Pubdate: Mon, 16 Mar 2009
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Helen Rumbelow, and Chloe Lambert
SKUNK: "KIDS THINK THE STRONG STUFF IS THE BEST STUFF"
As The Row Over Skunk Use By British Teenagers Grows, We Trace The
History Of Super-Potent Cannabis
There was a furore last week when the novelist Julie Myerson wrote
about evicting her teenage son for his "skunk addiction". She
justified it by saying that Britain needed to wake up to the
"emergency out there called skunk".
Myerson's outburst may have seemed slightly hysterical to anyone
whose rite of passage included smoking a joint at some hazy point in
the past, yet everything about skunk is more powerful than what came
before. Its strength and its pervasiveness were cited by the
Government as its reasons for raising cannabis back to a Class B drug
Skunk has created a new domestic drugs industry, making millions for
illegal farmers - mainly Vietnamese immigrants - on Britain's
industrial estates, and it has done so in an astonishingly short
time. Police seizures show that it accounted for barely 10 per cent
of the cannabis sold here in the late 1990s; last year it was 80 per cent
What struck me, talking to teenagers in the course of writing this
piece, was the sheer rapidity of this transformation. I'm in my
thirties, yet what young people now regard as "normal" cannabis was
unheard of in this country a decade ago. "Skunk is horribly strong -
you can practically feel your brain cells knocking off," says Ben, a
19-year-old student. "But it wasn't that we asked for it. Growing up
in rural Herefordshire, it was all we could get."
Say the word "skunk" to teenagers and they may nod their heads, while
politicians will shake their heads. Only a few brave ones will then
whisper: "What exactly is skunk?" One public health study tried to
ask teenagers about their skunk use but concluded that "it was
unclear what people surveyed understood the term skunk to mean ... it
is a confusing picture".
To see that picture clearly through the fug, it is necessary to
rewind the clock several decades.
In the 1970s there was a moral panic in America over teenagers
smoking pot. At the time, the majority was imported Mexican Cannabis
sativa plants, so, during the summer of 1975, blue-and-white American
helicopters buzzed low over the Mexican marijuana fields, destroying
the crops with toxic salt. At the time, President Ford thought that
he had found a clever way to stop American teenagers from smoking
"wacky baccy". Moral panic over.
Yet that giant weedkilling operation didn't have quite the effect
that the President was hoping for.
When the US Government sprayed the Mexican marijuana fields, imports
dropped almost overnight. This, coupled with ever-increasing border
controls, meant that dealers had to look to home-grown plants. But
there was a problem: Cannabis sativa cannot withstand frost and won't
flower reliably north of the 30th parallel. Furthermore, the plants
are tall and hence difficult to conceal from the police.
The breakthrough for pot-smokers came when enterprising hippies
returned from their travels with seeds from the variety of cannabis
native to Afghanistan and India, Cannabis indica. Previously, few
people had cared for the taste of Cannabis indica, but it was hardy
and small. When Cannabis sativa was crossed with Cannabis indica, the
industrial-scale home-grown market was born. And so, too, was skunk.
Steven Hager, a Sixties counterculture survivor and former
editor-in-chief of High Times, a New York-based magazine that
strongly advocates legalising cannabis, says that the new hybrid
cannabis was nicknamed skunk because of its unmistakably pungent
smell: "The first seed company to breed indica into sativa was the
Sacred Seed Company of northern California. Its most popular strain
was called Skunk#1 - it is still one of the most circulated strains
in the world."
Since then, the production of hybrid cannabis has become a high-tech
industry and, with estimated earnings of almost $50 billion (UKP 36
billion) a year, easily America's biggest cash crop. This is what the
British refer to as skunk. It has been the norm in America since the
1980s, although Americans refer to it by a variety of other names.
In the past, Britain's cannabis market was dominated by cannabis
resin ("hash") smuggled in mainly from the wild-growing cannabis
sativa in Morocco. With the rising risk and cost of smuggling through
ever-tighter border controls, though, by the late 1990s British
criminals were copying the booming American industry: growing the
"Cannabis sativa x indica" themselves.
Whatever worries people may have about skunk, air miles is not one of
them - most of our cannabis is now grown here, mainly by Vietnamese gangs.
"Indoor cultivation has spread to the UK and other parts of Europe,
which is why cannabis flowers are becoming more prevalent than hash
in many places," says Hager. "Indoor growing can be very profitable,
since cannabis grows on trees and sells for the price of gold."
In Britain this new type of cannabis - dry, mossy, green buds - was
called skunk to distinguish it from the dark blocks of resin that
came before. This is what the one in five 16 to 24-year-olds who
smoke marijuana are almost certainly smoking.
Growers are now focused on increasing the strength of the "high",
which depends on the concentration of a chemical called
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). One way to do this is to select plants
that are naturally more potent; another is to use lights to mimic the
effect of autumn on the female plant. This causes it to produce more
resin in a last-ditch attempt to pollinate itself before winter - and
the resin is what makes it stronger.
David Crane, founder of the cannabis campaign organisation The
Hempire, describes this trend as "largely demand-led". He adds:
"Inexperienced kids think that strong stuff is the best stuff. They
want to prove themselves. There is no one they trust to say 'no, the
gentler stuff is nicer'. And it takes a certain type of confidence to
say to a dealer 'This isn't really working'."
Boys, it seems, are particularly keen on trying to outdo each other
by coping with greater strengths of the drug - as they might with
alcohol or curry. "Boys like to boast about the strength of their
skunk," says 18-year-old Katie.
