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 Irish Times - - Front Page - CONOR GAL­LAGHER Crime Cor­re­spon­dent

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.

Morocco pro­duc­ers

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.

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.

Ef­fi­cient meth­ods

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

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