Wednesday, 23 January 2013

the green, green grass of home

The most significant part of the recently concluded general election in the United States was not the contest to decide who would be the country’s next president but the decision by voters in the states of Washington and Colorado to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. It is far too early to predict how this decision will work, given that possession of this drug remains a federal crime, that federal law takes precedence over state law, and that, according to the federal authorities, marijuana is as dangerous as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

This view has changed little since the 1930s, when the official attitude to marijuana was articulated by Harry J. Anslinger, who was commissioner of the US Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, in testimony to a congressional committee:
How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can only be conjectured…. No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveller in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer….
Even the term ‘marijuana’ was part of the government’s effort to demonize cannabis, by deliberately associating it with possibly illegal Mexican immigrants and black Americans in the South. Another quote from Anslinger is relevant here:
Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.
There are other myths associated with cannabis use. The most persistent of these is the notion that cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug, and that as a result of smoking cannabis users will eventually move on to heroin or crack cocaine. There is absolutely no evidence that this is the case, but it is a widely held belief among junior and middle-ranking police officers in the UK. As a member of the Cumbria Police Authority in the 1990s, I was appalled to hear this hoary old myth trotted out by a chief superintendent who had been given the task of showing me around police headquarters when I joined the authority.

However, there is one theoretical situation where users may move on to more dangerous drugs. A new user of cannabis will quickly discover that official government propaganda is wrong; the drug is nowhere near as dangerous as they had been led to believe. It is not addictive for a start. There is a possibility that they might assume they are being misled with regard to drugs that are as dangerous as they are claimed to be, such as heroin and cocaine.

When David Blunkett was home secretary in 2003, he engineered the reclassification of cannabis from category B to category C, which meant that, in effect, possession would no longer be an arrestable offence. Unfortunately, the government’s pompous drugs czar, Keith Hellawell, an alleged expert who usually had no idea what he was talking about, claimed that this move “sent out the wrong message” and resigned in protest, and a later Labour Party home secretary returned cannabis to category B, reiterating Hellawell’s comment as he did so.

This is a clear demonstration of the muddled thinking that is endemic in almost every government. The UK’s drugs classification system was designed to reflect the potential harm that an individual drug could cause, and ‘sending out a message’ should not be a part of that system. The UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was set up under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act to provide the government of the day with science-based advice on drugs, so when its chairman, Professor David Nutt, notorious for suggesting that riding a horse was more dangerous than taking the drug ecstasy (a statistical fact), was sacked for complaining publicly that politicians were ignoring scientific advice, that certainly sent out the wrong message.

Clearly, all drugs have the potential to do serious harm to the user, but if harm reduction is the intention of governments, most do a poor job. By pontificating on the dangers of smoking cannabis, say, politicians invariably achieve the opposite effect, because part of the attraction, particularly among teenagers being exposed to the drug for the first time, is the thrill of defying authority.

Moral disapproval is no basis for a drugs policy, and any responsible government should consider the health implications of cannabis use before anything else. This is clearly not the case in the United Kingdom, where most of the estimated five million or so cannabis users, invariably through ignorance, smoke either marijuana grown in illicit ‘factories’ (otherwise empty houses rented by criminal gangs for the purpose) or ‘soapbar’.

This noxious substance has supplanted genuine hashish, which is virtually unobtainable in the UK nowadays. I wonder how many of those five million users have any idea what it contains. Researchers at Edinburgh University recently subjected samples of soapbar to analysis by mass spectrometry, and their average findings were as follows: 4 percent flowers or cannabis resin; and up to 80 percent ground-up fan leaves (the large leaves that sprout from the main stem of the plant and have no psychoactive properties).

The remainder consisted of various unpleasant additives. The most common of these were glue, dyes, toluene and benzene (both of which are strongly carcinogenic), henna, turpentine, pine resin (to mask the smell of the above), plastics such as polythene and PVC (usually derived from re-pressing or remixing bars using petrol or diesel), and a medical or veterinary drug such as ketamine (to provide a ‘stoned’ effect). Among other ingredients found were bitumen, beeswax, shoe polish, condensed milk powder, instant coffee, brick dust, sand and dried animal turds.

