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Beware the Dreaded Skunk: British Press Suffers Contact High, Contracts Bad Case of Reefer Madness

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #531)
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

With British Prime Minister Gordon Brown poised to reclassify marijuana as a more serious drug subject to stiffer penalties, the United Kingdom appears to be in the grip of an outbreak of Reefer Madness that would make Harry Anslinger blush. Fueled by the country's widely-read tabloid press and used by opposition Conservatives as a club with which to beat Brown's Labor government, the marijuana moral panic is a key element in what appears almost certain to be Brown's retreat from marijuana law reform.

1930's ''Reefer Madness''-style film poster
If, as is widely expected, Brown actually does order marijuana reclassified from Class C to Class B, which would mean a return to routine arrests for simple possession and an increase in penalties for trafficking, he will be ignoring the recommendation of the government's own drug policy-setting panel, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which has called for marijuana to remain Class C. Instead, Brown will be siding with law enforcement, concerned moms, and the mental health-drug treatment complex, all of whom are loudly howling that the drug is so dangerous it must be reclassified.

The British tabloid press, exemplified by the Daily Mail, has become a leading actor in the debate over reclassification, breathlessly reporting scary story after scary story about marijuana and its effects, particularly on youth. Here are just a handful of recent Daily Mail Reefer Madness headlines: "Son twisted by skunk knifed father 23 times," "How cannabis made me a monster," "Escaped prisoner killed man while high on skunk cannabis," "Boys on skunk butchered a grandmother," and "Teen who butchered two friends was addicted to skunk cannabis."

In another article, "How my perfect son became crazed after smoking cannabis," the Mail consults an unhappy mother whose child ran into problems smoking weed. Last fall, the Mail was warning of "deadly skunk."

While the Mail's preoccupation with skunk, a decades-old indica-sativa hybrid, is novel, it has also been hitting some more familiar themes. In an article headlined "Cannabis: A deadly habit as easy for children to pick up as a bag of crisps," after blaming marijuana for the problems of British youth culture and prohibition-related violence, the Mail breathlessly reports that skunk isn't your father's marijuana.

The other problem for the Government and others who urged the then Home Secretary David Blunkett to downgrade cannabis in the run-up to 2004, is that the drug on sale to young people on the streets today is very different from the one ministers thought they were downgrading.

Doctors believe that this new strain has the potential to induce paranoia and even psychosis.

Some of those we met who work with young criminals link the advent of the new drug with the growth and intensity of street violence.

Uanu Seshmi runs a small charity in Peckham, where gun crime is rife, which aims to help boys excluded from school escape becoming involved in criminal gangs.

He has seen boys come through his doors who are "unreachable" and he blames the new higher strength cannabis sold on the streets as "skunk" or "super skunk" for warping young minds.

"It isn't the cannabis of our youth, 20 or 30 years ago," he told me.

"This stuff damages the brain, its effects are irreversible and once the damage is done there is nothing you can do."

While such yellow journalism from the likes of the tabloid press is no surprise, even the venerable Times of London is feeling the effects of skunk fever. Under the headline Cannabis: 'just three drags on a skunk joint will induce paranoia', the Times managed to find and highlight a gentleman named Gerard who doesn't like that particularly variety of pot:

I smoke around six joints of regular cannabis every week, mostly at the weekends. What I like about smoking hash or weed is that it keeps me calm and gives me a more amusing outlook on life. With skunk, it's a completely different story. Just three drags on a skunk joint will induce paranoia on a massive scale.

As Britain's pro-cannabis reform media outlet Cannazine noted, "As a result of Gerard's personal experience with cannabis, The Times published a story to Google News which will ultimately go on to form part of the over-all anti-cannabis diatribe we are all subjected to daily. Is there any wonder at all why the world has such a confused view of what is really a hugely important social issue within the UK?"

Fortunately for British pot-smokers, smoking high-potency strains is not likely to turn them into mental patients or psycho-killers, said Dr. Mitch Earleywine -- and it may even be better for them than smoking low-potency weed. "The tacit assumption that increased potency translates into greater danger from the drug is untrue," he said. "In fact, marijuana with greater amounts of THC may is probably less hazardous than weaker cannabis. Stronger cannabis leads to smoking smaller amounts. Smoking smaller quantities could provide some protection against the health problems normally associated with inhaling smoke. Smokers may take smaller, shorter puffs when using more potent marijuana. Smoking less may decrease the amount of tars and noxious gases inhaled, limiting the risk for mouth, throat, and lung damage. Obviously, avoiding smoke completely would eliminate these problems," he said, suggesting that eating cannabis may be an alternative.

