The herb that got too high

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

Recent labelling of cannabis as a major ‘problem drug’ may surprise those who have smoked the odd joint in the past. But a new, highly potent strain now being grown in Ireland is more harmful than the drug’s benign image would suggest, writes CARL O'BRIEN

IRELAND’S FASTEST-growing problem drug is not being sourced from the poppy fields of Afghanistan or remote Moroccan hillsides. It is not arriving into the country in steel shipping containers or being dropped off at remote harbours in the dead of night.

It is growing mostly behind the calm facade of suburbia, inside rented apartments or houses, in affluent and poorer neighbours alike. Homes which have often been stripped of furniture to build indoor grow houses are turning out fresh crops of high-strength herbal cannabis every 15 weeks or so.

Hash, based on cannabis resin, has traditionally been the main form of the drug in Ireland. But increasingly, grass or skunk – produced from dried plant material – is taking over on the streets. The level of cannabis’s main psychoactive chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is several times higher in grow-house skunk compared with hash.

The expansion of grow houses and increased expertise in using hybrid forms of the plant, along with hydroponics – use of nutrient solutions – means growers have been able to significantly increase the strength of the high.

“For young people starting off on this, it’s like skipping beer and getting straight into malt whiskey,” says Gary Broderick of the Dublin-based Saol Project, who has worked as an addiction counsellor for the past 20 years. “We really should have a different name for the kind of cannabis available these days, because it is much more potent than before.”

This anxiety over cannabis may seem hysterical to anyone whose rite of passage included smoking a joint at some hazy point in the past. The image of cannabis, the most commonly used illegal drug in Ireland, remains mostly benign. It doesn’t have the scary connotations of heroin. It’s even hailed by some as a drug which will play a key role in medicine into the future. But all indications are that skunk is far more powerful than what came before.

In recent weeks, two reports have indicated a significant shift in the way these more potent forms of cannabis are perceived. Figures released from the Health Research Board show that cannabis overtook heroin in 2010 as the “most common problem drug” among new cases on treatment programmes.

In addition, the National Advisory Committee on Drugs warned that herbal cannabis, or skunk, in Ireland has a higher potency than the imported variety, creating a greater risk of damage to people’s health.

The study, by the Forensic Science Laboratory, which operates out of Garda headquarters in Dublin, analysed cannabis products to establish their THC levels. Not only did home-grown cannabis have much higher levels of THC, but it also lacked a substance called cannabidiol (CBD), which seems to protect the brain from the effects of THC.

Recent studies in the UK have shown that there is a higher risk of psychosis in those who smoke this type of high-potency cannabis. There has also been mounting evidence linking skunk with damaging long-term effects on the brains of some users, especially younger people.

Unease over skunk has even been sending ripples through the Netherlands, a country famed for its official tolerance for cannabis. The government there has announced plans to classify high-potency cannabis alongside hard drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, the latest step in a continuing reversal of the country’s liberal policies.

THE CRINAN YOUTH PROJECT, based in the rambling former Magdalene Laundry building on Seán MacDermott Street in Dublin’s north inner city, was set up to deal with the devastation caused by heroin.

Nowadays, few young people are using the drug. Instead, problem drugs tend to be skunk, as well as a combination of benzodiazepines and mephedrone (also known as snow-blow).

Most of the young people attending the project – typically aged between 18 and 21 – say skunk has become the most popular drug on the streets over the past year or so, particularly since the closure of headshops, which supplied a range of legal highs. While many describe negative experiences such as paranoia, most heavy users feel dependent on the drug and end up spending most of their weekly income on it.

“If it’s good weed, it really does your head in,” says Adam (21). “The other day a motor bike came up near me, and I thought I was going to be shot. I was paranoid out of my head. That’s what it does to you.”

Louise (18) says she spends most of the €200 a week she gets from her Fás course on skunk. The varieties differ: white widow, amnesia haze or purple haze. She describes getting “whiteys” – turning white, getting sick – from the stronger home-grown grass which she tries to avoid. It doesn’t stop her, though.

“It’s €50 a bag, which is 2.5 grams. So, I’d get maybe four bags a week,” she says. “You notice the grass getting stronger and stronger. I’m losing weight, not eating. And when you don’t have it, you get the shakes. My ma knows about it. She can tell when I’m having my ‘withdrawals’. I get frustrated and angry.”

John, also 18, describes often hearing voices and feeling panicky after using skunk; he says he’d love to give up the habit, but feels too dependent on it. He also takes benzodiazepines, usually five at a time, after smoking a few joints.

“As far as I can see, it’s taking over around here . . . when you feel the stone coming down, then the paranoia kicks in. But only for about 45 minutes. So, you need to use benzos to get to sleep after using grass. I end up getting whacked out of it.”

The cost of skunk means many of his friends end up snatching phones or breaking into cars to pay for drugs. He’s been arrested several times, but hasn’t been jailed yet. But his friend, Adam, is just out of prison for drug-related theft.

The effects of skunk also cross the social divide. Across town, the offices of Detect, an early intervention service for psychosis, are based in the anonymous surroundings of a business park in south Dublin. The idea is to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and to encourage people to come for help and support.

