Saturday, June 18, 2005

Taking the cannabiscuit

Something is awry in the cannabis world. The recent “down-grading” of cannabis from class B to class C (making possession no longer an arrestable offence, but perversely accompanied by increased penalties for trafficking) has barely been given a moment to get bedded in before a clamour has arisen. Cannabis, we are told, and especially a new potent, vigorous strain known as “skunk” is addling the minds of our youth, sending some mad and damaging the development of the brains of others. This sort of thing has been appearing in obvious places (the Daily Mail), less obvious (Trevor McDonald’s Tonight) and surprising (the New Statesmen), but it certainly suggests a co-ordinated campaign.

The relaxing of the cannabis laws was a typical New Labour fudge. It pleased absolutely no-one, with the possible exception of the police who got, in one fell swoop, both less work and more power. It left the government open to the charge of being soft on drugs without showing any signs of understanding the problems. In short they did the thing that was the least of all the things they could do, as though that would make any difference. All it has done is encourage the rabid anti-cannabis lobby to dust down any number of dubious scientific studies to get out the idea that cannabis is a deadly poison mind-mangling spirit – which it may be.

Some of what is being said has a grain of truth – there certainly are stronger strains of marijuana widely available nowadays and these strains are certainly implicated in mental distress for some people. Of course it has been known for many years that cannabis can complicate mental illness and should be, but often is not, avoided by sufferers. There is, however, a lot of hysteria being generated about “skunk weed” at present with some people even suggesting that crack addiction is preferable to habitual skunk consumption. But if anybody would seriously prefer their child to consume crack instead of skunk, then they need to learn more about crack.

The name “skunk” is a generic term for certain strains of marijuana with general but not essential characteristics in common. In actual fact “skunk” was one of the original hybrid strains successfully bred by growers in California but it is now an umbrella term for all marijuana engineered in this way. These hybrids differ somewhat from “traditional” cannabis. Firstly they are stronger in their effects, with the active chemical THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) present in higher proportions. Secondly they have frequently been bred to be ideal for indoor growing, under lights and often hydroponically – with water and chemicals instead of earth.

It is this indoor growing which has transformed the UK cannabis market. In the eighties UK-grown cannabis was poor quality and the market was dominated by North African hashish and African marijuana, alongside the better quality Indian hashish and Caribbean marijuana. The quality was variable and droughts were sporadic. Most of the marijuana which arrived here had been compressed into blocks to facilitate smuggling. Unless it was very high quality (known in the Caribbean as “sensimilla”) it would generally have been fertilised by the male cannabis plant and contain unsmokable seeds, which would have to be removed by hand. The hashish would frequently have been pressed and pressed again, allowing smugglers to add all manner of material to their produce to make it go further. This traditionally would include vast quantities of henna, the plant dye, but also even the less palatable motor oil could find its way into the bars. Quality marijuana and hashish were available, of course, but unreliably so.

At the start of the nineties developments in indoor growing technology allowed both huge warehouses and bedroom closets to be turned over to cannabis production. The cannabis produced – “skunk weed” – was not only reliably potent but more importantly reliably fresh and (due to the ease of the male plants being removed from the grow-chambers) unfertilised. For this reason almost all “skunk weed” is sensimilla.

Thus, the attraction of skunk was obvious and it rapidly over-ran the market. The staple poor quality Moroccan hash (“Rocky”) and African bush weed are still available but at absurdly low prices. In 1990 an ounce of Rocky would cost £80-£90. Nowadays it would be unlikely to fetch much more than £40. That there is still a market is in a large part due to the reluctance of many smokers to regularly use skunk, because although it has its attractions, it also has its problems.

When skunk was still very new I was told that some Jamaicans had taken to calling it “obeah weed”. “Obeah” is a term for the Jamaican occult, similar to Voodoo and was not being used as a compliment. Jamaicans could already access fresh sensimilla of traditional strains and were wary of this new-fangled variety. There was an important difference between the marijuana they were smoking and the marijuana produced by the skunk strains.

Cannabis is divided into two major varieties – sativa and indica. These varieties have different types of THC. Sativa has more THC and Indica more CBD (cannabidiol) and produce noticeably different types of cannabis. Indica strains generally produce cannabis with a heavier, physical effect compared with sativa’s lighter, more cerebral high. Cannabis indica also produces a more resinous plant and is the source of almost all the world’s hashish, grown in a swathe from southern India across Afghanistan, Pakistan, across the Middle East and into North Africa. Cannabis sativa does not produce enough resin to make large-scale hashish production feasible and so generally is processed as marijuana buds. Sativa grows across central and southern Africa, continental America, the Caribbean and also some parts of south-east Asia, notably Thailand.

Skunk weed, however, although grown, processed and sold like sativa, is never a 100% sativa strain. This is because only indica strains grow large enough and mature quickly enough to make indoor growing worthwhile. Over the years many strains have been developed with more sativa in their genes, because it is widely understood that sativa produces a more mellow high compared with indica, but almost never is a skunk strain less than 50% indica.

Over the years I have heard many cannabis smokers complain about the skunk weed which they consume. They say that it “mongs them out” and that, even in small doses, its strength is of a different order to ordinary marijuana. Often they also enjoy that increased strength. But they are forced into choosing skunk because high quality sensimilla is so hard to obtain in this country. Time and time again they have only a choice of skunk weed, poor quality “bush weed” or adulterated hashish. This skunk has frequently been grown in poor conditions, using fertiliser chemicals under unnatural lighting. The different effects all of this causes in the final product is very difficult to assess and differentiate from the increased potency of the indica strains. Street skunk weed is frequently known as “punk”, rhyming slang but also perhaps a comment on its quality.

Drug laws are not renowned for their rationality but the irony of anti-cannabis campaigners complaining about the potency of skunk is telling. It is the very drug laws they seek to reinforce which create the circumstances in which skunk weed is so prevalent.

Yet another irony is the call for more research into cannabis. Research is, of course, always welcome but there is evidence of the use of cannabis as an intoxicant stretching back at least 2000 years and countless research papers have been prepared on its effects – many suppressed after failing to come up with the desired negative results. Compare that with the widely prescribed Ritalin and consider whose youth are having their brain development damaged.