While marijuana potency has increased over the years, claims of dramatic potency increases "suffered from exaggeration or misinformation," said Earleywine.

The same could be said about claimed links between marijuana and schizophrenia, he suggested. "The obvious stuff, that pot doesn't cause schizophrenia but schizophrenics like pot, tends to apply here," he said. "The longitudinal studies often do a great job of assessing psychosis at the end of the period but a poor job of assessing symptoms at the beginning of the study. There are now about five longitudinal studies suggesting increases in 'psychotic disorders' or 'schizophrenic spectrum disorders' in folks who are heavy users of cannabis very early in life. There are also six studies to show more symptoms of schizo-typal personality disorder in cannabis users. Note that none of these are full-blown schizophrenia, the rare, disabling disorder that affects about 1% of the population," he said.

"The best argument against this idea comes from work showing that schizophrenia affects 1% of the population in every country and across every era, regardless of how much cannabis was used at the time or up to ten years before," Earleywine added.

For California court-certified cannabis cultivation expert Chris Conrad, the British obsession with skunk is somewhat mystifying. "Skunk is just another hybrid cannabis strain," he said. "It was developed by Dave Watson, and I believe it is 75% sativa and 25% indica with a strong aromatic flavor, hence the name. There is also 'Super Skunk' that adds more indica, which is what differentiates it from regular skunk. But the name and any alleged "skunk effect" are not related in any reality-based way, because that same effect is derived from all hybrid strains."

While scoffing at the sensationalized claims of skunk's powers, Conrad pointed to one real, but minor, risk associating with using high-potency marijuana. "Individuals with low blood sugar, low blood pressure and a tendency toward fainting may pass out after smoking a few hits of very strong cannabis, usually indica strains grown indoors. That's it. The only danger seems to be bumping your head if you fall over."

If the British press wanted to warn readers of real potential problems with high-potency marijuana, it would tell them to be careful around strong cannabis if they have low blood pressure and/or a history of fainting, said Conrad. "But instead of responsibly advising the public that certain individuals who are easily identified by their medical history should be careful to sit down when they smoke very strong cannabis -- the media instead uses this to fan fears, glamorize the drug war and sell newspapers without even bothering to give their readers the only useful information they need to know about the topic. Somebody should be fired for allowing them to publish lies like they have been doing. Shame on them."

"We are in the middle of a full-blown Reefer Madness moral panic," said Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "It is, of course, political -- opponents of the government are attacking it using the 2004 reclassification as a basis. Any bad things that happen involving cannabis can be blamed on the government, and any research that illustrates cannabis harms used to show how weak and irresponsible the government is. The government is on the verge of caving into the pressure, rather than arguing the case for the policy," he noted.

And while the Daily Mail is a tabloid (a rough American equivalent would be the New York Post), it is influential, Rolles said. "It influences the government because it is read by a large number of floating voters who switched from Tory to Labor and will potentially switch back," he argued. "The Mail has a disproportional impact on politicians because of its reader demographic and correspondingly has a disproportional impact on the news agenda and general popular political discourse. The memes about cannabis harms -- particularly mental illness and young people, the potent new 'skunk', links to violent crime -- and the fact that reclassification, and by implication the government, are responsible for it all are very much perpetuated by the Mail. It's the old story about the Government 'sending out messages' to young people," he said.

The Daily Mail is a political actor in opposition to the Labor government, Rolles noted. "The Mail despises the government for various reasons -- mostly to do with its editor who is a reactionary-right moral authoritarian with a classic conservative view of a traditional Britain under attack from various wicked modern cultural forces."

The Daily Mail's Reefer Madness reporting serves the political ends of the Conservatives, Rolles explained. "Their home affairs spokesman, David Davis, is like a drug war jack in the box, popping up at every opportunity and deploying one of a selection of set phrases linking all of the above; government being weak, sending out the wrong message, cannabis harms, reclassification being the cause of all the problems, and his solution -- ignore the ACMD, reclassify, and most absurdly; 'secure our borders'. It's fear mongering and sound-tough drug war idiocy on a quite epic scale."

