The Independent on Sunday jumped on the skunk-panic bandwagon this weekend with a brash tabloid headline: 'Cannabis - An apology', above a figure of 10,000 in big red letters - which we are informed is the number of teenagers treated for 'cannabis addiction' last year, apparently ten-fold higher than back in 1997. Inside, along with almost five pages of news coverage, there are opinion pieces by Rosie Boycott (the IOS editor who launched their cannabis legalisation campaign 10 years ago) psychiatrist Robin Murray, and a leader in which the they retract their support for Boycott's legalisation campaign - hence the front page headline.
They've totally missed the point.
1. The facts are all over the place. On the front cover Jonathan Owen informs us that skunk today 'is 25 times stronger than the resin sold a decade ago'. In the main feature this has become 'can be 25 times stronger'. A few paragraphs later we later that a cannabis joint 'may contain 10 to 20 times more THC than the equivalent joint in the 1970's'. Rosie Boycott tells us a few pages later that it is 30 times stronger and Robin Murray that the traditional 2-3 % THC of herbal cannabis in the 70's compares to 15-20% (occasionally as high as 30) in today's skunk. Who should we believe?
Actually they are all wrong. In the 70's, as with today, there was a range of cannabis products - herbal and resin - available on the market and they varied in strength from very weak to highly potent. Drugscope reported just last week that most of what was being sold as 'skunk' today is around 10% and that the stronger varieties were comparatively rare because they took longer to grow (increasing production costs) but commanded the same street price. So compare the 'worst' weed from the 70s to the 'best' today and you'll get your scary '25 time stronger' headline. In reality however the average 'weed' from the 70's was probably more like a third to a half the strength of most of today's skunk.
But the true picture is more complicated than this. Skunk is by no means the entire UK market, a large proportion of which is still 'old school' imported weed of the 3-4% variety and a larger proportion being low grade resin (soap bar etc.) also of low single figure % strength. The strongest stuff from 'back in the day' was way stronger than the low grade resin still widely available today. It depends how you spin it.
So lets be clear - the idea that cannabis was weak and harmless in the old days, and has now morphed into super-potent deadly psychotabis today, is just not true. That is oversimplification and hype for sake of a juicy media or political soundbite. An almost identical misleading potency panic took place in the US in the late 1980's : 'Now perceived as a hard drug, marijuana has increased 1,400 percent in potency since 1970' proclaimed the 1986 flyer for a US national marijuana conference.
More potent hydroponically/indoor cultivated herbal cannabis was also already widely available in 1997 , and whilst it is now unarguably more prevalent, the fact that it is mostly UK grown today rather than imported makes no difference to the consumer (if anything the home grown skunk is actually weaker than the equivalent product formerly imported from Holland).
The change in the market over the last ten years is nowhere near as dramatic as the IOS report seems to suggest, and can certainly not account for the 10 fold increase in 'cannabis addiction' that they attribute to it. Indeed this is another extremely dubious statistic (not to mention the reckless and ill defined use of the term 'cannabis addiction'). Not only does the change from 1000 teenagers being treated for 'cannabis addiction' in 1997, to 10,000 last year all seem to deploy conveniently, almost suspiciously, rounded numbers - but as is acknowledged in the papers leader - this rise is significantly due to changes in service provision. It is also due to the way cannabis related problems are diagnosed and counted: of this supposed 10,000 'cannabis addicts' how many are being treated primarily for mental health problems or misuse of other drugs but have also noted cannabis use (practically universal to both groups), or are in treatment as a result of the new and massively expanded arrest referral schemes? We are not told.
2. They fail to understand how drugs are used. The implication of the repeated 'fact' that cannabis today is 10/15/20/25/30 (take your pick) times stronger than it used to be is that people are consuming an equivalent increase in the main active ingredient THC. This is also not the case. Robin Murray describes the comparison between the weed of old and modern skunk as similar to comparing lager and whisky (Owen makes a similar comparison with shandy and brandy). But people don't drink whisky or brandy in pints. If a drug is stronger they consume less, weaker they will consume more - to achieve the desired level of intoxication. In the case of stronger cannabis users will put less in the joint, take less drags, inhale less deeply, smoke less joints and so on. This is called auto-titration and is exactly the same effect seen with low nicotine cigarettes which it was found users smoked more of, inhaled more deeply and so on. The effect was discussed regarding cannabis during the last potency panic in a 1988 paper in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs which concluded that:
"Observations of the real world of marijuana use, where autotitration is the norm, renders the scare tactics of the new marijuana proponents not only inaccurate but irrelevant. There is much published evidence about the availability of highly potent varieties of cannabis from the nineteenth century through the present day"The idea that cannabis users, even teenagers, are incapable of making rational decisions about the dosage they consume is ridiculous, and the idea that they are getting 25 times more stoned than in the good old days is laughable. This is not to say that increased potency does not equate to any increase in risk, it does, but behaviours adapt surprisingly rapidly and hyping the potency panic or hyping the dangers associated with actual potency changes don't help us come up with rational public health responses that might actually help reduce overall harm. It needs pointing out for example that in Holland where cannabis is effectively (albeit not technically) legal, the licensed premises that sell it offer a wide range of cannabis varieties of differing potencies, and the strongest ones are far from the most popular. And they have a far lower level of youth cannabis use than here in the UK.
