Concern over strength of Irish cannabis
Potency doubles as more users seek treatment for addiction and psychosis Cannabis use now the primary reason for entering drug treatment across Europe
The strength of Irish cannabis has more than doubled in the last decade leading to increasing numbers of young people seeking treatment for addiction and psychosis.
The strength of cannabis resin coming from Morocco has been increasing at a particularly fast rate in recent years compared with cannabis herb, according to a European-wide study published in the scientific journal Addiction.
Resin offers significantly more “value for money” for users as it contains far more of the active ingredient THC per euro’s worth, the study states.
It also contains much less CBD – a substance that mitigates the effects of THC – compared with previous years.
Data collected from 28 EU member states based on drug seizures shows the average potency of resin has increased from 8.14 per cent THC content in 2006 to 17.22 per cent in 2016.
The potency of herbal cannabis increased from 5 per cent to 10.22 per cent in the same time frame.
Its potency, particularly that of home-grown strains, has been a matter of significant concern for health and addiction workers in recent years because of its connection with severe mental health problems, including psychosis.
The latest research shows the increase in strength of resin has been more pronounced and that it is now a much stronger drug. The increase in its strength is a response by Moroccan producers whose product has been squeezed out in recent years by home-grown herbal cannabis.
“Cannabis markets in Europe have changed dramatically in the last 10 years,” the report’s lead author, Tom Freeman, told The Irish Times.
“Cannabis resin is now catching up significantly [on herb]. There have been real developments in the extraction of cannabis resin from the plant matter and this has increased the potency dramatically and significantly.
“It’s a response to domestic, European cannabis production. It’s a way for Moroccan producers to make in-roads in that market.”
Mr Freeman pointed to research that shows that at a European level, for the first time, cannabis use is now the primary reason for people entering drug treatment.
Ireland has seen a consistent rise in cannabis users entering drug treatment since 2007, leading many treatment groups to offer cannabis-specific programmes.
In 2007 about 1,000 people entered drug treatment because of their cannabis use. By 2015 that figure had risen to about 2,750. In 2016, 27 per cent of those in drug treatment were there because of cannabis use, second only to those seeking treatment for heroin addiction (40 per cent).
Treatment services such as Coolmine, the Peter McVerry Trust and the Tallaght Rehabilitation Project now offer cannabis-specific programmes.
“We are getting more and more young people with psychosis and all sorts of stuff related to cannabis use,” said David Marsh, a drug treatment worker with Coolmine in Dublin.
One young man being treated for severe psychosis because of cannabis use said smoking the new stronger strains “is like taking an acid trip”, Mr Marsh said.
“Some lads in the hostel the other day were saying between the four of them they smoked one joint and they were completely gone. Now that’s unheard of. These lads would smoke joints all day long.”
‘‘ Smoking the new stronger strains ‘is like taking an acid trip’
According to a new Europe-wide study on cannabis potency, the drug is barely recognisable to what it was just a decade ago.
If you used cannabis in Ireland in the 1990s or early 2000s you were most likely smoking the gritty, unpleasant resin variation known as “soapbar”.
There’s also a good chance that soapbar was brought into the country by the criminal John Gilligan or one of his underlings.
Gilligan’s stranglehold on the trade and his elimination of the competition meant his brand of low-quality hashish, shipped in from Morocco, was for a period one of the only variants of cannabis available. Even the once ubiquitous herbal cannabis became vanishingly rare.
The active ingredient in cannabis is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Soapbar tended to have a THC level of about 6 per cent. It also contained a considerable amount of cannabidiol (CBD) which largely counteracted the effect of the THC and resulted in a relatively mild high for the user.
Soapbar was also known for giving the smoker a headache and for containing little bits of plastic left over from the packaging process.
“That was the cheapest cannabis you could buy because the THC content was so low. They used to call it diesel because it actually smelt like diesel,” says David Marsh, a drug treatment worker with Coolmine addiction treatment centre.
In 2001, Gilligan was jailed for 28 years for importing cannabis. With the kingpin out of the way, the Irish market was suddenly reopened to smaller-scale importers who began to sell a wide variety of cannabis types from the Middle East and north Africa.
Almost overnight herbal cannabis again became prevalent on the Irish market and it soon eclipsed resin. In 2006, gardaí made 3,587 seizures of cannabis herb compared to just 1,254 of resin.
At the same time herbal cannabis began to grow in strength and in price. Highly potent strains such as skunk also began to be linked with psychosis in some users, particularly teenagers and those with underlying mental health issues.
Also in the 2000s, growhouses, run and staffed by foreign nationals (many of them working in slave-like conditions) were set up around Ireland. They produced a cheaper product as they cut out the dangerous and expensive importation process.
In response, the Moroccan resin producers increased the potency of their product while keeping the price the same. They were able to do this by devising more efficient methods of extracting the resin from the cannabis plant.
The result of these market forces is that cannabis herb and resin is now more than twice as strong as the same product a decade ago but costs about the same.
It also contains much less CBD which balances out the THC. According to Gary Broderick of the Soal Project, an inner city Dublin drug treatment centre, this puts users at greater risk of mental health issues, including psychosis.
“Cannabis is a completely different drug to what is was before. Now first-time users are going in straight at a high-level of strength.
“If you’re going to have to choose a drug for your child to be using, cannabis might not be the most risky. It’s certainly the most socially acceptable. But mental health is the potential price you might have to pay and people aren’t really aware of that.”
They used to call it diesel because it actually smelt like diesel