high potency cannabis which, we are told, now dominates the market in the UK. This is not a term much used by cannabis consumers however other than by those who know about different strains and specifically grow the variety properly called Skunk. However for the sake of discussion, the term will be used here as it is used in the Mail on Sunday.

All this is based on the views of Prof Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Robin Murray was the co-author of the paper published last week that claimed to demonstrate a higher risk of psychosis from the use of “skunk” cannabis than is shown by people who don’t use cannabis or who use traditional style hashish.

The latest Mail story raises some interesting issues in its subheadings:

  • ‘Clever and sociable’ teens damaged by using super-strong skunk
  • Study found regularly smoking skunk triples the risk of psychosis
  • Skunk is so wide spread it’s even a gateway drug to tobacco
  • Its use has left some people with permanent schizophrenia
  • Cannabis has effectively been decriminalised in south London
  • Teens now legally purchasing ultra-strong synthetic cannabis online

Firstly the claim that ‘Clever and sociable’ teens [are] damaged by using super-strong skunk.

It is true that more intelligent people are more likely to use drugs. As Psychology Today explains:

there is a clear monotonic association between childhood general intelligence and adult consumption of psychoactive drugs. “Very bright” individuals (with IQs above 125) are roughly three-tenths of a standard deviation more likely to consume psychoactive drugs than “very dull” individuals (with IQs below 75).

Cannabis being a social drug it is also likely to appeal more to sociable people.

University students of course are in the age group most associated with the onset of serious mental illness and they are also a group of people under the highest mental stress because of the demands of their courses. These stress related mental health issues are well understood and the NHS has some salient advice for students

Many colleges and most universities have a free and confidential in-house counselling service, with professionally qualified counsellors and psychotherapists, that you can access.

So it should be no surprise that this group of people are more likely to use drugs and it’s true that they often use them to excess, be it binge drinking, popping pills or getting stoned. This is nothing new and to be honest it’s no secret. What is also true is that criminalising them and denying them the option of safer alternatives isn’t going to make the problem easier to address.

As to the claim that the “Study found regularly smoking skunk triples the risk of psychosis“, to be accurate it didn’t and the frightening “three times” claim is not quite what it seems. It is worth emphasising a couple of points: Firstly the study does not prove causation, that figure is arrived at assuming it does. Also a three times increase of a very small risk is still very small and the vast majority of users of “skunk” will not be at risk. That said psychosis is a nasty illness and rare as it may be this is an issue worth taking very seriously. If there is thought to be a link between using some strains of cannabis and the development of such a condition, something clearly needs to be done to be on the safe side.

The interesting thing the study also found was that the “traditional” imported cannabis – hashish, which mostly came from north Africa – does not correlate with this increased risk and there is a possible reason as to why this could be true: In short, cannabis contains many psycho-active compounds, but two are important; THC and CBD. It is apparently true that some strains commonly grown in the UK contain very low levels of CBD, which has anti psychotic properties.

So, doesn’t it make sense to provide a source of cannabis that doesn’t carry this risk? Especially when such a strain not only exists, but it’s something we used to have before prohibition made it difficult to obtain. As has been mentioned before in these columns, although frantically denied by the prohibition lobby, the large scale commercial growing industry really took off as a direct result of the restrictions of supply of the high CBD hash from North Africa created by customs and crop eradication efforts. By the late 1990’s this had degraded the hash supply to an unacceptable extent creating the demand for a higher quality product the domestic producers came up with.

The Mail makes an interesting claim that “Skunk is so wide spread it’s even a gateway drug to tobacco“. This is a classic example of a deliberate twisting of narrative. Prof Murray said

‘It used to be that people started smoking cigarettes and then moved on to cannabis. Now, for increasing numbers, it’s the other way around.’

It could well be now, given the decrease in tobacco use generally and if so, this is another result of government policy caused by the pressure brought about by the prohibition campaigners, opposed as they are to harm reduction. This isn’t a “skunk” issue though, it applies to all cannabis use. It did used to be that cannabis smoking was just seen as an extension of smoking, now smoking is something an increasing proportion of young people get introduced to through their use of cannabis. This is one aspect that we as cannabis law reform campaigners can’t be blamed for because CLEAR – and before that UKCIA – have been trying to get the government to promote a safer use campaign specifically aimed at separating the use of tobacco and cannabis. The campaign is called Tokepure and can be seen here.

At the risk of going over old ground, the last time I tried to get the government interested in this was back in late 2011. You can read the whole sorry outcome for yourself. The reply I had from Anne Milton, then of the Department of Health, was stunning in its stupidity. Anne Milton wrote

If, as Mr Williams suggests, we were to advocate that people smoke cannabis without tobacco, we would be … putting people at risk of harm.

