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.
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.