3. We haven't suddenly 'discovered' that cannabis is related to mental health problems. The IOS report doesn't 'Reveal' anything new at all. You can look at text books and commission reports from the as far back as the 1920s that document symptoms from cannabis use that are actually remarkably similar to those we have today. They say that for most people the risks of occasional use are low (certainly relative to most other commonly used recreational drugs) but that heavy use, particularly for a small sub-set of users with pre-existing mental health problems or certain other vulnerabilities, presents real dangers of exacerbating existing problems or potentially precipitating new ones. These problems include psychotic episodes (occasionally recurring), schizophrenia and so on. These are the same conclusions that have been reached by innumerable studies and reviews over the last hundred years, most recently two undertaken by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which came before and after the drug's UK reclassification from B to C: For most people the risks are minimal, but for a few they are very real, particularly for certain vulnerable groups, and particularly when associated with high levels of use. Guess what? Drugs can be bad for you.
The research into cannabis has continued unabated and our understanding is getting increasingly sophisticated, even though establishing the causal links between certain patterns of use and certain conditions remains problematic. The impression that there has been a sudden emergence of new knowledge is more a reflection of the unprecedented attention focused on the cannabis issue since the cannabis reclassification debate kicked off in 2001. Many opponents of the Government or the reclassification have sought to highlight emerging research in the media, often misrepresenting ambiguous conclusions as direct causal links.
Even if it's all true - what exactly is the IOS recommending? Ignore all other tedious witterings above for a moment and let's assume that cannabis really is 25 time stronger than 10 years ago and this really has led to a ten fold increase in teen cannabis addiction (whatever that might be). What does the IOS then recommend in its leader as a response to the policy disaster under which this skunk apocalypse has emerged?
Do we get an exploration of policy alternatives or a consideration of progressive policy in other European countries where the problems are markedly smaller? No. Instead we are told that the 'the fact possession of cannabis - and other drugs - is illegal acts as a important social deterrent'. You have to wonder what they have based this on. Could it be the massive rise in use of all illegal drugs since 1971? Could it be the the Police Foundation report of 2000 that concluded:
"such evidence as we have assembled about the current situation and the changes that have taken place in the last 30 years all point to the conclusion that the deterrent effect of the law has been very limited"maybe it was the 2006 Science and Technology Select Committee that concluded:
"We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government’s policy on classification"Perhaps it was Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee when he said: "I think the evidence base for classification producing a deterrent is not strong"
Maybe it was the fact that when challenged by the Sci-Tech select committee the Government were unable to produce a single shred of evidence for such a deterrent effect, and have undertaken no research to find any. I could go on, but needless to say The IOS has similarly failed to produce anything to back this claim up.
This all points towards to the biggest mistake the IOS makes in this whole sorry piece, which is to confuse their legitimate concern with the health impacts of cannabis misuse amongst a small group vulnerable young people with support for a failed ideological prohibitionist policy - rather than support for an evidence-led regulatory response based on public health and harm reduction principles. They advocate a policy that has not only created many of the problems they describe (lets face it, hype), but also one that offers no prospect of sorting them out.
The IOS seem blind to the fact that the emergence of potent indoor cultivated cannabis is itself a manifestation of the illegal market they are now supporting. In a similar fashion to the prohibition-fuelled emergence of crack cocaine, stronger varieties of cannabis (whilst they have always been available) are more expensive and consequently more profitable for the increasing number of small to medium scale indoor growers.
The IOS, despite noting that: 'the rhetoric of the 'war on drugs' tended to distort priorities', then deems it appropriate to maintain the blanket criminalisation of millions of non-problematic occasional users, because of a relatively tiny population of vulnerable teenage heavy users who have problems with the drug. This is akin to banning cars because of a small population of teenage joyriders. It has no legal precedent or ethical basis, it's inconsistent and makes no sense. They don't call for the mass criminalisation of alcohol because of growing teen drinking issues, so what are they doing? If they are so convinced by the deterrent effect of enforcement and if the skunk problem is so awful, why not call for doubling of sentences or show these young'ns the error of their ways by throwing them all in jail?
The IOS also perpetuate the misunderstanding that the cause of cannabis legalisation/regulation is based on the fact that cannabis is harmless - a misunderstanding arguably due in part to the mistaken approach of Rosie Boycott's initial campaign and its rather romanticised view of cannabis use. No serious advocates for drug policy and law reform do so on the basis that any drug is safe (to her credit Boycott's opinion piece reflects the increasing sophistication of her argument ten years on). On the contrary - reformers argue on the basis that all drug use involve risks and that is precisely why they need to be appropriately regulated and controlled by the State, so as to minimise the harms they cause. The IOS apparently wants the multi-billion pound drug markets to remain in the hands of criminal gangs and street dealers. Because that should help protect the kids.
Nowhere in the IOS coverage do they mention the fact that the authors of the key recent studies linking cannabis and mental health problems are advocates of legal regulation for precisely the reason described above (see Transform's 'cannabis reclassification revisited' briefing for more detailed discussion and references on this point). Perhaps there wasn't room for this discussion because all the space had been taken up with noddy-science cross-sections of brains, and lists of unreferenced cherry-picked statistics.
Cannabis use is a real public health issue, and the growing culture of young people misusing it a real concern, even if total numbers seem to have levelled off or even fallen marginally since reclassification. Hyping the problem for the sake of good story, however, is totally unhelpful, and calling for more of the same when the current policy has been such a manifest failure is even less so.
This was a lazy piece of sensationalist journalism and a pathetically weak and ill thought out leader. Dissapointing and mystifying for a supposedly progressive thinking paper.
Read the follow up here: The Independent's born-again drug war: Round Two