You can read the full story here

A skunk grow room

A “Skunk” Grow Room

It’s still true that cannabis in the UK is usually smoked mixed with tobacco although there has been some move away from this. But with pipes and other safer methods of smoking being targeted by the police as evidence of drug use, this much needed change has made far less progress than it should have done. As with so many things, this is the result of the government’s damaging cannabis policy. It is important to underline that this is not a problem caused by so-called “skunk”, it’s a problem relating to all cannabis use and it’s an issue that really should have been addressed some years ago.

In its defence, it’s worth mentioning that the government anti-drugs website “Talk to Frank” had wanted to include harm reduction advice for cannabis users but after lobbying by Mary Brett – one of the most active prohibition campaigners in the UK, this was dropped. Mary wrote on the website “Conservative Women” in October 2014

I thought the rationale and legality behind FRANK’s ‘tips’ to children ‘to reduce harm’ should be questioned … But when the revamped website appeared, with its ‘the highs, the lows and the everything in-between’ title page, little had changed. Yes, though the ‘harm reduction’ advice that I thought acted as a green light to experiment was removed from the cannabis section …

So there you go, Mary Brett killed the safer use advice the government wanted to give. Prohibitionists have a very strange way of looking at the world.

The claim that “skunk” use “has left some with permanent schizophrenia” assumes a causal relationship, but it is fair to say that certainly for some ill people continuing to use (particularly high potency) cannabis does delay recovery and that schizophrenia can be a permanent condition from which the person never recovers.

The claim that “Cannabis has effectively been decriminalised in south London” is a good example of the Mail pushing the prohibitionist agenda. The assumption here is that if cannabis prohibition were strongly enforced this problem wouldn’t exist. That is an assumption promoted by the prohibition lobby which is hard to justify from historical experience. Back in the days of American alcohol prohibition the only available booze was strong liquor, often adulterated “moonshine” or bathtub gin. It could be argued that “skunk” is the cannabis prohibition version of moonshine, the economic forces caused by prohibition being similar.

Decriminalisation – to the extent that it has happened, which is debatable – is, however, potentially the worst option because it does nothing to control or regulate the commercial supply. If these claims being made about “skunk” are true, there is really only one way to address the concerns and that is to make high CBD hash cannabis available again. This is easy to do under a legal framework, but impossible to do under prohibition or decriminalisation.

One other point to make about high-strength cannabis: High potency (as in high THC/low CBD) does not necessarily equate to strong cannabis. At least some – an unknowable proportion – of what is sold on the streets has been “tumbled” or otherwise processed to remove some of the “crystals” in order to make high potency hash which is sold at a huge profit, so street “skunk” can be high potency but quite weak. High CBD cannabis in the form of hash – which is a concentrated form of cannabis – can be very strong and it can deliver just as much THC, but along with a sizable dose of CBD. It should be noted in passing that hash made from “skunk” plants will have the same high potency profile as the plants it was made from.

Finally, and what must be the real killer argument against prohibition is the last claim made by the Mail article, that “Teens now legally purchasing ultra-strong synthetic cannabis online“. Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists or SCRAs to give them their proper name are simply the latest “unintended consequence” of cannabis prohibition. They are not cannabis, they have nothing in common with cannabis and are a total unknown when it comes to health risks. As the Mail says

Increasing numbers of teenagers, wanting to stay on the right side of the law, are buying ‘legal highs’ off the internet

No-one wants to break the law and few would if the safer version of cannabis were legally available. This whole sorry mess has come about under the prohibition regime; prohibition created it and continues to make it worse on a daily basis. The solution is simple, ignore the rantings of the likes of the Mail on Sunday and take control of the cannabis trade. Accept the reality of British culture and introduce laws designed to protect the people at risk, rather than trying to punish them into healthier lifestyles.

For our side of the debate – the cannabis law reform movement – perhaps more of us need to accept that for some people in some situations some forms of cannabis could well be seriously harmful. Even if these people represent a tiny section of society they do matter. We should be campaigning for laws designed to work to protect those at risk and to ensure the quality and safety of the product. Such laws are in the interests of cannabis consumers after all.

Because newspapers like the Mail twist and distort the facts to promote their prohibitionist agenda it is tempting to dismiss all the claims as simple anti-cannabis propaganda, but that is an utterly counter productive thing to do. This issue provides us with our strongest argument against the real insanity of prohibition. We should thank the Mail On Sunday for providing us with this argument and we need to start using it.

The prohibition lobby is drawing its battle lines on ever weaker ground, it is so easy to demolish their argument now. They must realise that.

Derek Williams