Soapbar is often made in Spain or England, and it may have been re-pressed or remixed under heat several times before it reaches the end-user. It first appeared in Britain in the mid-1980s following the loss of Afghan and Lebanese sources of genuine hashish as a result of armed conflict in those countries, and although the street price of soapbar has fallen in real terms since the 1980s, the profits to be made are so large that the criminal gangs involved will not import or knowingly allow real hashish into the country.

The obvious question to ask is this: would you smoke this rubbish? I do wonder why anyone would, but some coffee shops in Amsterdam now stock soapbar, because they are being asked for it by British visitors, and a friend told me of a recent encounter that he had with a man on a beach in Jamaica who was smoking it (having brought it with him from the UK despite the easy availability of cannabis in Jamaica). Some people are too stupid for their own good.

The ‘herbal cannabis’ grown in the UK is not a lot better. Brick dust and sand are often added to bulk up the end-product, and cases have been reported of tiny glass beads also being added. These are particularly dangerous if inhaled, causing serious lung damage, and there has been at least one fatality as a result. Neither the health of customers nor the quality of the end-product is a consideration for the people who grow and sell this stuff, so cannabis plants are frequently harvested two or three weeks too early; they are dried rapidly using an external heat source (usually the lighting rigs used to grow the plants), which produces a harsh smoke; the end-product is never cured, which increases the amount of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and reduces the chlorophyll content; and the latest trend is to cultivate what are known as ‘autoflowering hybrids’.

A few years ago, cannabis breeders discovered that if they crossed established varieties with Cannabis ruderalis, a common weed in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there was no need to cut the amount of light reaching the plants to 12 hours per day in order to induce flowering. C. ruderalis flowers automatically from the third or fourth set of branches but has one drawback: it is not psychoactive. However, that is a minor concern when a crop can be ready in nine weeks from germination, cutting costs to the growers and reducing the risk of a crop being discovered before it is ready.

It should be obvious that the primary goal of any control measures must be to drive this rubbish off the streets; only the nature of those control measures need be debated. At one extreme, motivated by moral judgement and egged on by a moralistic tabloid press, are the politicians who believe that the problem can be eradicated by more draconian penalties and more robust enforcement. At the other extreme are those, usually outside mainstream politics, who advocate a laissez-faire free-for-all. Neither option is likely to be successful.

What is needed is some form of regulation, and this would need to be as robust as the present regimes for regulating the sale and consumption of tobacco and alcohol. The bonus for any cash-strapped government would be that such a regime would allow tax to be collected. Commercial growing and sale should both be allowed under license, with possible exemptions for amateur growers cultivating five plants or fewer, perhaps with a special license that includes an age restriction. However, there are a few obvious caveats.

First, any attempt to impose too high a tax on the newly legitimate product risks driving demand for unlicensed and therefore untaxed cannabis, which already happens in the UK with tobacco and alcohol because of the crippling levels of excise duty imposed on these products.

Second, there are several grey areas. Should it be legal to smoke cannabis in public, for example? What should the minimum age be before someone is allowed to purchase and smoke cannabis? How does one keep cannabis out of the hands of children? What is the maximum amount that a user should be allowed to possess before they are prosecuted?

Third, the most compelling case for legalization is with respect to cannabis smoked or otherwise ingested for medical reasons. Cannabis is an effective analgesic, and it does not have the problems with addiction that are associated with other strong painkillers such as morphine. The active ingredient here is cannabidiol (CBD), which is found in the greatest concentrations in C. indica varieties. Other medical properties of cannabis include its ability to combat nausea—useful for patients undergoing chemotherapy—and use as a vasodilator, which makes it suitable for treating poor circulation and high blood pressure.

