The Blog

Skunk Cannabis and Dad-Dancing in Drug Policy

Oh good, the obligatory news has broken that 'Super Strength Skunk' has invaded the isles and is wreaking havoc on UK shores. For those that work in drug policy, this story is similar to May Day: it comes round annually and leads to all kinds of pageantry - complete with bell ringing and the clashing of batons in a calamitous Morris-style jig.
Getty Images

Oh good, the obligatory news has broken that 'Super Strength Skunk' has invaded the isles and is wreaking havoc on UK shores. For those that work in drug policy, this story is similar to May Day: it comes round annually and leads to all kinds of pageantry - complete with bell ringing and the clashing of batons in a calamitous Morris-style jig.

I'm not being glib for the sake of it; the serious overtones and the warnings are not being missed, and I can assure that, like anyone, the threats to mental health is of the utmost concern, paramount to any work in drug policy. It's just, well, this story is so tiresome that it barely warrants a reaction.

I'm not going to critique the latest skunk scare, ironically enough I've already done so, two years ago, only with less weariness to my words. Maybe I can write next year's version of the story while I'm at it? If you are after a more statistical and sensible version of a rebuttal then my previous piece is possibly the better one, or that of Tom Chivers who has put out a very cogent response.

For me, I am going to try a different course of verbiage. To quote an adopted drug policy meme, "The definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" - Albert Einstein. I guess this can also be said of the standard address of the cannabis skunk scare.

In effort to break the picture down and leave the tired figures debate on the shelf, I'd like to draw parallel lines and sociological factors that don't often get looked at once this simmering debate begins to rekindle. Skunk Cannabis - is it the fiend we believe it to be? For the sake of argument we can agree we have a metamorphosised, Frankenstein's monster of a cannabis product on the streets. Well it's not so much breaking news, more of a case of no shit Sherlock.

Both sides of the discussion accept that we have an inferior product, lacking in the most basic of quality control, with a wild existence, indiscriminate in the harms that it could pervade. This is the basic and unilateral dance floor to the broad dalliance of the issue. The established projection of the issue tends to be that we have a genetically altered version of cannabis, conjured in a lab for its exceptional potency, designed to give an explosive high to users. For this reason, it's alluded to, we need to clamp down on cannabis, deter all users through harsher penalties, and, hey, make it even more 'illegal'. If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try again. And again. And, yes, again.

Subtle aspects are overlooked; the country isn't stupid, and nor is the emerging electorate. Such well-meaning but somewhat sophomoric claims that we are unable to propose alternatives to our current prohibitive laws owing to the super strength properties of modern day cannabis is tantamount to dad-dancing at a disco; it's a simple embarrassment to onlookers with a healthy sense of irony. Palm and face will inevitably meet with some force. The average person is blessed with common sense. In fact, over half the population do support changes to our laws around cannabis possession and cultivation. Transform Drug Policy Foundation's Ipsos Mori poll just goes to show that the tipping point has been reached. The majority now understand the debate.

It hardly needs an explanation that current prohibitive laws are directly accountable for the contestable rise in THC and dip in CBD in our street cannabis (CBD [cannabidiol] being widely regarded as the protective anti-psychotic component in cannabis). To be devil's advocate, we now ponder: why is CBD absent? Why have THC levels risen to form super skunk? Two basic scenarios can explain:

Fine wine aficionados will know that it requires an expert eye for grapes, soil, land, the drainage, the terroir. It takes years of learning a trade to produce the finest quality wine with maximum flavour and maturity. In many cases, whole regions are dedicated to furthering the craft - it's an art. Even down to how the grapes are pressed and stored, each miniscule detail is diligently poured over.

In comparison, take a look at, let's say, Doug and his mate who knock up some cellar home-brew in rusty buckets, a bag of chips to keep them going, and maybe some added diethylene glycol to give some kick, 'cos hey, Wikipedia taught them all they know. Who needs to age the stuff for 40 years anyway, that's not a quick buck is it? Black markets eh, can't trust them, the scamps.

Yes, it really is that simplistic. Adulterations in any product equates to unadulterated common sense: if you leave an industry in the hands of people who care about profits over customer care, with no accountability, you'll probably end up with something that should end up on Watchdog, with Anne Robinson chastising the rogue trader.

Let's press down on the wine analogy a little more and apply it to cannabis. We currently have cellar home-grows flooding the street market, with no thought other than the lure of a hefty profit. A few months to accrue a good quality cannabis plant with the correct balance of cannabinoids and appropriate CBD is far too long to wait. Better to throw as much chemical aid at the triffids to ensure they possess enough bite - and hopefully we'd have moved property by the next grow.

Or, we could apply some Trading Standards sense to the issue, with all the expertise of a family vineyard, with organic processes, testing for mould and the most basic requirements of labelled THC and CBD ratios; a final product aged, cured, stored to industry standards. The onus should always be on the producers to prove quality before sale. With a regulated model we also have the powers to apply further sense in marketing restrictions, age checks, and all the parts of other drug regulation models that do work if applied with enough political conviction. The seminal and often quoted Transform Drug Policy Foundation's Blueprint for Regulation outlines just what regulatory models would look like.

A final, all be it brief, comparative scenario - Set and Setting:

Any drug, whether it is caffeine, alcohol or cannabis, all require participation from the user. Basic harm-reduction motifs: don't drink 10 cups of espresso in an hour, drink water and line your stomach with food if you're drinking alcohol, etc.. One's environment is also integral to the experience. Savouring a quiet glass of wine with a book is slightly different to a stag-night with chasers.

Once more, it's easy to see how this analogical scenario can be applied to cannabis. One of the most detrimental aspects of cannabis' prohibition is the lost legacy of how to use the substance responsibly. There is a dilettante culture, an ignorance evoked by our cloudy policies. It is possible to apply logic to harm-reduction in cannabis, both in knowing the substance, its source, its traits, but also in knowing how to use the substance like a fine wine. Dare we suggest that there are actually responsible users who know exactly how to enjoy cannabis like any connoisseur? There are many ways of reducing potential harms of cannabis, from knowing the THC and CBD content, to knowing how to sip and savour in comfortable surroundings. This example is in stark comparison to a group of friends down the park with Buckfast or 'skunk', downing the substance in one so as to appear whimsical and big in front of peers, all of whom are seeking to rebel out of boredom. Massive generalisations of course, but it conveys the point of responsible use.

It's time the grown up discussion began; the emerging generations are grasping the drug policy debate as their own, and our current policy makers are indeed increasingly looking like the intoxicated embarrassing elders, flailing to the disco lights of a bamboozled media and the sentimental tunes of a dusty bygone era of ignorance. The dance-floor of policy makers are dad-dancing to a different rhythm, and that's just not cool anymore.

Go home, UK drug policy, you're drunk.