But that idiocy will most likely be sufficient to sway the Labor government into moving resolutely backwards on marijuana policy. For American readers in particular, for whom such reporting seems like something out of the 1930s, the role of the reactionary British press in setting marijuana policy should be an object lesson.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

The British government's concern about cannabis is that it's likely to depress the sales of scotch, thereby reducing revenues.

Where cannabis has been legalized, it doesn't appear that there is a mad rush to buy cannabis for recreational use. Hence, even if legalized, regulated and taxed, cannabis sales aren't likely to reap the revenues the British government is hoping for.

Maybe the Brits ought to review their system of taxation. Why not base it on proportion, tax all monetary transaction and exclude nothing? That's known as fairness. Maybe the British form of government doesn't promote the concept of fairness in taxation.

Fri, 04/11/2008 - 1:21am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"Cannabis: A deadly habit as easy for children to pick up as a bag of crisps,"

Really!? How much is a bag of skunk in Great Britain? In the USA this is an expensive delicacy. I can understand ditch weed competing with a bag of potato chips, but super strains? I don't think children can even afford skunk at $50 bucks or so an eighth.

Fri, 04/11/2008 - 2:17am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Insanity appears to be infectious. The Brits followed us into Iraq, when their own history with that country in the 1920's (Churchill was so frustrated with the situation, he advocated using poison gas on the tribes there) should have warned them...and us. But they followed, anyways. And now they wish they hadn't.

So now, they're following the US's example with drug law? Has there been some kind of outbreak of a low-level version of 'mad cow disease' that doesn't kill but has reduced people's ability to think? Sure looks that way...

I'd be very interested in knowing just what kind of 'co-operation' might be taking place between US and UK 'anti-drugs' organizations.The kind of propaganda and techniques used to disseminate it that's being forwarded there is just a little too familiar on this side of The Pond. I smell a rat.

Fri, 04/11/2008 - 12:50pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

when you ignore the rampant dangers from your own drug (alcohol) and project those dangers onto the enemy drug (cannabis), whether by exaggerating or flat out inventing. Sorry Brit drug war jihadists, killer alcohol remains far more dangerous than weed, there is no comparison. You're giving in to bigotry any time you punish people not for their own actions that harm others, but because they belong to a group of people who you've arbitrarily decided bug you.

Fri, 04/11/2008 - 5:30pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I guess you have to live in Great Britain to acquire some of this "killer skunk pot". I'm thinking when I get there some 10 year old will be able to hook me up seeing as it's easy to get their hands on... wait what am I thinking they won't give it up they're hopelessly hooked. Dammit! Well I sure don't want to smoke my father's cannabis, if I were going to do that might as well wear the old man's knickers too. How the hell do you get this "killer skunk pot"? I pay good money and so far I've yet to smoke enough pot to make me shank some fool 23 times, kill anyone, or even get off the couch to get a snack when I get the munchies. Well, I'll be waiting here in the States for some weed that'll make me give up my bag of chips and trade it for some easily accessible and readily available paranoia weed. Oh wait I'm 30.. guess I'll have to check with the kids to see when it's here... by the way Great Britian, anyone can get paranoia weed, just add law enforcement to smoking a joint in the park, instant paranoia!!

Fri, 04/11/2008 - 7:50pm Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

sicntired This has all been done before.Every time it looks like we'll get a little sanity they dredge up all these tired old myths and misconceptions and spout them like they just got the tablets from Moses.They've had 100 years to make this stuff up and it just might take that long to debunk all the hysteria and fear that these people keep dragging into the mix.It makes you wonder what they expect to gain?Or are druggies just the communists of the 21st century?Every body needs a bad guy.Makes them feel more powerful in their pathetic little lives.Much better to get drunk,punch someone in the face,throw up and sleep in a bush somewhere.(I actually did that once)All prohibitions have been nasty human experiments with no basis in reality.