There is likely to be more support in the UK for legalizing cannabis for medical purposes than for recreation, but opponents of both measures are likely to claim that allowing the drug for medical use will be ‘the thin end of the wedge’, leading to its legalization for recreational use at some point in the future. This, of course, is the well-known ‘slippery slope’ logical fallacy; pointing out the fallacy to the type of person who routinely uses it is usually futile.

Fourth, should there be either an outright ban or strict controls on cannabis with a high THC content? Several modern varieties have a THC content in excess of 20 percent, and it is these varieties that pose the greatest risk to susceptible users, who may develop the kind of symptoms usually associated with schizophrenia. Although the Netherlands has an international reputation for tolerance, which especially in the case of cannabis has boosted tourism, the country’s government decided to ban all types of cannabis with a THC content of more than 15 percent in 2011. However, the only viable control measure is increased taxation on stronger varieties, for reasons that have already been outlined: a ban is an open invitation to criminals, because demand for stronger cannabis will not disappear. In fact, before the ban, Dutch coffee shops reported that the stronger strains were their biggest sellers.

It will not be easy to achieve consensus in answering any of these questions, but reform of some kind is essential on both practical and moral grounds. Although the electors of Washington and Colorado may not have been thinking of the eighteenth amendment to their country’s constitution when they cast their ballots, the most ill-judged, misguided social experiment in history does offer a crucial lesson for the present day: prohibition doesn’t work!

It is not my usual practice to explain my post titles, but older readers may recall one of the most cringe-inducing #1 records of the 1960s, and its perpetrator, Tom Jones, who was also responsible for one of the most fatuous comments ever on the use of illegal drugs: ‘anyone can take drugs, but it takes a real man to hold his drink’. I do not deride a man’s choice not to smoke marijuana, which is what Jones probably had in mind, but associating with virility the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol without making a spectacle of oneself is so breathtakingly crass as to beggar all description.

Although Jones’s song refers to the stuff that cows eat, ‘grass’ is also one of many slang terms for marijuana. The UK is my home country, and, as I have pointed out above, the ‘herbal cannabis’ sold there is never cured, so it retains a high chlorophyll content and is therefore very green. Like the song, it is rubbish.


  1. Excellent article, Dennis. We are starting to make some headway with this issue in the US, but it's slow going.

    1. Thank you Kris. I wish we were making headway in the UK, although I heard that a House of Lords committee recently recommended decriminalization of possession, and I believe that a lot of chief police officers favour this too.

  2. The cannabis laws are ridiculous, I remember watching sixty minutes about where it all started a couple of decades ago, and it was determined by them to be brought about internationally with the Treaty of Versailles to benefit the American cotton industry worldwide. Hemp did not grow well in the US but cotton did, and cotton clothing only had a few years shelf life, whereas Hemp could last decades.

    It is good to see a few states trying to stand up against this garbage, but I would not be surprised if the FBI starts doing crackdowns on it soon. Supposedly there is a link between the drug trade and the "black budget" for covert operations that would be hard to do without, although if the CIA are really using drug trade money to fight for freedom, then why are they also using the laws to put people in jail?

    1. You’re absolutely spot on about contemporary cannabis laws PBS, but I don’t know where this idea of the Treaty of Versailles being involved came from. The US Congress refused to ratify the treaty, and it was Randolph Hearst, bent on protecting his timber interests (even though hemp is a more sustainable source of paper), who led the campaign against hemp. I do agree that hemp is a superior fibre to cotton though.

      Why are they using the laws to put people in jail? Simple answer: hypocrisy.

    2. There is something on it here, and its incorporation into the Treaty of Versailles

      "The Convention was implemented in 1915 by the United States, Netherlands, China, Honduras, and Norway. It went into force globally in 1919 when it was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles."

