Thursday 19 February 2015

Jon Snow's whitey wasn't "an experiment", it was an exercise in anti-drugs sensationalism

In the third week of February 2015 the mainstream media was flooded with reports about how the widely respected Channel 4 News journalist Jon Snow had taken skunk cannabis as part of an "experiment" and then hated the experience, describing it as worse than any warzone he'd ever experienced and the most overwhelmingly frightening experience of his life!

The problem with this so-called "experiment" was absolutely obvious to anyone who has the slightest understanding of cannabis. Here was a guy who admits that he only ever dabbled with cannabis in his youth, suddenly inhaling two full balloons of highly potent skunk (THC content 19% CBD content 1%) out of the blue, and then spending the ensuing fallout in a MRI scanner! That's the equivalent of making someone who has been teetotal for many years down a full bottle of vodka, banging them in an MRI scanner and expecting them to have an enjoyable experience. The big difference of course being that deliberately inducing such an overdose on alcohol could actually kill a person, whilst deliberately inducing an overdose on cannabis will just produce a very unpleasant "whitey" that may last a few hours, but won't ever risk actually killing the subject.

I'm not sure what the people who were conducting this experiment were trying to prove by deliberately inducing cannabis overdoses in their subjects victims, but it really doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. If they were trying to prove that skunk is more potent than traditional forms of hash or homegrown, their experiment is the equivalent of asking one person to down a pint of beer, another a pint of cider and another a pint of vodka in order to determine which is strongest, instead of simply measuring the alcohol content of the beverages. If they were trying to establish which forms of cannabis, if any, have the most harmful long-term psychological effects, then inducing one-off overdoses in celebrities doesn't seem to make any sense either.

One possibility is that the producers remembered the fallout from their last "experiment" where they gave people ecstasy (MDMA) and recorded their reactions. The tabloid press were absolutely furious with the (highly predictable) findings that the majority of people in the "experiment" rather enjoyed their MDMA experience. The tabloid press were so outraged that the show demonstrated that MDMA is a enjoyable drug to take (which is the obvious reason that so many millions of people take it) they claimed that the show should have shown more footage of people hating the experience in order to "balance it out". Perhaps the strategy of deliberately inducing cannabis "whiteys" came as a result of the producers heeding these tabloid calls for false balance? Perhaps they thought they'd get a load more tabloid flack if they showed the majority of people enjoying their experiences of low doses of cannabis, so they upped the dosages to such an extent that they knew they'd trigger some seriously unpleasant consequences in order to appease the right-wing press?

The fact that the people conducting this experiment took the decision (for whatever reason) to deliberately induce cannabis overdoses in celebrities, record the fallout and then feed the footage to the tabloid press brings me to an important point, which is that moderation in drug use is the key to avoiding severe negative consequences. This stands true for alcohol as much as it does for prohibited substances. Responsible drinkers understand that a glass or two of wine on an evening can have a wonderful relaxing effect, but drinking two or three bottles of wine on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster. Similarly, responsible stoners understand that a small amount of cannabis can stimulate creativity and inspiration, but if you smoke too much you'll either be too stoned to be able to put your creative energy into actually doing anything worthwhile (writing, drawing, making music ...) or worse still, you could end up having a "whitey".

The fact cannabis can inspire creativity in the right dosage was illustrated by the fact that a few hours after he came down from the overdose he had been deliberately exposed to, Jon Snow wanted to draw a nice picture. Had the producers given Jon Snow a microdose of cannabis (equivalent to a few drags on a spliff) rather than two whole balloons of skunk vapour (equivalent to chain smoking several strong spliffs to yourself), he would likely have enjoyed the experience and done something creative from the offset, but that kind of approach would clearly have undermined the objective of demonising skunk and giving the right-wing press something to shriek about.

I have absolutely no objection to scientists conducting scientific experiments on cannabis and other drugs in order to better understand their effects, but deliberately inducing extremely unpleasant overdoses and then feeding footage of the "experiment" to the tabloid press severely undermines any claim that this is any kind of rigorous scientific endeavour.

One of the most disappointing things about this so-called "experiment" is that I'm actually really interested in the stated premise of the research - that some forms of cannabis have markedly different effects to others. This interest in the subject stems from the fact that I've read research showing that the natural chemical component of cannabis CBD has strong anti-psychotic effects, meaning that cannabis strains with higher CBD contents (like hash and old fashioned "homegrown") are much less likely to trigger underlying mental health conditions than strains that have been bred to be very high in THC and very low in CBD (like most forms of skunk). 

The findings of this research on the anti-psychotic effect of CBD are (anecdotally) backed up  by the fact that almost all of the cannabis smokers in my age group quickly gave up getting stoned on a regular basis when the supply switched from mainly hash in the late 1990s to mainly potent hydroponic skunk in the 2000s, because they found that they just didn't enjoy it anymore. Instead of getting mellow and relaxed as they used to with hash, they tended to get hyperactive, jittery and paranoid on skunk, so they just stopped doing it.

Traditional forms of cannabis contained two components that seem to naturally counterbalance each other. The selectively bred forms of skunk that dominate the UK cannabis market these days have had their THC contents massively increased at the expense of CBD, which is almost eliminated. 
These potent forms of skunk have been bred because they require much less growing space and are much less bulky to transport, meaning growers and dealers are significantly less likely to get caught and prosecuted if they produce and sell highly potent skunk varieties, than if they produce and sell traditional "homegrown". This means that many thousands of people will have been made to suffer the psychotic effects triggered by high levels of THC in the absence of CBD when they smoked skunk cannabis are yet more victims of the ideological "war on drugs", because if hash and homegrown were available from registered cannabis vendors, then highly potent skunk varieties would never have come to dominate the UK market as they have under ideological prohibitionism.

One of the few heartwarming things about this exercise in anti-drugs sensationalism dressed up as a proper scientific experiment is that beneath the ever-so-predictable fearmongering anti-drugs diatribe it provoked in the Daily Mail, by far the most uprated comment of all read: "The experiment is flawed. Effectively, they have done the equivalent of asking a non-drinker to down a bottle of brandy in one, and then ask him if he liked it!"
When even the majority of Daily Mail readers can easily see through anti-drugs sensationalism when they see it, it really does seem that the establishment are losing their ludicrous ideological propaganda war against drugs. 

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