Sat, 04/12/2008 - 4:56am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The Second Coming is in the literal understanding of the Word. The 'clouds' in which He will be seen are a symbol of this opening of the consciousnes to the true meaning of the term KNH the hemp. The 'tree of life' is this same KNH. In 'Run from the Cure" that testimony by Rick Simpson proves without doubt that government is intent on keeping us in ignorance that the KNH cures cancer, the bastards. A viewer is available on the 'brothers' site.

Those people need to perpetuate this war in order keep the simple in a state of demoralization, fear and ignorance so that their rule continues.

Right Reverend Gregory Karl Davis
founding Bishop

Sat, 04/12/2008 - 10:09am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Silly Brits......what'a bunch a little girls....all thay can do is hump "W"s leg and hope for a pat on the head....

Wed, 04/16/2008 - 9:24am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

United Kingdom
Government produced "news"
The British Satellite News web site claims to be "a free television news and features service", but is provided by World Television , a company that "provides rich communications solutions to corporations, non-profit organisations and governmental institutions." BSN is entirely funded by the UK Foreign Office , which spent £340m on propaganda activities in the UK alone in 2001. The Foreign Office is also the primary funder of the BBC World Service ...

United States
Government produced "news"
In the United States , according to a report by The New York Times David Barstow, the George W. Bush administration has been increasingly criticized for the aggressive use of a tool typical of public relations : previously prepared, ready-to-serve news. What is referred to by the report as propaganda ....

ANew York Times editorial (March 16, 2005) entitled "And now, the counterfeit news" affirms that at least 20 U.S. federal agencies, like the Department of Defense and the U.S. Census Bureau , produced and distributed hundreds of TV news reports since 2001 that were aired as if they were produced by the media ...

COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program) was a series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation aimed at investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations. The FBI used covert operations from its inception......

The Final Report of the Select Committee documented a history of the FBI being used for purposes of political repression...."Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association,.The FBI and police threatened, instigated, and themselves conducted break-ins, vandalism, assaults, beatings, and murders...including political assassinations—
were so extensive, vicious, and calculated that they can accurately be termed a form of official "terrorism." ......

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wed, 04/16/2008 - 9:45am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

By Christian_Peper____
Marijuana enhances many activities. Marijuana is an excellent way to break the ice at a party.
Marijuana is an excellent antidepressant, far better than Prozac or Paxil. With all of the side effects of antidepressants it is only big corporate money combined with the police state power that keeps certain drugs illegal. It is a shame that the police state in partnership with the pharmaceutical companies have been working to demonize such a fun and healthy plant.

Marijuana has a positive effect on many illnesses including: cancer, HIV/ AIDS, and glaucoma. Marijuana enhances creativity and is very beneficial for art students. Marijuana can help users to meditate more deeply and reach relaxation in a much shorter time. True Christians realize that the drug war fascism only leads to the New World Order slavery warned about in Revelation. Many religions claim to spread enlightenment and love but only spread the slavery to an organization. True enlightenment can only come through the quest. Drugs can aid this quest.

The prison population in America is now over six million. America is nothing more than a fascist police state. By planting marijuana in random places you divide “law enforcement” resources and turn clown cops into landscapers and weed pickers.
Abusive redneck cops get sexual pleasure “busting down” the youth. Americans are now nothing more than cattle for the prisons. Stop supporting the police state.

Fri, 04/18/2008 - 4:05am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

You know, I think only internet users should be allowed any political power in a democracy in this day and much ignorance in the public....I mean they reelected Dubya for George Washington's sake (rest his revolutionary soul)!!!

Thu, 05/08/2008 - 6:05am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Im british and smoke what the press call "evil skunk" which is basically a term they use for all all strong smelling bud usually with visible THC crystals, its the same as what americans would call Dank or Dro . Its pretty good gets you baked and isn't full of crap like the hash in the UK.It is quite available if you are actually intrested in pot, but costs
20-25 pounds an eigth and about 140 an ounce, so take in to acount the exchange rate and its similar to the 50 dollars an eight cited above. And no I haven't stabbed anyone yet or suffered uncontrollable rage/psychosis, but arguably the skunk has induced me to watch Harold and Kumar and become obssessed withsnack food and cypress hill.

Wed, 05/20/2009 - 8:09pm Permalink
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Thu, 11/07/2013 - 12:53am Permalink

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