    3. Thanks for the link PBS. I’d forgotten about the International Opium Convention, but there is nothing in the Wikipedia entry to suggest that the demonization of “Indian hemp” began there (“These restrictions still left considerable leeway for countries to allow production, internal trade, and use of cannabis for recreational purposes”). Whatever the historical context, however, the current laws on cannabis use are archaic, draconian and ultimately undemocratic.

  3. The most famous argument for government not interfering in your life "for your own good" is contained in John Stuart Mill's essay "On Liberty". I have summarized this in my Blog:-
    Mill's main point is that we are the best judges of what is in our interest: if someone in authority says, "I know what's in your interest better than you do", then we are being treated like children, not adults.
    There is also a good article evaluating Mill's argument in the New York Times Review of Books:- locate "It's for your own good" by C. R. Sunstein

    1. Thank you Peter. I can recommend your critique of Mill’s On Liberty for anyone who hasn’t read the original essay. And I shall check out the NYT link.

  4. Hi Dennis,

    I picked up on your blog from your reaction to the Guardian article on the Global Drugs Survey, and I'd say, on the whole, we're singing from the same hymn sheet.

    I used to contribute to UKCIA debate, and supported our local LCA candidate (which I have to admit put me off immediately as the guy was a complete one trick pony that even the photographer thought was a bit of a pretentious pratt) and after a lengthy break, I'm hoping to attend 420 next week to see what the state of play in grass roots and mainstream politics is now, and to have a good time of course :)

    My question is, do you think while various groups such as NORML chip away at the larger picture, how important is to connect and educate people about adulterant risks, and benefits of self growing, even if that means going beyond breaking the initial law of "all weed is bad"? As you'll know, the potential penalties for growing or allowing to grow in a property are much more severe, sentencing guidlines indicate that attempting to hide or camoflague the act & use of "specialised equipment" (whatever that may be) would be influencial in sentencing & guerilla planting could break a host of laws.

    So the quandry is, to pass on that knowledge or not considering you may be encouraging someone to get a much more hefty black mark than standard caution.

    All the best and thanks for the read :)

    1. Hi Robin. Thanks for the detailed feedback.

      I wasn’t aware of the existence of UKCIA until you mentioned it, but their website does contain a lot of intelligent advice (although nothing that I wasn’t already aware of). I too have supported my local LCA candidate, although it was more of a protest vote in the safest Tory seat in England.

      There is no doubt that to ensure quality, the best option is to grow your own, but I’m well aware that if you’re caught, the assumption is that you are growing to supply, hence the more draconian penalties. It must therefore be a personal choice to grow your own, and I would never recommend this course of action to anyone, although I have done so myself in the past.

      However, my biggest concern in the current climate is the way that black market cannabis is adulterated with the kind of rubbish I’ve discussed above. I take every opportunity to tell people what they’re actually smoking, because while they’re smoking rubbish like soapbar, they are actively supporting real criminals.

      By the way, ‘specialised equipment’ is no more than a lighting rig and a grow tent, both of which are freely available from suppliers in the UK, who tout their merchandise as ideal for growing exotic fruit!

  5. An interesting read Dennis. As you may know, the LCA was renamed as CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform in 2011.

    The most important thing about growing your own in the UK is to keep fewer than nine plants, that's including even the tiniest seedlings. Also, "sophistication" of your grow set up is potentially a problem, particularly if it looks capable of producing crop after crop.

    I don't know where your ideas about autoflowerers come from but the modern strains are extremely potent with the benefit of higher levels of CBD than in conventional photoperiod strains.

    Therefore, an "unsophisticated" option which works well in southern England between March to November is a succession of autos in a greenhouse.

    1. Thank you for raising some interesting points Peter. On the subject of autoflowering strains, my experience has been that there is something missing in the auto versions of conventional strains, although a friend grew some auto Super Cali Haze last year that surprised us both. However, a major problem with autos is the difficulty of getting the seed to split open. By the way, unlike many smokers, I’m not interested in a high CBD content. The key yardstick for me is the THC content.

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