Cannabis: the big lie

The following article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 20 July 2007.

Skunk may be strong, but it’s no stronger than the high-quality hashish that has been smoked in Britain since time immemorial.

Virtually half the Brown cabinet have now declared that they once smoked dope but didn’t like it. What on earth is wrong with these people? Normal folk use drugs and enjoy them.

All this talk of re-criminalising millions of cannabis users is predicated on untruth. That is, politicians and medical professionals are peddling dodgy data which purport to show that currently available strains of so-called “skunk weed” are 10 or more times stronger than anything the new Home Secretary may have toked while she was at Oxford in the early 80s.

It’s simply untrue, and repeating a lie ad nauseam does not make it true. Let me say that again: repeating a lie often enough does not make it true.

“Skunk” is a generic name for fast-growing cannabis hybrids cultivated indoors under artificial lights using hydroponics technology. Technically, skunk is a crossbreed of Cannabis sativa and the shorter, bushier Cannabis indica indigenous to Afghanistan.

Some of these newer strains are particularly well-suited to rapid, high density growth in confined conditions, and the result is that several crops can be grown every year. The supply chain is a lot shorter than for imported cannabis, and profit margins for the grower-wholesalers can be quite high.

The THC content of skunk can be significantly higher than your average imported grass, but it compares with the levels found in the high-quality hashish that has been smoked in these islands since time immemorial.

Personally, I cannot stand skunk, and the difficulty these days in obtaining decent hash is the main reason I no longer smoke. Skunk is like poor-quality young wine; it may have a high percentage of the active ingredient, but it tastes foul and gives you a bad head. Like cheap booze, the current prevalence of skunk is symptomatic of our impatient and undiscerning age.

I look back with fondness to the 70s and 80s when good quality hash was easy to come by. The downside was that some of my money probably found its way into the coffers of IRA and Loyalist quartermasters, and other equally delightful characters. Not all hash smugglers were as nice as Howard Marks.

I will not advocate the use of cannabis or any other drug (even coffee), but I would rather that all drugs be legally available, at prices dictated largely by the market. Let the government take its cut, within reason.

What worries me more than the widespread and sometimes inappropriate use of cannabis is young people drinking til they drop, and ruining their livers before they have fully stopped growing. If binge drinking doesn’t kill the young outright, they will be condemned to lives of constant ill-health arising from irreparable internal organ damage.

But only fools and medical professionals think that the solution there is to raise alcohol prices to Swedish levels, and further restrict the availability of booze. Criminalising cannabis users will likewise not make for a healthier society.

Prohibition laws make sense only where they can be effectively enforced, and have the desired effect. This clearly does not apply to drug use, and we should have learned this lesson a long time ago.

And then there’s the hypocrisy of it all. A significant chunk of government tax revenue comes from alcohol sales. Taking alcohol duty together with the excise on that other killer drug tobacco, and ignoring VAT on coffee and tea, the government’s income from drug sales amounts to some £15bn a year. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Cannabis is not a harmless drug, but the odd panic attack due to over-consumption of strong weed is nothing when compared with the damage that excessive drinking and other poor lifestyle choices do to the human system.

Drug control has failed, and it’s high time we changed track. Let’s now try switching the propaganda focus from illness prevention to positive health promotion, and see what effect that has.