The meaning of the word ‘skunk’ has changed. Today it has come to mean high potency cannabis that contains zero or very little CBD and this is a definition that is now in general use worldwide, including by scientists such as Professors David Nutt and Val Curran who are very much supporters of reform.
Originally, it meant a strain of cannabis selectively bred from a Colombian sativa, a Mexican sativa and an Afghan indica that was christened skunk because of its extremely strong smell. The smell has nothing to do with its strength and is produced by the terpenes in the plant, not the cannabinoids. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, skunk is not particularly strong, producing about 8% THC which in today’s terms, with many strains now exceeding 20%, could even be described as weak. However what defines the strain was that it was one of the first to breed out virtually all the CBD content.
Skunk #1 was one of the earliest successful cannabis hybrids. In fact, its genetics are fundamental to the cannabis grown by GW Pharmaceuticals and incorporated into its licensed whole plant cannabis medicine Sativex.
The word was quickly adopted by headline writers in the British gutter press, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph, all off which are relentlessly engaged in publishing anti-cannabis propaganda, often completely fake and always wildly exaggerated. In the UK media the term simply became a sensationalist synonym for cannabis.
As well as an unregulated, often wildly irresponsible press, the UK is also home to a small group of researchers who are steadily and consistently funded to investigate the negative effects of cannabis, more than anywhere else in the world. The figurehead and lead scientist is Professor Sir Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. No one else has published as much research on the negative effects of cannabis which, although they can be very serious in a few cases, apply only to a tiny, fraction of one percent of the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are cannabis consumers.
I have met Sir Robin several times. In fact I once spent two days sitting next to him at a conference in the House of Lords. His views on cannabis are much more balanced than they are presented in the press. In fact he is on the record stating that the majority of people gain a great deal of benefit and enjoyment from cannabis. As a scientist he also recognises the now considerable body of evidence demonstrating that cannabis is a safe and effective medicine for a wide range of conditions. He is, however, the poster boy for modern day reefer madness and his work his quoted on a selective basis by all those who oppose cannabis law reform. Even Kings College’s own press office has a record of exaggerating, overstating and misrepresenting Sir Robin’s work.
It was Sir Robin and his team who first started to use the word ‘skunk’ in a scientific context. As far as I am aware, they have never properly defined it and as the thrust of much of their work is that psychotic symptoms from cannabis use are dose dependent, it is difficult to understand why they have chosen to use it without specifying THC and CBD levels.
Gradually however, the term has become accepted within the scientific community and this reinforces its use in the media. Perhaps the last nail in the coffin of the correct definition was the Channel 4 Drugs Live programme in 2015 when Professors David Nutt and Val Curran adopted the word. This despite the fact that the cannabis they used was provided by Bedrocan, the Netherlands government’s official producer and was a haze strain, most definitely not skunk.
So, after much consideration, CLEAR has decided to bow to the inevitable and recognise that the meaning of the word has changed. It is now shorthand for high potency, low CBD cannabis and it has become counterproductive to hold out for the correct definition. We must accept that language and words evolve and change over time. In future we will refer to so-called ‘skunk’ and we will explain what it means. Importantly this means stressing that it is not so much the absolute level of THC that matters but the absence or virtual absence of CBD. Even a strain that contains 5% THC can be harmful to vulnerable people if it contains no CBD. Conversely, a strain containing as much as 25% THC but perhaps 5% CBD is much safer and virtually harmless for the vast majority of adults.
How Much Of A Problem Is So-Called ‘Skunk’?
It remains a fact that peanuts are a far riskier substance to consume than cannabis, even so-called ‘skunk’. About one in 100 people suffer from peanut allergy which in severe cases can be life threatening. By contrast, the data shows that about one in 20,000 people risks a psychotic episode after consumption of cannabis. To add more context, about four in one hundred people are allergic to seafood and, adjusting for the number of users, alcohol consumption is five times more likely than cannabis to see anyone admitted to hospital for mental health problems.
On the face of it then, relatively speaking, so-called ‘skunk’ is safer than peanuts or oysters – but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do everything we can to protect those few people who are at risk.
No one really understands why, how or even if cannabis is a significant factor in some people becoming seriously mentally ill. Psychosis in all its forms, including schizophrenia, strikes most commonly in young men just as they are dealing with all the other problems of reaching adulthood: becoming independent from parents, the hormonal changes of adolescence, forming relationships and reaching sexual maturity, pressure of exams, starting work and beginning to experiment with alcohol, cannabis and other drugs. Nevertheless it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that it is at least a component factor in some cases and possibly much more significant in a few. Clearly, cannabis is a powerful psychoactive substance and it can have positive and negative effects on the mind. Science proves that the developing brain is more vulnerable to the effects of any substance while it is at the height of its ‘plasticity’ when its course of development can easily be changed. Science also proves that so-called ‘skunk’ with zero or very little CBD can be more harmful than when this protective compound is present.
The same vulnerabilities exist in respect of other mental health issues, particularly depression. Again, depression, manifested at its extreme by suicide, is most common in young men experiencing the turmoil of their time of life. While some people find cannabis helps with this, for others it can make the condition far worse. For some a small amount of cannabis can be beneficial but take a little too much and the effect is reversed. In all cases, the absence of CBD only makes matters worse.
So, in conclusion, the absolute risk of consuming so-called ‘skunk’ is very small but for a few people it can be very serious. It’s inaccurate to deem so-called ‘skunk’ as dangerous, just as no one calls peanuts or oysters dangerous but for those few people who are vulnerable, ‘skunk’, peanuts and oysters can all be very, very dangerous.