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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 10th September 2011

I stumbled across a parliamentary answer from April 2011 concerning the strength of cannabis. The question was asked by Charles Walker, the Conservative MP for Broxbourne. Mr Walker is a prohibitionist and his question asked the Home Secretary to provide figures for the THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) content of seized skunk cannabis for the latest period and for five, ten and twenty years ago.

On the 2nd September, I made a brief reference to ‘the lie that says that cannabis, today, is not the same as it was in the ‘60s’. In the light of Mr Walker’s questions it’s worth looking at that lie in greater detail.
As I noted, before, the generations that grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s are now able to speak with the wisdom that comes with age and more and more of them are willing to say that they used cannabis as young adults and that they have suffered no long-term harm. They are increasingly open to the argument that the present regime for dealing with cannabis needs to be revised.

This poses a threat to prohibitionists who, for a long time, have relied on being able to present themselves as the mature adults arguing in order to protect irresponsible youth from itself. If those just as mature say their cannabis use caused no problems it destroys a key part of the platform in favour of making either no change to the law or, in many cases, making the law more draconian.

The answer for the prohibitionists is to be able to say that maybe the law was wrong about cannabis in the ‘60s & ‘70s but cannabis is different these days so the experience of someone using cannabis forty years ago is not relevant. Hence, the interest in the strength of cannabis and Mr Walker’s question about THC content.

Later, I’ll look at why the whole topic is a red herring, anyway, but for now it is worth looking at the answer he received. In short, the answer showed that there has not been anything like the increase in THC content in seized cannabis that is frequently claimed. There is a small difference between the THC content of home grown cannabis and imported material but the higher level in the home product is not enough to justify the claim that home-grown sinsemilla is far stronger than foreign imports.

The various reports referred to in the answer he was given all point out that there is no way to know if the cannabis tested is representative of the market as a whole and note that there are no figures for THC content before 1995 making the claim that cannabis is different impossible to sustain.

But, in any event, it really doesn’t matter what the THC content of cannabis is. What matters is the dose a user has and that information is lacking from most of the scientific papers on cannabis use and its effects. With any substance entering the body by inhalation the action of the person doing the inhaling is an essential factor in determining the dose received.

Mr A, Mr B and Mr C shared a joint. Mr A drew the smoke into his mouth and exhaled. Mr B drew the smoke down into his lungs and exhaled immediately. Mr C drew the smoke deep into his lungs, held his breath for fifteen seconds and exhaled. It should be obvious that these three men will have received different doses of THC but, in almost every paper written about cannabis, they will be considered to be equal users because they all had one joint.

And this is not hypothetical. It won’t take you long to find videos on YouTube showing people using cannabis in all the three ways described.

And just as Messrs A, B & C chose different ways to inhale cannabis to suit their requirements so it is with different strengths of cannabis. There are, of course, those who want to get the highest possible dose in the smallest possible time and, therefore, seek out and use the highest strength cannabis they can find and consume as much of it as they can.

But, that is no different to those users of alcohol whose aim is to get as drunk as possible in the shortest time. In both cases, these are the extreme minority and it is ridiculous to suggest that, as happens with cannabis but not with alcohol, all users behave in this way.

When we lived in Zambia in the 1970s, you could buy double strength white rum from the duty free shop at Gatwick Airport. Though the customs limit for taking alcohol into Zambia was based on standard strength, the customs officers at the airport never worried about this and treated 1l of rum as being 1l of rum regardless of what the bottle actually contained.

Once home with our bottle of high strength rum we, of course, poured a half measure before adding the cola to end up with the same strength drink. And that is what most cannabis users do. They know what effect they are seeking from their use and adjust the amount of cannabis based on the strength to get just that effect.

The problem can be that, if police enforcement action means someone’s regular supplier is ‘unavailable’, a user may buy product of unknown strength from a new source and experience excessive effects as a result but they will soon adjust their usage to take account of the different product.

There are complications, however, because THC content does not tell you the strength of a sample of cannabis. Two of the other ingredients cannabinol(CBN) and cannabidiol(CBD) are believed to alter the effects of THC on the brain and, it seems possible, that a lower THC cannabis with little or no CBN and CBD may actually be stronger than a higher THC cannabis with good levels of CBN and CBD.

Of course, the difficulties of conducting thorough reliable research on a substance that is legally proscribed mean that we are a very long way from determining what the different formulations actually do. But until that happens just remember that anyone who tells you cannabis is stronger today and, therefore, more of a problem is trying to blind you with nonscience.