Liz Lawlor, the service’s principal psychologist, says she is worried by the rising number of young people and heavy cannabis users contacting Detect who are experiencing damaging side-effects such as psychosis, panic attacks and other symptoms.

“We see peaks after events like Oxegen, with young people presenting with paranoia, delusion,” she says. “Or they might be engaged in what we call safety behaviour; that is, doing things which they feel will make them safer, like walking a different route home because they’re convinced they’re being followed.”

The average age of people receiving treatment at the centre is 34 – but among cannabis users, the average age falls to 27. The risks of the drug have been well documented, such as its effect on cognitive performance, learning and memory, and liability to psychotic experiences and becoming very suspicious and paranoid. It is likely, says Lawlor, that more potent forms of the drug have the same effects, but worse.

Dr Mary Clarke, a consultant psychiatric and clinical lead for the service, says their findings over several years of follow-up research suggests that even a short-term negative experience can have lasting damage later in life.

If more potent forms of cannabis are causing problems, what is being done about it? Many drug treatment centres set up to deal with heroin and so-called hard drugs are only beginning to deal with the rise in skunk. There is also, say experts, a lack of education over the dangers posed by these stronger forms of cannabis.

But legalise-cannabis campaigners, such as Roscommon-South Leitrim TD Luke “Ming” Flanagan, say it is our laws that are making cannabis dangerous. “When they banned alcohol in the US, you didn’t know what you were dealing with, what strength it was or what they were putting in the bottle,” Flanagan says.

He agrees that the drug is potentially dangerous – as with any drug – but says his biggest fear is what people are bulking up the drug with. The Forensic Science Laboratory says it has found a variety of material mixed up with skunk, such as shards of glass and other materials to mimic the look of crystals.

“What will that do to people’s lungs at the end of the day?” asks Flanagan. “Of course, some people run into problems using cannabis. But at the end of the day, it’s likely they’d run into problems using other things. And criminalising them doesn’t help the situation.”

He also takes issue with the findings of the Forensic Science Laboratory regarding the content of grow-house skunk. Flanagan says the Irish-cultivated cannabis that was analysed was most likely taken from grow houses and hadn’t fully matured. This, he says, may account for the very low levels of CBD.

The demands of legalise-cannabis campaigners for legalisation or regulation are highly unlikely to be met, even in the long-term. Most drug treatment professionals say our focus should be on education.

“Cannabis is not a monster drug,” says one. “Like cigarettes, it is issues of frequency, duration and potency. This is a matter of public education.”

Drug therapists and organisations say it’s important not to overstate fears about cannabis. After all, anti-drugs campaigns with siren warnings have hardly been particularly effective in the past. The drug’s effects for most people will be fleeting. But there is growing evidence that skunk is more likely to trigger panic attacks, manic depression or psychosis among a sub-set of vulnerable people.

“It’s important that people know what they are getting involved with,” says Gemma Collins of the Crinan Youth Project. “We’re about helping people to get beyond relying on these drugs, using positive reinforcement and other ways to relax rather.”

Gary Broderick of the Saol Project acknowledges that it’s “hard not to sound like a grandad” when warning about the effects of cannabis. But, he cautions, there is no getting away from its potentially serious consequences.

“One of the problems is that the seeds being used to grow grass were legal in headshops until recently, so it’s still considered ‘soft’. So, it’s easier for cannabis to be missed when we talk about drug treatment.

“It’s not like anyone is going to died from cannabis – but they may well end up in hospital with psychosis or develop other mental health problems. We need much more awareness about this.”

A potent mix Rise in the strength of Irish cannabis   

LATEST RESEARCH indicates that home-grown herbal cannabis is much more potent than imported varieties of the plant.

While Ireland doesn’t have the climate to grow these plants outdoors, they can be grown indoors using hydroponics – nutrient solutions – and intensive lighting equipment.

In many cases, female rather than male plants are used as they cannot then produce seeds, meaning all of the energy within the plant goes into the production of THC content, increasing the plant’s potency.

A study, by the Forensic Science Laboratory which operates out of Garda headquarters in Dublin, analysed cannabis products to establish their tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. This is the main psychoactive component of cannabis. There is increasing international concern about rising THC levels, particularly in herbal cannabis of the skunk variety, given its side effects on the brain, which can include psychosis.

Dr Des Corrigan, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs which commissioned the research, said: “Many of the plants being grown here are genetically selected to ensure they produce high levels of THC, but they also lack a substance called cannabidiol (CBD), which seems to protect the brain from the effects of THC.”

Samples from seizures of cannabis herb found that Irish cultivation had very high THC levels and very low CBD levels compared to imported herb and resin, or hash. The average proportion of THC for suspected imports was 5.8 per cent, while for Irish samples the figure was 13.5 per cent.

These figures are comparable with similar research in the UK and other European countries. When samples of cannabis resin or hash were analysed, researchers found THC levels were much lower. In these cases, typical THC levels were between 1 per cent and 4 per cent, while the CBD levels were higher than those recorded in herbal cannabis samples.