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06/02/2008 00:00:00

UK: Cannabis is stronger, but users smoke less

· Skunk now accounts for 70% of market, study finds
· Experts consider regrading drug's legal status

A more potent "skunk" form of cannabis now accounts for 70-80% of the
British market for the drug, but many users are cutting down and only
smoking enough to get high, the initial results of a Home Office study show.

A special meeting of the government's expert committee on drugs which is
looking again at the legal status of cannabis was told by Dr Les King
that the rise in the use of "homegrown skunk" - which accounted for 15%
of the market in 2002 against 70% now - had been driven by the growth of
"cannabis factories" run by organised crime gangs, who were often

He said British-grown skunk had almost squeezed traditional imported
herbal cannabis out of the market with cannabis resin mostly from
Morocco still holding about 20% of British sales.

King, a technical adviser to the Home Office scientific development
branch, said the skunk has an average THC content - the active
ingredient in a joint - of about 12% to 14%, two and a half times that
of traditional cannabis resin. He compared it to the difference in
strength between beer and wine and said the amount smoked was as
important as strength.

He was supported in his claim that users were moderating their intake of
the more powerful cannabis by Dr Mike White from the Forensic Science
Service who said it was rare for a smoker to get through an entire joint
in one go. He also suggested that the potency of British skunk had
actually fallen by 10% in the past two years as growers substituted
quantity for quality in the face of an expanding market.

King said media reports were wrong to claim that a new "superskunk" form
of cannabis 10 to 20 times stronger than traditional types was now
sweeping the British market.

The two-day meeting of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs
opened with its chairman, Sir Michael Rawlins, saying he had accepted a
written assurance from the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, that the
government still had an open mind over regrading cannabis from class C
back to class B, which would again make possession punishable with a
jail sentence.

Ipsos Mori polling evidence published last night exploded the myth that
the downgrading of the drug's status by David Blunkett in 2004 had led
to confusion about its status, with over 80% of those polled correctly
saying the drug was still illegal. British Crime Survey data shows that
cannabis consumption has fallen since the change.

The two-day meeting also heard evidence from the government's mental
health tsar, Professor Louis Appleby, that a link between cannabis and
mental illness was not yet proven. But he backed reclassification,
saying there was now sufficient evidence that cannabis was a harmful
drug that could contribute to a pattern of relapse and risk in mental
health patients.

Appleby said he felt that many health professionals had been guilty of
complacency on the issue and that reclassification would reinforce the
public health message. However he had reservations about further
criminalising mental health patients for using cannabis.

The scientific experts also heard calls for regrading from the
Association of Chief Police Officers, which argued that the emergence of
British cannabis farms and confusion over its legal status on the
streets justified tightening the law.

The Home Office study now under way is the first time that there has
been a concerted attempt to find out what strength and type of cannabis
is actually available on the street. Police forces across the country
have been asked to send up to 1,000 samples of cannabis confiscated in
stop and search operations to the Home Office for analysis. King, who is
the technical adviser to the six-week study, said the initial findings
were based on "several hundred" samples.

The Home Office-funded study is to report to the advisory council and
the home secretary in March before the government decides whether or not
to regrade cannabis in April.

Author: The Guardian via UKCIA

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