Duncan, 27, a part-time drug dealer for two years, also characterises
skunk use as a male-dominated pastime. "It suddenly became more
available in 1999 or 2000. It was what everyone wanted," he says.
"The side-effects weren't really seen as a downside back then.
"For a lot of people it's about the strength. It was older brothers
and mates' older brothers who introduced us - it's that way for
everyone. I was 13. Smoking it is definitely a boy thing, I don't
really know why. It goes hand-in-hand with computer games and sitting around.
"Skunk is definitely a young thing, too. I deal to people of my own
age and everyone now is specifically asking not for skunk. They are
people with kids and jobs who just want to have a smoke. Once you're
out of uni and have to hold down a job, you get sick of it - and you
need to be able to get out of bed in the morning."
Another incentive for dealers is cost. "An ounce of hash or weed
sells for about UKP 40," says Barry, a 28-year-old dealer. "An ounce
of good-quality home-grown skunk will fetch anything between UKP 180
and UKP 200."
The strength has certainly increased, but not as much as some media
reports have suggested. In an analysis of drugs seized in Britain
last year, Home Office scientists found that the old-fashioned
Moroccan resin had a mean THC concentration of 6 per cent, while
skunk was 16 per cent - rather like drinking a large glass of wine
rather than a small glass of sherry. Its potency, they said, was not
increasing year on year.
Some, like Steven Hager, argue that the stronger cannabis is, the
healthier it is "because it means you'll smoke less and have fewer
health issues due to inhaling smoke". Whether teenagers regulate
their intake in that way is unclear.
Finally, the scientists also found that British skunk had, compared
with resin, very low levels of a chemical called cannabidiol. This
has sedative properties, and experts such as Professor Robin Murray,
a consultant psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry and leading
researcher into the effects of cannabis on mental health, have
suggested that it could even work as an antipsychotic.
"We know that there is an increased risk of psychosis in people who
use the old-fashioned type of cannabis," he says, "but no study has
yet taken into account the change in cannabis composition. Our
clinical impression is that our patients choose to use the stronger
varieties, in the same way that a typical alcoholic is not drinking
shandy but prefers vodka or whisky. The average psychotic cannabis
user is more likely to use skunk."
One preliminary study compared cannabis users with just THC in their
hair samples - typical of skunk use - and those with both CBD and
THC, which showed that they were smoking old-fashioned cannabis.
Those with just THC were more likely to show psychotic symptoms.
Another preliminary study showed that CBD seemed to have some effect
when given as an antipsychotic, and could even block the effects of THC.
"Probably CBD is not harmful and may actually ameliorate the effects
of THC," says Professor Murray. "The problem is that the general
population's interest in this goes far beyond any funded research."
It is not yet entirely clear what effect high does of TCH without the
restraining effect of CBD will have on a generation of British
teenagers. If this is the last unknown, it is the most worrying one.
What would you do if you found your child was smoking skunk?
Dr Marta DiForti
MD MRCPsych, psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry
"If I found out my child was smoking skunk instead of cannabis, I
would worry in the same way that I would if I discovered they were
drinking whisky instead of beer. We know about the risks of cannabis
- the effect on cognitive performance, learning and memory, and
liability to psychotic experiences and becoming very suspicious and
paranoid. It is likely that skunk has the same effects, but worse.
But cannabis is not a monster. Like cigarettes, it is issues of
frequency, duration and potency. It's a matter of public education."
chief executive, Drugscope
"Parents or carers should inform themselves about the drug and try to
keep the lines of communication open. While it's important not to
overstate fears about skunk, all forms of cannabis are harmful and
pose risks to physical and mental health. Its harm to mental health
has been widely reported, and sometimes exaggerated, in the media.
But there has been less attention drawn to other more common problems
that cannabis use may cause for young people, such as the lethargic
feeling. While cannabis is a harmful drug, it is important to
recognise, without being complacent, that most users do not come to
any significant harm."
David Potter CBiol MIBiol
CMIOSH, botanist and cannabis expert
"Skunk is no way as damaging as many of the other drugs out there,
such as cocaine and the hallucinogenics, but I would be concerned,
especially about a young person smoking it. There is the health risk
but also the effect that it has on lifestyle, the apathy it seems to
induce. It takes away their motivation, which will be a concern for a
child's education. The message I get is that it helps you to relax
and feel chilled, but young people have also said that they sit on
their own smoking it and play their Nintendos."
Dr Paul Broks
MSc, DPhil, CPsychol,neuropsychologist
"I would err on the side of caution. There is still not enough known
about skunk but the evidence suggests that it can trigger psychotic
symptoms in susceptible individuals. Before skunk came on the scene
lots of people were cavalier about cannabis, me included. Now there
are signs that the active ingredient, THC, may be intrinsically
harmful, raising suspicions about milder forms of the drug. I'd be
concerned if my children were heavy skunk users."
Dr Tim Williams
MB ChB, MRCPsych, clinical lecturer in addiction psychiatry,
University of Bristol
"Don't panic. If you look at the areas we use to measure addiction,
such as control over use, desire, tolerance and withdrawal, skunk is
not addictive. There is also no hard evidence that it is a 'gateway'
drug - so it doesn't mean they will move on to harder drugs. It's a
peculiarity of the UK that cannabis is smoked with tobacco. The risks
associated with that are well documented. I would ask the young
person lots of questions about it - what they are using, how, in what
environments, and what they get out of it. Drug users can block out
all the negatives of what they do, and you can use the conversation
to get them to see them."
Distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in
receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.
MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart
Theharderstuff mailing list